The Most Surprising Movie Cons


We wish Universal would turn 100 years old more often. The famed production banner is commemorating its centennial with a yearlong celebration that includes the restoration of several classic films for the home movie market.

Today marks the Blu-ray release of Universal’s 1973 crime caper The Sting , starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as two grifters during Depression-era Chicago that craft an elaborate revenge scheme to deplete a brutal gangster of his ill-gotten earnings. The con unfolds in an ingenious, unexpected way, the depth of it leaving audiences in suspense until the end.

Remembering the movie got us in the mood to tackle other tricksters and swindlers. What other cinematic thrill seekers braved it all and surprised us with their complex cons? We chat about a few of the best past the break. There’s plenty of room to chime in with your favorites below.

The Usual Suspects

A crippled con artist (Kevin Spacey) tells a police interrogator how a mysterious mob boss known only as Keyser Söze commissioned the criminal talents of a group of men who know all too well that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Watching the film, the audience is caught up in the movie’s fascinating, memorable characters and their plot twists — until the final piece of the puzzle is set in place and everything changes. The Usual Suspects becomes a different movie entirely after our expectations are completely subverted, the mythology of its enigmatic villain is unraveled, and the awe-inspiring con committed is blindingly revealed.

The Grifters

Small-time grifter Roy (John Cusask) gets taken for a ride by his own mother (Anjelica Huston), a veteran con woman that has no faith in his criminal abilities and focuses on bigger games to play. When Roy becomes involved with a fellow swindler (Annette Bening), things get more complicated between mom and son whose amoral relationship — and the head-spinning games they play — dissolves in a shocking and disturbing conclusion where ruthless greed reigns supreme.

Matchstick Men

A phobic, conflicted con artist Roy (Nicolas Cage) and his partner/protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell) get by with quick schemes and small potatoes, but eventually take aim at a more lucrative swindle. It seems like a straightforward hit, but its simplicity is deceptive. The film becomes a character study of Roy, centered on his crippling neuroses and navigation through life as an estranged father and reluctant crook. However, while we’re lost in Roy’s head — thanks to a talented cast and John Mathieson’s keen cinematography — the finale blindsides.

Lucky Number Slevin

Confidence scheme the “Kansas City Shuffle” is at the forefront of 2006 crime thriller Lucky Number Slevin. The infamous “Shuffle” teaches us, “They look left and you go right,” is an inegral way of life for Slevin’s characters. The neo-noir caper deftly demonstrates how a case of mistaken identity can run amok. There’s a chance astute viewers may call the con before it comes into focus, but the film’s flashy, pop-crime style and A-list actors still have a few tricks to be had before the screen goes black.

Ocean’s Eleven

The original, 1960 Ocean’s Eleven brought the Rat Pack together on screen for the first time, but apart from that it’s hardly untouchable. Enter Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the crime thriller that finds George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and his eleven accomplices as they attempt to rob three Las Vegas casinos simultaneously. The mission seems impossible, but the Ocean’s team proves they’re slickly capable of pulling it off — not without a few twists first, of course. Ocean’s Eleven opts for smooth criminals that leave you smiling over suspenseful plot twists, but the payoff is equally pleasing.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Is the con still effectively surprising if it makes us laugh? Dirty Rotten Scoundrals proves it’s possible. The 1988 crime-comedy was directed by none other than Muppets co-creator Frank Oz, featuring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as two con men trying to outsmart each other on the French Riviera. Glenne Headly’s Janet at the center of it all. The roguish gentlemen hilariously amass a web of trickery, the surprise ending is perfection — if only as a reminder that there’s always someone craftier waiting to one up you when you least expect it.

House of Games

Esteemed playwright David Mamet made his directing debut with the 1987 crime-thriller House of Games. Lindsay Crouse stars as a psychiatrist who comes to the aid of a downtrodden patient, who also happens to be a compulsive gambler. The doctor is eventually seduced deeper into his shadowy world by his gangster bookie, getting caught in a game she never sees coming. Mamet — famous for his other con artist tales like Glengarry Glen Ross (involving salesmen in the real estate world) and The Spanish Prisoner — orchestrates an elaborate, never-ending scenario that repeatedly bluffs its actress and audience.

Nine Queens

Argentine crime-thriller Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) dramatically toys with our sympathies for its two con artists: one trying to save his father from a life in prison and the other who devises a scheme to help him. The well-paced action reveals the grifters as victims of their own game with a memorable twist that’s right on target. Nine Queens doesn’t flash its brilliance to wow us, instead relying on an economical, tightly woven story and clever actors to deliver the final punch.