The Age of Chiselry
From the mob bosses of film noir to the sweet-talking city slickers of Wall Street, films have always depicted cities as places for playing –or getting played. Spaces that are "seen, but not looked at" are footholds for duplicity and deceipt, sleight-of-hand and shell games.
Stacy Grouden takes us through cinema's greatest urban swindles.
From the Great Depression to the Great Recession, the city has been the playground of opportunistic grifters looking to pull a fast one. Critical theorist Carsten Strathausen describes an "irreconcilable ambiguity" lurking in the metropolis, "the simultaneity of both transparency and obscurity... order and chaos." This complex duality is key to the success of many great swindles.
The transitory spaces of the city – alleyways, train stations, hotel lobbies – offer impersonal, fluid space, locations at once familiar and unfamiliar to citizens. These places that are seen, but not looked at, are ultimately the most effective locales for confidence work.
Cinema has long been fascinated with the art of the steal. Here's how the cinema of the city has hosted hustles over time (with spoilers aplenty).
Blonde Crazy (1931)
"Chivalry is dead. This, honey, is the age of chiselry." So speaks hotel bellhop Bert Harris (James Cagney) in Blonde Crazy, educating Joan Blondell’s chambermaid in the art of the con at what the first-act title card informs us is the leading hotel of a small mid-western city during the Great Depression. The pair work their way up to ‘a big city’ and finally ‘the largest city’, their movement through larger urban centres representing an aspirational ascent from low-level staff to high society.
Bert and Anne’s relationship is playful and lightly flirtatious but, importantly, they see each other as equal partners in the con. Despite the schemes of entrapment, blackmail, and misdirection they engage in, they have a code: only targeting those ahead of them on the social ladder, and only with their wits. Their scams are represented as redressing the balance between the working-class and the wealthy in an era of want.
Double Indemnity (1944)
The end of the Depression came about right as the US entered World War II, and a new mood prevailed in cinema from this period until well into the 1960s: film noir. The plots hatched in this era are as dark as the name suggests. Los Angeles was a popular setting, frequently rendered in deep shades of rainy grey, alluding to its two sides as a city of haves and have-nots. This duality is in play in Double Indemnity, where co-conspirators Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) disguise their dirty deeds in LA’s unlit side-streets and overgrown bushes, while using a brightly-lit, crowded grocery store as a neutral public place they can meet without suspicion.
Insurance salesman Walter colludes with Phyllis to stage her husband’s murder to look like an accident, for a large settlement. But a revealing moment during his confessional voiceover reveals that, while Walter is in thrall to femme fatale Phyllis, he has also been waiting for an opportunity to ‘crook the house’ for a long time. There is a sense that the environment has provided the means to act on his dark desires, but it has snared him too. As Walter concludes his tale of deception and deceit, the film cuts to a view of the city of Los Angeles from an office window, the Venetian blinds capturing the city behind bars, as he will now view it in perpetuity.
The Sting (1973)
Set in 1930s Chicago, we return to the age of chiselry. While The Sting lands the blow its title suggests, it picks itself back up with a smile and a "gotcha!" immediately afterwards. Roger Ebert praised the film for being "a crime movie more concerned with humour and character than with blood and gore." The Sting certainly retains its playful tone throughout. George Roy Hill’s Chicago is a labyrinth of alleyways, train tunnels, back windows and underground parlours. It’s the kind of environment offering opportunity and freedom to the grifter, and entrapment to his adversary – be he a corrupt cop, a fake fed, a mysterious assassin known as Salino, or the film’s key mark, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
The master conman who orchestrates the sting, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) holds court in a run-down amusement park. The still-functioning carousel is a neat visual representation of the con, as he and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) run circles around Lonnegan as revenge for his involvement in the death of Luther, Hooker’s partner-in-crime. Luring him in under false identities, with high-stakes poker, and an elaborate past-posting scheme played out in a fake betting shop, they take the corrupt banker for half a million dollars. Yet Hooker refuses his cut of the final take, satisfied with a job well done in avenging his fallen partner.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
It may be bookended in the suburbs, but writer and director John Hughes has described Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as his love letter to the city: "I really wanted to capture as much of Chicago as I could, not just in the architecture and landscape, but the spirit.” A decade on from The Sting, perpetual truant Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) certainly channels the ghosts of Chicago conmen past. Like Hooker, he isn’t out to profit financially from his schemes, but just wants to get one over on The Man. In this case, that’s Ed Rooney, the suspicious principal threatening Ferris with another year of high school if he is caught taking another day off school.
Being held back is antithetical to Ferris’ key aspiration of mobility – a desire he shares, on some level, with every swindler on this list – and one he articulates quite literally when he tells us, with a degree of irritation, "I wanted a car; I got a computer." While his new technology is an asset in making prank phone calls and voice messages, it is through access to a car – one owned by his best friend Cameron’s father – that he is able to fully realise his goal of living it up in the city, shot beautifully by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. It’s no coincidence either that the key set-piece of the film revolves around Ferris taking over a parade float for an impromptu performance of Twist and Shout, highlighting the theme of movement, the playful nature of his scheme, and the ease at which one can be both visible, and invisible, in a city crowd.
Nine Queens (2000)
Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) offers the lesser-seen urban environment of Buenos Aires as a location for a multi-faceted con, involving established hustler Marcos (Ricardo Darín), rookie Juan (Gastón Pauls), a set of rare stamps, a bad cheque, and a final twist that reveals another level to the wheeling and dealing.
Writer and director Fabián Bielinsky describes a symbiotic relationship between the city and his two leads: "a comfortable relationship: they live there, the street is supporting them and protecting them." Through the use of hidden cameras, long lenses, natural lighting and location shooting, as opposed to the stylised studio set-ups more often seen in classical cinema, Nine Queens has a distinctive visual style that’s highly effective in, as Bielinsky says, "blending them into the scene" as just two more faces in the crowd. Nine Queens was released in the midst of what is now called the Argentinian Great Depression (1998-2002), and as in Blonde Crazy, the film highlights the harsh economic conditions and inequality that give rise to conmen and opportunists. Indeed, a key element of the final hustle involves advance knowledge of a bank default. Yet the film manages to reconcile this national turmoil with a satisfying and unexpected conclusion that celebrates collective efforts over accumulated individualistic greed.
Christopher Nolan’s postmodern heist movie reimagines the genre and subverts several of its conventions, while retaining the idea of an urban environment as central to its success. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specialises in stealing a very particular commodity: by entering the subconscious mind of his targets in a shared dream, he expertly extracts valuable ideas and information. In a neat reversal of the norm, Cobb’s latest client requires him to do the opposite, and to plant an idea in the head of a business rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Cobb’s motivation is, again, mobility – the ability to have his criminal record erased and return to the US and to his children.
Cobb recruits architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) to build the dream world in which the action will play out. Ariadne initially experiments with M C Escher-like paradoxes, mise en abymes and intricate labyrinths, but ultimately her world includes many of the key locations we’ve seen already – rainy city streets, train stations, and hotels. Tasked with creating the most suitable locales to manipulate Fischer, the city wins out again. The film famously ends on an ambiguous note as to whether Cobb’s eventual reconciliation with his kids is real, or just a dream. After letting us in on each level of the con, and revealing the secrets of extraction and inception, have we actually been played, one last time?
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