Do The Hustle: 21 Great Movie Cons

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Slippery customers, movie tricksters. This weekend's Will Smith effort Focus recalls some of the devious, duplicitious, skulldugger-ing shenanigans from movies of yore. They're executed by men and women with shark-like eyes and fingers so light they'd float away if they weren't attached to hands. From Mr. Ocean's larcenous mob who want to knock off a few casinos in Ocean's Eleven to Danny and Peachy who want to half-inch an entire country in The Man Who Would Be King, as well as long cons like The Spanish Prisoners to the short schemes played out by The Grifters, they've used techniques old, new and entirely improvised. Here are 21 of our favourites.


Movie: Midnight Run (1988) Technique*: The Litmus Configuration

One of the finest and most hilariously off-the-wall of all movie grifts, the, ahem, “Litmus Configuration” is so ad hoc, one of its perpetrators can’t even pronounce it. Essentially an on-the-spot concoction by artful Mob dodger Jonathan ‘The Duke’ Mardukas (Charles Grodin) aiming for a quick cash grab, it involves duping two gullible staff at Red’s Corner Bar into believing they’re peddling counterfeit $20 bills. This involves two things: one, using an eraser on the bank notes in a deeply nebulous fashion; and two, Being Very Serious Indeed. The Duke's partner in crime, Robert De Niro’s bounty hunter Jack Walsh, gets the hang of it by the end. “These are all bad,” he says waving a wodge of filched twenties at Red. “These are good."

Movie: Kingpin (1996)
Technique: The One-Handed Bandit

Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid) is an Amish man who’s very good at bowling. Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) is a one-handed man who’s also very good at bowling. Both gentlemen look like they’re terrible at bowling. Together, this makes for what could be a very neat little hustle: who wouldn’t bet against a one-handed man and his local yokel pal at a game of ten-pin? Well, quite a lot of people, as it turns out, as both Ishmael and Roy are terrible con men and this particular scam is as old as Methuselah’s most inaccessible bit of bellybutton fluff. Roy refusing to actually bowl also doesn’t help, but with the hook hand and all, we’ll let him off (until later on in the movie).

Movie: Ocean's Eleven (2001)
Technique: The Boesky

A con caper so full of ploys, schemes and ruses that even its double crosses have to have eyes in the back of their heads, Ocean's Eleven dares you to keep up with its many sleights of hand. Helpfully Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) keeps a tally of them. "A Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever" is the shopping list of wheezes needed to rip off three Vegas casinos. The first, named after notorious Wall Street fraudster Ivan Boesky, involves Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) posing as arms dealer Lyman Zerga to get access to the casino vault. It's a pretty straightforward con elevated by a world-weary lifer visibly recovering some of his old magic.

Movie: Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Technique: The Cheque Mate

A good conperson needs persuasiveness, charm and, ideally, a pair of fluttering eyes to pull the wool over. Step forward, then, Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life purveyor of financial hokum and outrageous bluffery Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can. One of his early ploys involved more basic bank fraud. Using boyish wiles and phony pilot’s uniform on Elizabeth Banks’ flirtatious teller, he sneaks ‘back stage’ at a New York bank to eye up one of the cheque-processing machines. From there he figures out that some amateur forgery – an alias and a change of account number – would be sufficient to get endless credit at an array of hotels. How much credit? About $2.5 million. Of course, there’s a natural credit limit for Abagnale. It’s called ‘jail’.

Movie: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Technique: The Soap Dodge

Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) are a pair of contrasting cons working the same patch of the French Riviera. One is suave and high-rolling, the other shark-like and unkempt. Neither is exactly over-imbued with ethics. Together they abandon their well-worn techniques to make a mark of a naive American heiress, Glenne Headly's Soap Queen, throwing together two competing, helter-skelter ploys to part her from her cash. These involve a violent Liechtenstein psychiatrist called Dr. Emil Shaffhausen, a trident-clutching man-child called Ruprecht and a truck full of angry British sailors. Not the most successful cons on the list but definitely two (okay, three) of the funniest.


Movie: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) Technique*: Jedi Mind Trick

The Jedi Mind Trick is perhaps the ultimate and longest-to-wear-off con in the galaxy, rendering its marks gullible buffoons. Picture the scene: you’ve had a hard day’s stormtrooping at the arse end of the Outer Rim Territories, tasked with apprehending a couple of battered-looking droids being smuggled into Mos Eisley by an old bloke in a landspeeder. The big man upstairs wants them brought in. You’ve barely slapped your plastoid body armour onto the barracks table when it hits you: those two battered-looking droids in the landspeeder with the old bloke! They might have had important clues as to their whereabouts.

Movie: The Grifters (1990)
Technique: The Hamilton / Jackson Switch

Here’s one you probably couldn’t pull off outside the US, unless your mark is severely colour-blind. Roy Dillon (John Cusack), a small-time grifter working small-time joints in Los Angeles, pulls out a $20 bill (the one with Andrew Jackson’s face on it) in plain view of the barman he’s ordering a drink from. Then, while the drink is being poured, he adroitly switches it for a $10 note (ditto Alexander Hamilton). None-the-wiser, the barkeep gives him a drink and change from a twenty. It works a treat until Roy bumps into a bartender who’s wise to it. Even the ever-furious Moe Szyslak would be impressed with the level of violent reprisal that ensues.

Movie: Paper Moon (1973)
Technique: Getting Biblical

With a name like Moses Pray, you might expect Ryan O’Neal’s itinerant charmer to lead a life of piety and bible-touting. You’d be half right. Moses’s shtick involves going door-to-door around the Midwest informing widows that their late husbands had ordered them personalised versions of the good book, just before shifting off to the great bookstore in the sky. It’s all hokum, of course, but they don’t know that and the presence of adorable Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) makes the grift feel a little more authentic. Despite being all of nine, Adele shows plenty flair for the con, even pulling off this classic short count in a clothing store. Go gir... er, that’s to say, stay in school kids.

Movie: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Technique: The Spanish Prisoner

It’s wily old Steve ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’ Martin again with another labyrinthine scheme. He’s somewhere in the machinery of a con that’s as old as the hills (well, the hills that came into being in the 16th century). Its earliest incarnation had a mysterious nobleman locked in a castle and his cohorts encouraging money to free him from a mark seduced by the promise of gold and/or the love of his beautiful daughter. In David Mamet’s head-spinning world, gullible engineer Campbell Scott is lured into exposing his newly-invented ‘Process’ to some very naughty people by Martin’s fraudster in a scheme so brilliantly complicated, it’s probably worth patenting too. Suffice to say, never let Steve Martin to open a Swiss bank account for you.

Movie: Six Degrees Of Separation (1993)
Technique: The House Guest

Nothing to do with Kevin Bacon, this Six Degrees Of Separation scam dips into the big bag of tricks marked 'Assumed Identity’. It’s a particularly insidious type of con because, unlike many grifts, it exploits its victims' better, rather than worse, natures. For Manhattan socialites the Kitteridge clan, presided over by patrician Donald Sutherland, the impulse for hospitality, nurturing instinct, and desire to have a smart, savvy Will Smith around promising to get them into his dad Sidney Poitier’s new movie. Okay, so maybe there does have to be a weakness for a con to prey upon, even if it’s intellectual and class-based rather than financial greed. As The Streets once sang: “You can’t con an honest John.” Turns out you can con Don.

Movie: The Hustler (1961)
Technique: The Original And Best

The name of the movie is The Hustler, and hustling is what The Hustler does. Making his way across country, pool table to pool table, “Fast" Eddie Felson’s hustling USP is a simple one: he’s the best. To paraphrase the man himself, he’s the best you’ve ever seen – and even if you beat him, he’s still the best. You think you’re playing just another Average Joe, and a few seconds later the 8-ball is circling around the far corner pocket. Fast Eddie hustles not to make big money per se, but to make just enough money to get to meet (and play and beat) the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in New York. Sometimes, the con is the toughest one of all: being better than anyone else in the world.

Extra bonus hustle: An older and possibly wiser Fast Eddie in Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler, The Color Of Money (1986), teaches Tom Cruise’s stick-spinning savant the fine art of pool sharking, notably taking an unsuspecting sucker down a peg or two to the tune of Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves Of London’ – the ultimate in humiliating defeat soundtracks.

Movie: Matchstick Men (2003)
Technique: Winning The 'Nottery'

There are many scams in Ridley Scott’s under-appreciated con artist double-cross drama, as Nicolas Cage’s OCD “Matchstick Man” (read: professional duper) works day-in-day-out with Sam Rockwell’s more with-it wrongdoer to add yet more greenbacks to an increasingly unshuttable lock box. As well as the humdrum suitcase swaps and fake FBI shakedowns, there’s a cute moment where Cage’s Roy teaches his daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) to fleece a stranger by convincing an unlucky Laundromat attendant that, 1) they’ve won the lottery, 2) they should split the winnings, 3) they should give Angela her share straight away. The kicker is, Roy wants his little 'un to give the money back, the spoilsport.

Movie: The Flim-Flam Man (1967)
Technique: Pigeon Drop

This con comedy from Irwin ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Kershner carries in its seedy belly the classic Pigeon Drop con, AKA ‘The Country Boy Switch'. Working off the trickster’s key stratagem – to use the mark’s greed against them – George C. Scott’s Mordecai C. Jones ("M.B.S., C.S., D.D. — Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing and Dirty-Dealing!”) fleeces Slim Pickens' gormless yokel (the pigeon) using this age-old technique and a “found wallet” lying by the road. With Michael Sarrazin’s apprentice con, Curley, as a seemingly innocent party, Jones persuades them both to contribute $500 to a pot to be divided up when he’s successfully cashed the cheque they’ve found. Of course, the cheque isn’t real, Curley’s cash is purely $1 bills and Jones never comes back.

Movie: Django Unchained (2012)
Technique: Pulling Teeth

Django (Jamie Foxx) plays bagman for Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) as the sharpshooting pair pretend to be in the market for a boxing champion slave called Mandingo at the mansion of "Monsieur" Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). But – and this is the hustle here, so pay attention – they’re actually after Django’s ex-wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who also lives at Candyland. Before actually signing on the dotted line for Mr. Mandingo, The King Of The Schultz asks if he can purchase Broomhilda while he thinks about the bigger deal (which he definitely wasn’t planning on actually going through). Of course, this all goes terribly wrong, folk get shot, more folk get shot, and even more folk get shot, but the con’s theory was strong, even if the execution was… deadly.

Movie: The Sting (1973)
Technique: The Hankie Switch

To save the big reveal for anyone who hasn’t seen the Oscar-winning Paul Newman and Robert Redford crime caper, let’s put the film’s final sting to one side, and concentrate on the opening hustle. Requiring three men in the know, this manoeuvre has a fake assailant “injure” a man who says he works for the local slots racket. The entirely-not-actually-injured man asks the mark to take a wad of cash to a drop-off point down the road, before it’s too late. The mark agrees, but before he goes to do this poor so-and-so a favour, the third man offers the mark some advice: wrap up the money in a handkerchief, put your own cash in there just in case, then stuff it down your trousers so no-one will find it. The third man shows him how its done with his own drawers, swapping this new bundle with another handkerchief-parcel full of toilet roll he’d already hidden in his undercrackers. The greedy mark leaves, never intending to do the “injured” stranger a favour, only discovering later he’s been duped. Easy-peasy! If only the mark in question didn’t work for Robert Shaw's vicious crime boss, eh?

Movie: Rounders (1998)
Technique: Base-Dealing Blow-Out

Sometimes, hustles don’t go to plan – but that doesn’t mean the hustle can’t work, it’s just that it didn’t work in this particular, horribly bloody, ultimately incredibly humiliating, oh-no-not-ever-again instance. Here, poker addicts Michael McDermott (Matt Damon) and Lester "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton) are at a game with some State Troopers – their first mistake – where Worm’s job is to deal Michael excellent cards, all sly-like, from the bottom of the deck. In theory, they both go home and split Michael’s winnings, but after getting caught red-handed slipping his compadre a full house, aces over sevens, Worm is busted and they both get their heads kicked in. Remember, kids: gambling is dangerous, especially when you’re cheating, and doubly especially when you’re in a room full of drunk cops.


Movie: Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1999) Technique*: The Bacon Booty

Selling stolen goods on street corners is definitely a hustle, and Jason Statham’s Bacon is definitely the best in the business. He’s so good, you’re best off reading his words and committing them to memory, such is the power of his pound-shop poetry. So pin back your eyelids, and have a read of this little lot:

“Right. Let's sort the buyers from the spyers, the needy from the greedy, and those who trust me from the ones who don't, because if you can't see value here today, you're not up here shopping – you're up here shoplifting. You see these goods? Never seen daylight, moonlight, Israelite, Fanny by the gaslight. Take a bag, c'mon take a bag. I took a bag home last night – cost me a lot more than ten pound, I can tell you. Anyone like jewelry? Look at that one there. Handmade in Italy, hand-stolen in Stepney. It's as long as my arm – I wish it was as long as something else. Don't think because these boxes are sealed up, they're empty. The only man who sells empty boxes is the undertaker, and by the look of some of you lot today, I'd make more money with me measuring tape. Here, one price. Ten pound.”

“Squeeze in if you can. Left leg, right leg, your body will follow. They call it walking. You want one as well, darling? You do? That's it. They're waking up. Treat the wife. Treat somebody else's wife. It's a lot more fun if you don't get caught. Hold on. You want one as well? Okay, darling, show me a bit of life then. It's no good standing out there like one o'clock half-struck. Buy them, you better buy them. These are not stolen, they just haven't been paid for, and we can't get them again, they've changed the bloody locks. Here. One for you. It's no good coming back later when I've sold out. ‘Too late, too late’ will be the cry when the man with the bargains has passed you by. If you got no money on you now, you'll be crying tears as big as October cabbages.”

Ah, the beauty…

Movie: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Technique: The Royal Flush

Surviving an arrow to the chest and leading a band of Kafiristani warriors from town to town, looting and shooting, Sean Connery’s Danny is heralded as a god by his new-found followers. Used to working with this best friend and fellow con man Peachy (Michael Caine) as they smuggled, swindled and blackmailed their away around India, Danny has told a few porkies in his time, but this particular hierarchical hustle is the biggest of the big cons. All this ne’er-do-well-ery all comes to naught, of course – this is a Rudyard Kipling story, after all – and the pseudo-godliness goes horribly awry. But while it lasts, it’s a beautiful thing, as Danny fully invests in the character he’s created, even demanding Peachy bows before him to maintain the ruse. If he’d seen Harry Brown, he’d know not to ask Michael Caine to bow. Silly Sean.

Movie: Zombieland (2009)
Technique: Putting A Ring On It

Money will make greedy people do greedy things, but money AND an attractive woman will make greedy people do stupidly greedy things. Emma Stone is that attractive woman, and it’s a pre-zombies Zombieland that sees a gullible petrol attendant agree to send on a lost ring in exchange for a promised reward and possibly something else. Stone scoots off in her flash red car on her way to something very important, and later her conspirator (Abigail Breslin) turns up after “finding” the ring somewhere in the forecourt. She asks for her own reward, the mark gives a smaller cut of the promised money, and a little way down the road the two con artistes share out the $500 they just earned. Putting a dampener on things is the impending zombie apocalypse, but as everyone knows, grifting ain’t easy.

Movie: Double Indemnity (1944)
Technique: The Insurance Excess

Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde bombshell housewife Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray’s underhand insurance salesman Walter Neff don’t hustle by halves. And while they are definitely not con men – they’re murderers, killing Phyllis’ husband after rigging a special life insurance deal that doubles the payout if it’s “an accident” – this is a hustle, and one hell of a big one. A complicated ruse involving Fred pretending to be the deceased and putting the corpse in question on a railway line is the biggest part of the con, but there are plenty more twists and turns after that, making you truly wonder whether falling for a woman who wants you to kill her husband was really the best idea in the first place.

Movie: Nightmare Alley (1947)
Technique: The Carnival Con

Everyone turns up to a fairground or revival meeting half-expecting to be fleeced (see also: Elmer Gantry), and that goes double for the kind of carnival found in this aptly-named journey into a bleak and boozy world of barkers, hoaxers and washed-up old entertainers. Tyrone Powers, in a bold and risky role, plays Stanton 'Stan' Carlisle, a man responsible with packing his carnival's chief attraction, a sneaky cash-liberating con, with open-jawed punters. The con? The supposed mystic Mademoiselle Zeena who deduces the crowd's deepest secrets using only her mind powers and an ingenious code shared with her husband/sidekick Pete. Click here to see what we mean.