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The 12 Best Con Artist Movies Ranked

The con artist is a quintessentially American figure in storytelling. In a world of special offers and corporate malfeasance, the confidence artist is a sort of underdog and anti-hero, a working man's Robin Hood that steals from the gullible and gives to themselves. In an individualized society, the con artist is a shape-shifter and magician, pretending to be someone else just long enough to get away with the loot. You admire them, as long as you're not the one falling for the scam.

Surprisingly, although we get all manner of heist movies and master criminals in film, the con artist movie is an underexplored genre. It stands to reason that there must be many more people that run low-level quick-change schemes and try to swindle a quick buck than there have ever been serial killers, but movies make it seem like serial killers are way more common. If you're considering a career change in these turbulent economic times, or just want to watch someone with preternatural confidence get one over on a deserving mark, join us for a countdown of the absolute classics. These are the 12 best con artist movies, ranked.

12. Focus

Like a bubbly glass of Champagne, "Focus" is a pleasant con story that's as glamorous and elaborate as any "Ocean's Eleven" franchise installment. Main character Nicky (Will Smith) also has an elaborate multi-member team, but they go for lots of small grifts and person-to-person schemes instead of massive casino heists. The bulk of "Focus" is about mixing love with deception, as Nicky recruits a beautiful new protégé, Jess (Margot Robbie), and tries to resist his immediate attraction to her.

What follows is a classic breeze through a plot that twists so often, it's better to let it wash over you than follow it beat by beat. "Focus" contributes a new term to the con artist lexicon in creating the "Toledo Panic Button," basically the "shoot the hostage" maneuver from "Speed," and has several memorable montages of Nicky's crew in action that have a bigger scale than most movies in the genre. Ultimately, it coasts on the chemistry of its two stars as they connect, reconnect, and both end up conning one another. Love, in its classic and heady fashion, turns out to be the riskiest confidence game of all.

11. Matchstick Men

"Matchstick Men" is a forgotten film in the vast and varied filmographies of director Ridley Scott and actor Nicolas Cage. It doesn't have the epic grandeur of "Blade Runner" or one of the quirky performances that Cage is famous for, but it's a twisty and surprisingly emotional con artist movie that you shouldn't miss. The main role of Roy Walker is one that only Cage could play: He's an experienced and expert grifter that also deals with severe OCD and phobic tendencies — Cage switches expertly between the jumpy and harrowing way that Roy exists at home and the cool, assured calm that he has when on a job.

The fragile balance that he maintains in life is completely upended by the appearance of his long-lost daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), an exuberant 14-year-old that takes an interest in his work. The main cast is rounded out by the superb Sam Rockwell as Roy's partner Frank, who's always egging Roy to go after a much bigger score. Adapted from a novel by Eric Garcia, "Matchstick Men" is one of the best con artist movies because it marries Ridley Scott's attention to craft and detail with an emotional depth and realism carried over from its source material. By the time you get to the (predictable) big reveal that nothing is what it seems, it hits harder because the characters in this grifter fantasy feel very real.

10. American Hustle

"American Hustle" is itself sort of a con, as it adapts the real-life ABSCAM investigation into public officials by the FBI into glitzy, propulsive cinema. It announces its intention to only tell you sort of the truth with the opening disclaimer "Some of this actually happened," and then director David O. Russell takes you on a stylish, and at turns hilarious, ride through the late '70s. Like the rest of his movies, "American Hustle" is more about high-strung characters bouncing off one another than it is about the particulars of its plot — in this case, the FBI roping two con artists into helping them take down corrupt politicians by creating a fake foreign sheikh.

All four main actors in "American Hustle" would score a rare foursome of Oscar nominations: Amy Adams and Christian Bale for the lead role of the con artists pressured into FBI mole service, and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper for their supporting roles as Bale's histrionic liability of a wife and a sneering FBI agent (via IMDb). The movie contrasts the modest ambitions of the confident trickster with the more power-hungry viciousness of law enforcement and politics: Bale and Adams are content to run small-time investment scams until Cooper's egoic FBI character shows up to threaten them with arrest, and rope them into a much larger scheme essentially by blackmail. 

9. I Care a Lot

There's an unfortunate dearth of great female con artist movies. Women in the genre are often accomplices, marks, or love interests, but rarely are they the main grifter and mastermind, which makes Netflix's 2020 black comedy "I Care A Lot" a welcome breath of fresh air. Drawing on the steel nerves she displayed in her Oscar-nominated performance in "Gone Girl," star Rosamund Pike plays a character that has perfected the scam of manipulating elder-care laws and becoming the legal guardian for several old men and women, and then lining her own pockets with the vast majority of their estates.

As the plot unfolds, Pike displays a full range of fury in playing an anti-hero so gloriously unlikeable that you root for her in spite of yourself. It's the kind of role rarely given to a woman, even today, and she knocks it out of the park, especially after Peter Dinklage shows up as a drug kingpin that has a connection to one of her marks, making Pike's life extremely difficult. Eiza González also stars as Pike's accomplice and lover, making "I Care a Lot" doubly progressive in that it stars a woman in a traditionally male sort of role, and also that it casually has an LGBTQ relationship that it doesn't make a big deal about.

8. A Fish Called Wanda

"A Fish Called Wanda" is a delightful study in the difference between a reserved British con artist and flashy American criminals. Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline play outlandish American grifters that are brought in on a diamond heist, turn their British accomplice over to the police, and then spend the majority of the film trying to charm the location of the stolen diamonds out of a clueless lawyer played by John Cleese, who also co-wrote the film. Channeling his time on the BBC sitcom "Fawlty Towers," Cleese and director Charles Crichton create a mad-cap farce that lets its stacked cast bounce off one another and create momentum that keeps on building until a hysterical finale.

"A Fish Called Wanda" takes the deception in most con artist movies and cranks it up to absurd levels. Basically, everyone is lying to everyone else from the start, and new levels of deceit and contrivance keep getting added on top of that. Cleese's "Monty Python" pal Michael Palin also joins the fun as a stuttering hit-man with a penchant for animals: including the titular pet fish Wanda that meets an unfortunate end.

7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Michael Caine and Steve Martin star as the embodiment of the two ends of the con artist spectrum in the classic "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Both are scamming rich female tourists out of money in a town on the French Riveria, but they couldn't operate more differently. Caine plays the gentlemanly, refined Lawrence Jamison, who mostly masquerades as a prince in exile that needs to raise thousands for his country's freedom fighters. Martin's Freddy Benson is a boorish American running the small-time grift, making up a sob story about his grandmother to score $20 at a time.

When Freddy intrudes on what Lawrence considers his territory, after some initial gamesmanship and a bit of blackmail, they settle on a bet: The first one to score $50,000 from naive American soap heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headley) wins, and the other has to leave town. What follows are a series of set pieces that all grow to involve schemes-within-schemes, but mostly serve to let Martin do pratfalls and funny faces, and Caine to look ruffled in his singular, aristocratic way. Headley more than holds her own as the surprisingly slippery Janet, who (spoiler alert) may be hiding secrets of her own.

6. Trading Places

To be pedantic, "Trading Places" might not properly be a con artist movie in the literal sense. Street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy in the early stages of his meteoric rise) is largely an unwitting pawn in the central scheme to trade lives with wealthy businessman Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd). The entire idea is a bet by two other wealthy old men, the Duke brothers. But in practice, "Trading Places" is an exploration of a central ethos of the con artist trade: It's not about where you're from, or even who you were yesterday. Success is merely the byproduct of dressing the part and acting like you belong there.

Once Valentine and Winthorpe join forces, the film becomes a mediation on how the larger forces of our country are themselves one big con job: They work to foil what's essentially an insider-trading scam by the Dukes. Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the Duke brothers are the true grifters, but they go against the con artist's moral code and take things too far. As massively wealthy titans of industry, they wager a mere $1 on their bet about human nature that nearly drives Winthorpe to his death.

5. The Grifters

Neo-noir "The Grifters" follows an entire trio of con artists in a constantly shifting web of alliances and double-crosses. The great Angelica Huston plays Lilly Dillon, a long-time grifter that's settled in a groove traveling the country placing last-minute racetrack bets for the mob to sway the odds the way they want them to go. She pays a visit to her estranged son Roy (a baby-faced John Cusack), to find he's become a small-time hustler that recently received a beating for trying the "quick change" scam at a bar.

In his hospital room, she meets his girlfriend Myra (a deadly seductive Annette Bening), and instantly recognizes her as a fellow long-con artist whose identity is nothing but lies. A strange and vaguely Oedipal power struggle over Roy's life ensues, and it all builds to a deadly confrontation. "The Grifters" is a mediation on the con artist life: If it's all about the short-term payoff, it's impossible to hold on to long-term relationships that require deep bonds, like a mother and son, or even a steady girlfriend. If your entire life is deception, who can you trust? 

4. Paper Moon

"Paper Moon" is a classic con artist movie, an ode to a bygone era of the quick small-time grift. Set in the rural stretches of the country during the height of the Great Depression, confidence man Moze Pray (Ryan O'Neal) is content to drift the country and run the quick change scam at diners, or con recently widowed women into believing their late husbands had ordered a special engraved Bible. He doesn't need a big payday or a long-con. Like many in the country, he's happy enough just to get by.

His life is disrupted by the discovery of Addie Loggins, the daughter of an old flame that's rumored to be his child. In a meta-textual element that makes "Paper Moon" one of the best movies about fatherhood, Addie is played by Ryan O'Neal's actual daughter Tatum O'Neal, who would become the youngest Oscar winner in history and take home best supporting actress for the role (via IMDb). After her mother dies, Moze sets out on the road to drop Addie off at an aunt's house, but soon finds that a daughter is a good thing to have when you're running scams on the gullible, and also a good thing to have when the local sheriff beats the stuffing out of you.

3. The Brothers Bloom

An early and unheralded film from director Rian Johnson of "Knives Out" fame (and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" infamy), "The Brothers Bloom" might be "the" con artist movie. It's a celebration of the aesthetics and glamour of the entire lifestyle: dapper suits, playing cards, and elaborate deceptions involving dense backstories and fake gunshots complete with blood-spurting squibs. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo star as the brothers of the title, who've run the long con since being orphaned as children and bouncing from home to home. An elaborate opening sequence, narrated by magician Ricky Jay in rhyming verse, establishes "The Brothers Bloom" as a larger-than-life fairy tale from the very start.

Rachel Weisz livens up the proceedings as a sheltered and wealthy heiress that becomes the brothers' latest mark, as they pretend to be smugglers and offer her a life of excitement. But as "The Brothers Bloom" navigates an intricate world of double-crosses and confusion, it gets at the existential despair and loneliness that would result from a lifetime of lying. We all in our own way make up a life story, that we have to reconcile with the constraints of life. What's the virtue, it asks, of an "unwritten life?" Like the movie version of a fortune cookie, "The Brothers Bloom" is a con artist confection with a surprisingly profound message inside.

2. Catch Me If You Can

The great Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio joined forces to tell the story of Frank Abagnale Jr., perhaps the greatest American con artist, in "Catch Me If You Can." Endlessly rewatchable, the movie tells the possibly true story of the real-life Abagnale, who ran away from home as a teenager and began passing fraudulent checks to get by. He soon schemes up a way to pose as an airline pilot to score free trips around the world, and eventually has stints pretending to be a doctor in Georgia, and a lawyer in Louisiana.

Like many classics of the con artist genre, "Catch Me If You Can" ruminates on the way that a life of crime alienates you from others. Frank's initial impulse to strike out for the grifter's life is a reaction to his parents' divorce, and he runs into trouble when he attempts to settle down with a young nurse named Brenda (Amy Adams, early in her career). Ultimately the closest thing Frank has to a family is the FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) that has dedicated years to pursuing him.

1. The Sting

No discussion of con artists in cinema is complete without the pinnacle of the genre, 1973's "The Sting." Starring the titans of cinema Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Robert Shaw, "The Sting" is also the most lauded and successful con artist movie by far. It won best picture and six other statues at the Oscars, and is widely credited with revitalizing Newman's latter-day career (via IMDb). Director George Hill and screenwriter David Ward create a beautifully crafted film that commits so fully to its twists and turns, it's nearly impossible to predict because it's so enjoyable to watch in the moment.

"The Sting" has all the staples of the con artist story: a reckless impulse for gambling, a small-time protégé learning the ropes from an old master, an innocent love interest that turns out to be a sinister femme fatale. A soundtrack that relied heavily on the ragtime compositions of Scott Joplin gives "The Sting" a unique and memorably buoyant tone. Avoid any spoilers and check out "The Sting" if you haven't seen it; you might be confused at points, but you won't be let down.