Poster for American Hustle

Poster for American Hustle

After reading some good reviews of American Hustle (Dir: David O’Russell, with: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence…) I decided to go and watch it. I’ve been interested in con games and con men (and women) for many years. They have a long tradition (you can read Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man if you need any proof). In Spain, the Picaresque novel is our autochthonous version of it, and movies such as the Argentinean 9 Queens (I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s fabulous) bear testimony to that.  My interest grew while I was writing the final assignment for my ‘Hollywood Film’ course at Mount Holyoke. I decided to write about David Mamet’s films and con-men. I wrote about House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner (I also recommend these two films if you’ve never watched them). The first one has a female psychiatrist being conned and in turn conning a group of con men, and it still remains my favourite Mamet film. The second one is a beautifully executed con game. I became so engrossed with David Mamet and the subject (as it is a theme he comes back over and over again, not surprising in somebody as fascinated by language as he is) that I ended up doing a PhD on ‘The Films of David Mamet’. I read a fair amount about con games and con men, researched the subject, and discovered David Maurer, a Professor of Linguistics who had researched the typical criminal argot, and become fascinated by the subject of con men, publishing two books, The Big Con (in 1940) and The American Confidence Man (1974). The library at Sussex University managed to obtain a copy of The American Confidence Man borrowing it from Edinburgh (at the time there were only 3 copies in the UK), but The Big Con was not available. And then, one day walking around in London I went into a big bookstore, and checking their crime section I saw a brand new copy of The Big Con. It had been republished, oh miracle of miracles. I promptly grabbed it and went to the till, where the young man asked me if it was a gift for somebody and I told him it was for me. His eyes lit up and he told me how good it was, how much he’d enjoyed it, etc, etc. His admiration was well deserved. If you’re interested in the subject, do read it. Of course, it is a historical book, and you won’t find anything about cyber-crime, or anything like that, but the magic is still there. It’s a bit like watching The Sting. The mechanics of the cons might not be possible today, but the beauty of the concepts, the acting, and the performances, keep the magic alive. (And it seems that The Big Con was one of the sources of The Sting and indeed if you read the book and watch the movie you’ll clearly see the con at the heart of the movie described brilliantly in the book. There was a novel written based on the film that ended up in court for plagiarism and The Big Con won.)

Con men consider themselves the aristocrats of crime (they bring people into their confidence, they make people give them their money willingly, and they can come up with some pretty elaborate schemes), but whatever your opinion what is clear is that they need to be pretty good and convincing actors.

The story of American Hustle is told from the point of view of several characters. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale with a belly, bolding and with a pretty elaborate combover) a star in the world of con men, meets Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams, Lady Edith during much of the film) and they discover they are keen in their love and skill in setting up cons. Unfortunately she picks the wrong mark, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, who although not balding has the most bizarre curly hair, that later in the movie we discover is the result of using rollers at home) who happens to be with the FBI. He offers to let them walk free if they cooperate with him in setting up other people. The scale of the operation grows to proportions quite unexpected. A New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (played with conviction by Jeremy Renner) in his eagerness to rebuild Atlantic City via legalised gambling gets into business with them and the fake sheik (there is always a fake sheik somewhere), big gambling Mafia gets involved (Robert De Niro, also balding), politicians can be offered a bit of money to expedite the paperwork to nationalise the sheik, for business purposes… Richie gets high and carried away in his never ending ambition to bring more and more important people down. I will not reveal more details of the plot, as it is an absolute joy to go through it, try to piece the story together and see how you feel by the end. It is well written, the 1970s are well recreated ( in all their doubtful glory, for our sins, I would add), the director makes good use of some of the actors he has worked with before (having directed Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter), and the performances are fabulous. Bale is a fascinating actor. To my mind he always is whoever he is portraying, and after having watched quite a few of his movies (and having seen him develop his career since he was a child) I still have no sense of who is the man behind the performance. And that is as it should be. Bradley Cooper is very convincing as the FBI man who is compelled to show everybody he is not just a small time guy, who wants to upstage his boss, and be cleverer than anybody else. Amy Adams is an actress who has made very good career choices, providing varied and always pitch-perfect performances, and she is in her element here. I think she will develop into a great actress. Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s wife and she has a ball of it. Although her part is not the biggest, she shines through. Oscars, here we come again. As I mentioned Jeremy Renner portrays Polito sympathetically and you like the character, who does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and is the one who makes you question the morality of the whole operation more than anybody else. It’s a good story, well told and fantastically acted. If one might feel that it is morally tepid, it is a story told from (mostly) the criminals’ point of view, and it shows that the lines between right and wrong can get blurred when one forgets that the end does not (always) justify the means. I do recommend it.

Just in case you’re interested I leave you the links to the two books by David Maurer I mentioned (The Big Con is available as e-book and paperback. The American Confidence Man is only available second hand in hardback).

The Big Con

The American Confidence Man

Thank you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, go and watch the movie, like, comment and share!

Note: I write and schedule my posts (when I can) ahead, and I’m pleased to see that the Golden Globes agree with me with regards to the movies and the female performances in particular.