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Fall Sneaks

Catch them if you can

September 07, 2003|Susan King

Con men have populated films since cinema was taking its first baby steps. "It's a great world to explore," says Nicholas Griffin, who co-wrote Ridley Scott's new con caper comedy, "Matchstick Men," with brother Ted. "Most people spend their lives pretending they are something they're not and fail. In these movies, everybody gets to see guys who bring it off." Explains Nicholas Griffin: "It's all about what information you give the audience, how much information do you give them, what do they need and what you can do without."

Here's a look at some famous movie cons and the men and women who tried to pull them off.

*

"Matchstick Men" (2003)

The players: Roy (Nicolas Cage), an obsessive-compulsive working with an ambitious protege, Frank (Sam Rockwell); he discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman).

The con: Several scams, including selling worthless air filtration systems on the phone.

The setup: "Our mission for 'Matchstick Men' was to focus much more on character development and the emotional core of the characters, and the con was always secondary," says Ted Griffin, who wrote the 2001 con caper flick "Ocean's 11."

The influences: "We grew up watching 'The Sting,' " Ted Griffin says. "It has a weird appeal to us because Nick looks strikingly like Paul Newman and I am a replica of Robert Redford. It hit home for us."

Does it work? We won't give anything away.

*

"The Lady Eve" (1941)

The players: Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn).

The con: The cardsharps travel first class on cruise ships to fleece unsuspecting travelers out of their money.

The setup: Their latest target for conquest is naive but filthy rich Charles Pike, a.k.a. Hopsie (Henry Fonda), who boards the cruise ship returning from a year up the Amazon studying snakes.

Does it work? Not really, since Stanwyck ends up falling for the lug.

*

"The Music Man" (1962)

The player: Harold Hill (Robert Preston).

The con: Hill travels around the country convincing townspeople he'll start a boy's band in their community but leaves town after collecting their money for uniforms and instruments.

The setup: He decides to stop at a small but stubborn Iowa town to weave his successful con.

Does it work? Hill falls in love with the pretty young librarian (Shirley Jones) and he ends up getting found out.

*

"The Sting" (1973)

The players: Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford).

The con: Hooker is an up-and-coming artist, Gondorff a legendary con man on the skids.

The setup: After the murder of Hooker's partner, Hooker and Gondorff team to pull off a big con involving a phony horse-race betting parlor on the wealthy criminal (Robert Shaw) who caused his death.

Does it work? With Newman and Redford, how could it not?

*

"The Grifters" (1990)

The players: Lily Dillon (Anjelica Huston), son Roy (John Cusack) and his girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening).

The con: Lily works a racetrack scam across the country for her bookie boss; Roy, who pretends he's a salesman, for several years has worked quick-hit cons on bartenders and sailors and when the film opens nearly loses his life when the con goes wrong. Myra and Roy don't know that they are both con artists; it's Lily who quickly sizes up the situation.

The setup: Roy makes the fatal mistake when he becomes partners with Myra. Lily loses her edge when she starts to feel guilty about being a less-than-successful mother.

Does it work? It ends very badly for two-thirds of the trio.

*

"Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992)

The players: Shelley (Jack Lemmon) and Ricky (Al Pacino).

The con: Real estate salesmen are high-pressured into selling worthless land to unsuspecting clients.

The setup: The salesmen wear down their prospects with relentless pitches on the phone and smooth talk and manipulate prospective buyers in person.

Does it work? Hard to say, since almost everyone in the movie is being conned in one way or another.

*

"Ocean's 11" (2001)

The players: Danny Ocean (George Clooney), a charming criminal just released from prison, and 10 of his associates each with their own con specialty; the lineup includes Rusty (Brad Pitt), Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), Linus (Matt Damon) and Saul (Carl Reiner).

The con: On the night of a big fight, they break into the vaults of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, home to the receipts from three casinos owned by the smooth operator Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who is romancing Ocean's ex-wife (Julia Roberts).

The setup: Saul convinces Terry he's a wealthy gambler and even pretends to suffer heart attack to divert attention from the robbery

Does it work? Yes, the good bad guys get the loot.

*

"Catch Me If You Can" (2002)

The player: Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The con: In the 1960s, Abagnale impersonates an airline pilot, doctor and an assistant attorney general. Along the way, he cashes in more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in 26 countries.

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