The Long Con

Are con movies the only films that execute their plot on the audience as well as the characters?

It’s called a confidence game. Why, because you give me your confidence? No, because I give you mine.

House of Games

Are con movies the only genre of movie that execute their plot on the audience, as well as the characters?

Con movies – a subset of caper movies, which are themselves a subset of thrillers – owe their late 20th Century resurgence to the overwhelming success of The Sting. Inspired by the lingo and legends of David Maurer’s The Big Con, it features an amazing cast, headed by Robert Redford and Paul Newman at the height of their charm. The script is tight, the cinematography stylish, and the setting evocative.

One of the ways in which The Sting maintains suspense through the very end is with a tight B plot in which Hooker (Redford) is captured by Agent Polk of the FBI and coerced into rolling over on Gondorff (Newman). As the con against Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) reaches its climax, Polk busts in and arrests Gondorff. In retaliation, Gondorff shoots Hooker in the back, and Polk shoots Gondorff. Lonnegan is whisked away by the cops to avoid being caught up in a murder scene.

… or is it? As it turns out, Polk was an element of the con as well, the final boost to get Lonnegan out the door and ensure he never returned. Gondorff and Hooker sit up, wiping the fake blood from their mouths, and share a laugh. The con artists disassemble the front and our two leads walk off into the sunset.


None of this is clear to the audience up until it’s revealed. The protagonists know this is going on, but we, the viewers, do not. The film employs careful editing and camera tricks to keep us from knowing this until the last possible second, so that the reveal provokes a significant catharsis. The con movie pulls a con on us.

This is worth noting because it’s not the only way to maintain suspense up to the final scene. As anyone who’s watched BBC’s Hustle or TNT’s Leverage can tell you, you can inject tension into a caper by leaving the actions of the mark (the victim) up in the air. Maybe the mark brought backup to check your counterfeit bills. Maybe the cops – the real cops – show up. It’s not a requirement that the con artists have something up their sleeve that the movie withholds from us.

And yet, to watch the con movies that succeeded The StingHouse of Games, Confidence, Nueve Reinas, Matchstick Men, Snatch, Body Heat – you’d think it was a requirement. And this is an incomplete list, excluding caper films that merely have an element of a con in them, like Inside Man, The Usual Suspects, and Ocean’s Eleven, which are similarly coy with the audience. Not only do the characters pull off a con on the supporting cast, but the director pulls off a con on the audience.

That is, as far as I can tell, unique among subgenres of film. The larger, overarching genre labels are meant to describe the emotional effect a film is intended to evoke – horror films to horrify us, thriller films to thrill us, romances to make us fall in love again, etc. But the subgenres within each category don’t carry a similar burden. Slasher movies (a subset of horror) do not literally maim people in their seats. Mistaken identity rom-coms do not mislead the viewers as to who’s starring. Heist films do not actually rob the audience (unless you dropped $11.50 on Takers, hey-o! Doc Severinsen, everybody!).


But a con movie isn’t a con movie, apparently, unless the audience is also getting taken in. And it uses the same principles as a successful con to pull this off: establishing a rapport with the audience through engaging scenes, building trust through adhesion to the traditional filmic story structure, and then pulling a late third act plot twist to jerk us by the leashes. We’re the marks, not the characters. In fact, given that we know enough about the con movie genre to anticipate this sort of thing, we’re even more of suckers than usual.

So am I missing something? Are there other subgenres of movies that execute the action of their plot on the audience as well as the characters? Because I think con movies are it, and I think that’s worth noting.

22 Comments on “The Long Con”

  1. Wenyip #

    hmmm. A vital element of a (successful) con is that the mark not know that they are being conned. (There are occasional exceptions to this, but they tend to involve another level of con beyond the original, of which the mark is unaware). The audience of a con movie won’t know all the particulars of the con taking place… but they do invariably know that it is a con. They’ll see the con artists planning and executing various parts of their plans. So… the success of a good con movie depends not on concealing stuff from the audience, nor on a twist, but on making the audience believe that nothing is being concealed. If it’s merely a case of dramatic tension (“will the cops show up or not?”) I don’t think that counts as a con.

    On other genres… the one that immediately springs to mind is the detective novel. At least, those in the most traditional ‘whodunnit’ scheme, as set out in Van Dine’s rules ( A crime has been committed, and both the protagonist detective and the audience are presented with the clues to solve it.


  2. John Perich OTI Staff #

    Good point. I’ve always read that implication, that the mark not know they’re being conned, with the unspoken addendum “… until long, long after the getaway.” And since the actors make their “getaway” as soon as the credits roll – we lose access to the universe in which they live – I’d say they’re safe. Still, it is a wrinkle.

    And also a good call on the whodunnit. The Matlock / Murder She Wrote / Perry Mason genre conceals things from the audience as well as the investigator.


    • Martin #

      The film noir adaptation of Chandler’s Lady in the Lake goes one step further and is shot with a first person camera – you only see Marlowe when he sees himself in a mirror. It’s an interesting experiment (the idea is that you solve the murder along with him) but fails on two levels: first, because audiences are used to seamless continuity editing that mimics the movements of the eye from one subject to another, and to have very long takes held on one subject actually feels artificial; secondly, none of the internal monologue, the most entertaining part of detective first person, is translated.


  3. Simber #

    What about the Mockumentary?


    • lofgren #

      Usually the audience is fully aware that a mockumentary is fake, and the characters in a mockumentary are rarely the victims of a con.


  4. Stokes OTI Staff #

    There are a number of genres where the audience is meant to share in the experience of the protagonist. Linda Williams lists three: porn (protagonist and audience must be aroused), horror (protagonist and audience must be frightened), and melodrama (protagonist and audience must be sad). And I’d argue that the whodunnit is another genre of this kind.

    With that in mind, is it maybe significant that the con movie is a genre where the audience shares in the experience of the antagonist?


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      I may be butting against the limits of my filmic language here, because horror is an obvious example yet isn’t quite what I mean. Yes, a horror movie protagonist is horrified, just as a thriller movie protagonist has an adrenaline rush, and the audience shares the same. But a slasher movie audience isn’t maimed; a car chase movie audience isn’t behind the wheel of a vehicle.

      So there is a sub-genre (for lack of a better word) that fits within each overarching genre, and uses certain tropes to achieve the ends of that genre. Slasher movies (a subset of horror) horrify the audience by gory deaths and shadows and cats jumping out of showers. Car-chase movies thrill the audience with engines roaring and hairpin turns and Michelle Rodriguez coming back from the dead.

      Con movies, a subset of crime films, divert the audience by almost literally conning them. That’s different, I argue.


      • Stokes OTI Staff #

        I agree with the basic point that the con movie is different, somehow. But I feel like the slasher movie is an overly convenient example… take something with a lower body count, like the ghost story, for instance. Ghost stories horrify the audience with the sudden and inexplicable appearance of supernatural phenomena… which is also the way that they horrify the characters. No? (Of course certain characters may still wind up dead, and a cat is BOUND to jump out of the shower at some point. But characters in The Sting also die, and con movies inevitably also have romantic subplots and so on… no example is totally pure.)

        Of course, with the ghost story, you could still say “Well, but the audience is never actually haunted.” I would respond with “Well, but the audience of a con movie is never actually robbed.” What is the meaningful difference there? And then of course you have gaslighting movies, which are kind of ghost-story/con-movie hybrids. How do they fit in?

        Again, I’m inclined to think that you are on to something here, so I hope I don’t come across as querulous. I find the question interesting, which is why I want to poke at it.


      • BastionofLight #

        Many movies have an element of con in them, even when they are not con, heist, or crime movies. As examples in Die Hard *spoilers* when John McClane gives Hans Gruber the gun. John McClane knows its not loaded, and he is completely safe, but the audience doesn’t, which creates drama that is, strangely, not shared by the characters, which makes it, I believe, reverse dramatic irony.

        Con movies may be unique in that the drama rests entirely on reverse dramatic irony.

        The audience has to know some of what the con men know, but not all of it. If the audience was truly identified with the mark, then the story would be another type of movie entirely until the mark realizes that they were conned.
        If the audience was truly identified with the con men, then they would be stories about how they had a great plan and, with a few modifications to address situations that arose between concept and execution, the plan goes off without difficulty. Such a story would lack drama.

        Conning the audience, then, is a way for the filmmaker to match the story of a con to a dramatic tone.

        I do not agree with the statement “In fact, given that we know enough about the con movie genre to anticipate this sort of thing, we’re even more of suckers than usual.” The experience of signing up to be conned underlies most movies, and magic shows. I’m not sure about the psychology underlying it, but in most movies, the good guys win, the couple gets together, the magic is fake, and the drama comes from the audience “forgetting” that.

        Con movies are unique, then, to the extent that they rely solely on that trope.


    • An Inside Joke #

      I’m not a big horror fan, but aren’t there horror genres besides slasher? Perhaps horror movies that are frightening despite nobody dying? Or would that qualify more as a thriller?


  5. Stokes OTI Staff #

    The con movie is like the whodunnit, though, and unlike the genres described by Williams, in that the experience is more of an intellectual one than an emotional/sensational one.


  6. Falconer #

    Magic movies. Do these qualify as Con movies? Or are they a sub-genre of something else?

    The Prestige. The Illusionist. Now you See me. etc etc…

    All of these movies contain the elements of Con Movies. At the end everyone but the protagonist(s) is deceived, audience, antagonist, and supporting cast alike.

    In these movies, I believe, the audience expects to be deceived.


  7. Sixth Monarchist #

    Where would Now You See Me fall within all this?


  8. Ben Adams OTI Staff #

    I’m interested in what Falconer/Bastion said above about when movies that AREN’T about con-men try to con the audience. “The Prestige” came to my mind first as well.

    Though when I think about it, if you want to create a “magic” sub-genre, then you’re really not that far off from the “con” subgenre. What’s a magican except a particular kind of con-man? The skills and persona are extremely similar.

    Two movies that come to mind with a major con-on-the audience are “Fallen” and “Primal Fear.”

    Fallen in particular has a great con – the opening line of the movie “Let me tell you about the time I almost died,” in Denzel Washington’s voice is a great set up for the LAST line where it’s revealed that the demon actually survives by jumping into an animal’s body. It’s pretty awesome. Ditto with Edward Norton’s reveal in Primal Fear.


    • Falconer #

      Ben you are correct in stating that magicians and Conmen employ many of the same skills and tactics. I am a part time Magician.

      I think there is one subtle difference between Magicians and ConMen. I refer back to the initial comment, that a vital component of a successful con is that the mark (or audience) does not know they are being conned.

      The difference is this. Barring a few exceptions, most modern magicians and illusionists show no pretense that what they are doing is in anyway more than a trick or an illusion. The Audience also is in on the mutual understanding that they are being fooled.

      In the case of a Magic movie, it’s reasonable for the audience to assume that what they are seeing on screen is a deception and not ‘real magic’. Also they should not be surprised at the end of “The Illusionist” that an ‘illusion’ has been perpetrated and they were the mark.

      I think the issue at hand is why would anyone going to see a movie about Conmen not expect to be conned or why someone going to see a movie about Magic not see magic.

      The issue these 2 genre’s have in common is one of deception and does the audience know they are being deceived. In magic it’s assumed by all viewing it that it is just a trick or illusion.

      In Confidence movies (and games) the up front deception is that no deception has taken place.

      What was it that Kevin Spacey says in “The Usual Suspects” The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world that he doesn’t exist.

      That’s the ConMans goal as well. Gain your confidence so that you give him your money…. and you never realize you’ve been swindled.


      • DeanMoriarty #

        I think that comparing them to magic tricks is the best way to think about this type of con movie. In both this type of movie and in a magic trick the audience derives pleasure from being deceived. In a con movie, the plot is actually set up and misdirection. Of course, the good con movies will use a plot and characters that could stand on it’s own without the twist. Like using an attractive magician’s assistant, a distraction will be more effective if it’s an enjoyable and engaging one. In the end we will actually be delighted by being fooled, rather than angered. The fact that the in-story mark is usually losing money, while we’re not losing anything, except possibly a little pride, helps with being deceived an enjoyable thing.
        A con movie, however, has to do two very different thing than a magic trick to get an audience to be pleasurably deceived. First, a film, unlike a magician really only has one way of hiding what it’s really doing (not showing important scenes/information). Therefore, in order to be able to fool the audience, most con movies will pretend that they are not deceiving them at all. I think this is why one might feel like they are conning the audience. Except, it’s not conning them, they walked into the movie expecting to see deception, which they got. It was just deception directed at the audience rather than a character.
        The second difference is that con movies can and need to reveal their secrets. since the basics of the trick will always be the same in every movie (don’t show/say certain stuff ) we’re allowed to see the details, which are, hopefully, different in every movie. For instance, in The Sting we see that the guns shot blanks and that our protagonists had fake blood pills in their mouths. These reveals will actually make the movie feel more like a magic trick and therefore more acceptably deceptive. By showing us that the “trick” was done within the restrictions of the movie’s own universe and rules, it likens it to a magician who has to work within the restrictions of the physical rules of a universe we’re all quite familiar with. If it had been revealed that Hooker and Gondorff were actually bulletproof, it would stop being a magic trick and it would become just bad and lazy writing (not to mention confusing). Since audiences know that movies can (and sometimes do) do this, it’s important that there be an explanation of the trick to ensure them that the movie they just watched did not do this.

        I guess what I’m saying is that a con movie is a magic trick that only reveals itself to be one after it happened, but has built in conventions and structures to ensure that the audience sees their own gullibility in a positive and enjoyable way.


        • Falconer #

          I completely agree with Mr Moriarty.

          I would offer one difference though. While an explanation/exposition is preferred in Con Movies, I think it should be avoided in a magic movies/tricks.
          All that’s really needed is to know that all the ‘rules’ have been followed. No cheating!
          That’s what creates the mystery with magic. You’ve just witnessed a physical impossibility.
          Remember, a magician never reveals his secrets.
          This is not to protect the secret from the audience, but rather to protect the audience from the secret.

          Just an aside. ‘Mr. Moriarty’ did remind me of something.
          In the last episode of “SHERLOCK” (the recent BBC TV reboot) we see Sherlock Holmes…
          ..fake his own death. We don’t know how he did it. But we know he did We’re pretty sure the show didn’t cheat and all the clues are there. But NO explanation is given. NONE, NADA, ZILCH.

          Now if/when the show starts up again…


  9. Dimwit #

    This is tricky. Any time that the audience is being fooled can be construed as a “con”. The Sixth Sense. Psycho. Saw. A drama/thriller, a horror/thriller and a horror/slasher. Each depends on misleading the audience for either dramatic reasons or thrills. Disguising the protagonist or antagonist is key to making the film both entertaining and memorable. None are what you would define as “cons”.


  10. Timothy J Swann #

    There is an issue with Hustle, and indeed any other con-based show where you know the timing of the show – (admittedly, this applies in procedurals too) – that even if you don’t know what the next layer of the con will be, you know that there will be one unless it’s the 58th minute. And having watched all of Hustle, con movies tend to play on at least one of the cons that has already appeared in the show, so it’s hard to feel conned any more (i.e. the recent Gambit remake)


  11. Gab #

    Someone above mentioned mockumentaries, which is something I was also going to bring up, so yay. (I still think Christopher Guest should do one about a tennis tournament, with heavy subplot about those dudes that run across and grab stray tennis balls.)

    Also, what about spoof heist movies? Take Small Time Crooks. We know all along these guys are kind of terrible, but somehow nobody is aware they’re digging that tunnel. And in the end, they get away with a lot of money… by turning their front into a legit business. Not a single thing is hidden from the audience in that one, but it’s obviously a play on the heist genre, and everybody but the main characters gets duped.


  12. lofgren #

    Any movie with one of the following endings:

    It was all a dream.
    They were dead all along.

    I once paid a guy $5 to shine my shoes with what turned out to be hand sanitizer and I have never felt more conned than I did after watching the last episode of Lost.


  13. Dr. J. #

    Wild Things with Denise Richards and Neve Campbell was a lousy movie but a great con movie.

    The beauty of that movie was the ‘outtakes’ shown during the closing credits that show you the ‘howdunnit’ of the film. I thought that was a great touch.


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