Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The More Fool I

I'm no good at April Fool's. Whenever I try to trick someone, it always ends in awkwardness, tears and shame, so forgive me if I remain disappointingly honest today.

Fortunately, the movies don't share my dilemma, and some of the greatest of all time have featured schemes and scams and cons worthy of masters. As we celebrate April Fool's Day (is "celebrate" the right word?), let's take a look at some of the greatest feats of trickeration in the history of the movies.

House of Games (1987) -- Film has no greater maestro of the Art of the Con than David Mamet. We should all be grateful that he chose to write plays and direct movies, because otherwise, one gets the feeling that he would be out in the world, preying on the rest of us and doing a pretty decent job of it. He has given us several films loaded with twists and deceptions (see Heist and The Spanish Prisoner for some other excellent examples), but never pulled a faster one than he does with this game of cat-and-mouse between Lindsay Crouse (his wife at the time) and longtime collaborator Joe Mantegna. The allure of the confidence game has never been more visceral. House of Games was recently re-released on home video by the Criterion Collection.

The Sting (1973) -- It's appropriate that the signature musical theme for George Roy Hill's Oscar winner for Best Picture is Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer;" this is one of the most rawly entertaining movies in the history of the artform. Paul Newman and Robert Redford team up to put one over on Robert Shaw during the Great Depression, with the help of a parade of marvelous character actors, including Charles Durning, Harold Gould and Ray Walston. The obvious choice for any list of scam movies, not least of all because it's one of the best.

Paper Moon (1973) -- There must have been something in the water back in 1973. Ryan O'Neal (as the rather magnificently named "Moses Pray") drives down the black-and-white dirt roads of Depression-era (again) America with daughter Tatum in her Oscar-winning first role, cheerfully swindling the decent and devout. Peter Bogdanovich did his best work when he left the color film stock in the can, and Paper Moon benefits greatly from his loving monochrome compositions. But it's the dynamic between father and daughter (or is she ...?) that sets this film up in the pantheon.

Red Rock West (1992) -- John Dahl is a kind of spiritual brother to David Mamet; he too would probably be up to no good if he wasn't working in the creative arts. His twisty turny audience-bafflers include The Last Seduction (with a blistering lead performance by Linda Fiorentino) and the underrated Rounders, but it's in this, his first film, that all the plots and doublebacks come together best. Nicolas Cage drifts into the title town looking for good honest work and is mistaken for a hitman hired by J.T. Walsh to off his wife, played by Lara Flynn Boyle. The script may not be seamless, but you'll only notice on repeat viewings. And you will want to make those repeat viewings. Oh, and Dennis Hopper is, as usual, an hoot.

The Big Sleep (1946) -- The 1978 remake is actually pretty good (and closer in plot and spirit to the Raymond Chandler novel), but nothing can touch the Bogart and Bacall original. Again, this is not a film that dots all the "i's" and crosses all the "t's" -- even Chandler admitted there was at least one murder in the story that didn't make any sense -- but who cares? Bogart outsmarts everybody and manages to take away almost all their guns ("My, my, my!" he says, "Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!"). Bacall is conniving and carnally gorgeous. And the movie is loaded with line after line of dead-solid perfect film-noir dialogue. The script by Chandler got a once-over from fellow novelist William Faulkner and there's not a more deleriously written movie in the annals of the cinema. And watch for a Howard Hawks trademark: every single woman in it, from Bacall on down to the cabbie, is a stunner.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) -- Ah, Ruprecht! Frank Oz's tale of con-men cheerfully slugging it out has become a staple, even morphing into a Broadway musical. Michael Caine is the suave European seducer, Steve Martin is the brazen American hustler and they both meet their match in sweet, innocent Glenne Headley, who might not be as sweet and innocent as she seems. A wholly satisfying film. And one of the greatest trailers of all time. Few know that this is a remake of a 1964 Marlon Brando film called Bedtime Story that's sort of wonderful in its own strange way. But this is one of the rare times that the remake outdistances the original.

The Lady Eve (1941) -- Barbara Stanwyck as a con-woman who ends up outsmarting herself when she falls for straight-arrow snake expert Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges's legendary screwball comedy. The Hays Office, which oversaw films for "moral standards" back in the day, must have had conniptions with this one: Stanwyck's seduction of Fonda borders on the animal. Classic filmmaking at its soaring height.

And, as usual, I'm sure I missed some good ones. Add your own to my list and maybe I'll convince Dave to talk about them on the next Pop Culture America.

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