Robert Jackman

The con artist on screen: from American Hustle to The Sting

The con artist on screen: from American Hustle to The Sting
Christian Bale in American Hustle (Image: Shutterstock)
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Gone Girl star and former Spectator contributor Rosamund Pike steps into the shoes of a con artist in Netflix’s new original, I Care A Lot.

Just like serial killers, swindlers and hustlers have long held a fascination for film-makers and audiences alike - not least during the golden age of Hollywood.

If you appreciate a decent grift, here are eight of the best cons to hit our screens:

Hustlers (2019, Prime)

Inauguration darling Jennifer Lopez gives a decidedly unpresidential turn as Ramona Vega: the alpha female in a troupe of Manhattan strippers. Based on a true story - written up by New York magazine - the film shows how the budding femme fatales set out on a coordinated plot to drug and drain their richer clients, before eventually coming to the attention of the NYPD. It might not be the most sophisticated of cons, but it certainly did the trick. The same can be said for the film - which is as fun and fabulous as you’d expect.

House of Games (1987)

David Mamet’s neo-noir about a gang of sophisticated con artists suffers from one thing: its age. Being made in 1987, it's old enough to seem dated, but still too recent to feel glamorous. That's a shame as, stylistic gripes aside, it's still an excellent display of the psychological allure of the con - and those who perpetrate them. One thing I learned on re-watching it: Joe Mantegna, who plays the unflappable hustler Mike Mancuso, is also the voice of Simpsons mobster, Fat Tony.

Tickled (2016, Prime)

Offbeat documentary Tickled doesn’t just have the honour of being one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, it’s also the only one I’ve had to stop watching during a flight (watch the opening 15 minutes and you'll see what I mean - and it's nothing to do with fear of flying). While its subject might not fit the profile of the typical fraudster, his use of trickery and manipulation - to rather dastardly ends - rivals anything Hollywood has come up with. Watch if you dare. And be sure to avoid spoilers.

Parasite (2019, Prime)

Deservedly crowned (to the derision of Donald Trump) as the best film of 2019, Parasite is an absolute rollercoaster. While dozens of essays have wrestled over the question of what makes the film so compelling, I think we can all agree that the audacious hustle committed by the Kim family comes close to the top of the list. Utilising everything from peach fuzz to discarded knickers, this multi-stage con channels both Derren Brown and Sherlock House in its ingenuity - and instantly has the audience rooting for its executors. Prepare to be dazzled.

The Imposter (2012, Prime)


The Imposter is one of those documentaries that just has to be seen to be believed. The story begins with Frédéric Bourdin, a pathological con-man nicknamed ‘The Chameleon' in honour of his ongoing habit of impersonating missing people. Things gather pace when Bourdin successfully convinces American authorities he is Nicholas Barclay: a Texan man who went missing in his teens. At first, his deceit appears to have worked - even with Barclay's family - until a stomach-dropping twist throws everything into the air.

American Hustle (2013, Prime)

Like a heist itself, pulling off a heist movie is no mean feat. But American Hustle, which held its own against the equally con-tastic The Wolf of Wall Street back in 2013, achieves the feat with aplomb. Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as two skilled grifters who, having finally been outsmarted by the FBI, are told that their future freedom is contingent on helping the authorities reel in some even bigger fish. Like all the best con movies, American Hustle delivers swagger, silliness and sex appeal in equal measure.

Better Call Saul (Netflix)

Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel achieved the seemingly impossible: it actually surpassed its predecessor in its quality and ambition. In unpacking the backstory of Saul Goodman - Albuquerque's ‘morally-flexible’, smooth-talking lawyer - Gilligan's first season takes us back to the streets of Illinois, where our hero earns a living as a low-rent conman. From the fake Rolex scam to his infamous ‘Cobbler’ con, Saul Goodman can spin a yarn like no other. But will his luck finally run out when the show returns this autumn - taking us beyond the Breaking Bad timeline? I for one can’t wait to find out.

The Sting (1973)

Heralded by the US Congressional library for its cultural significance, The Sting really is in a league of its own. A rather dashing Robert Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a skilled street artist who accidentally winds up stealing a large wad of cash from a ruthless mob boss (played by Lancashire-born Robert Shaw - a man with the honour of having a Wetherspoons pub named after him). The result is an irresistible caper full of suitably clever twists and turns, all adding up to two of the most enjoyable hours in cinema history.