Marcy writes about family, home life, parenting, money-saving tips, and many other topics, as well as essays and occasional humor pieces.
Crime and Comedy: Movie Mojo
You think crime isn't funny?
Think again! Some of the most popular movies in history are about con artists, criminals, and sociopathic characters, and many of them are comedies.
Apparently, Hollywood has figured out that crime (and conning people) pays big in the entertainment industry.
These movies aren't new on the screen, they've been popular ever since the early days of cinema, and the comedic forms are particularly lucrative draws for audiences.
Once you spot the formula in these movies, you'll recognize them after just a few minutes on the screen or even by reading the description on Netflix or your cable carrier.
Con Artist Games in Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back
Romance and Comedy in Con Artist Movies
Films about con artists often follow just a few formulas. Here are some you might recognize:
Bad Boy Goes Straight:
In these movies, the protagonist con artist character is clearly dishonest throughout the entire script, but suddenly 'goes straight' at the end of the movie, often due to meeting a woman and falling in love. The woman is often one of his victims (such as in two Rock Hudson & Doris Day classics, Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, from the late 1950s and early 1960s). Despite the obvious criminal behavior of the hero in these movies, Rock's conning is seen as cute and attractive to the audience.
Romance and the Con Artist:
In the two Hudson/Day movies mentioned above, the audience finds itself pulling for the couple to fall in love and get married (even though Hudson's characters in both movies have assumed fake identities and conned Doris Day's characters from the first 15 minutes of the script on). True to the formula, she learns about his conning after she has already fallen in love with him, and even gets pregnant in one film (only after marriage, though - this is in the pristine era of virginal romances).
Even with her knowledge of Hudson's characters' cons Day, as the lovely herione, relents and marries when he pulls an 11th-hour repent scene on her. Logic would tell the audience that she should drop him like, well, like a Rock, but the movie ends happily ever after, with the couple getting married.
Con Artists in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Con Games for Profit
Conning for Money and Laughs:
Equally as popular as other examples here, and eventually made into a Broadway hit, iDirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Michael Caine and Steve Martin depicts two con artists bilking rich women out of money and jewels. The movie is actually a remake of a 1960s flick (Bedtime Story) staring Marlon Brando as the inept character Martin plays and David Niven as the dapper Caine character.
As you know, if you've seen this classic film, Martin and Caine set up elaborate cons, with the aid of a crooked local official and their butler, to scam rich women out of considerable amounts of money. Caine's character somewhat shows a form of logic and conscience at one point in the movie by claiming he only cons women who are wealthy enough to part with the money (albeit, not voluntarily) and in many cases, they're also of low character. Apparently, that makes it all okay.
The characters Caine and Martin play would be hauled before the courts in the real world, but not in the life of movie plots. Instead, their behaviors are oh-so-cute-and-funny, and the audience laughs hysterically as they scam woman after woman out of money through their lies and even through sexual intimacy.
The above characters are the type of people we would avoid if we saw them in action and recognized what they were doing. But the characters victimized by movie con artists, just like those who are hurt by online dating con artists, have trouble recognizing the lies and tricks.
Read More From Reelrundown
The audience, however, knows the secrets and laughs, which raises some questions about the message to society in having these types of themes in cinema.
Hilarious or Deceptive? How Criminals Are Shown in Con Movies
The 1930s and 40s had ongoing themes about criminals, some of which were dramatic shoot-em-ups and some comedic.
Gangland and machine-gun shootings wre very real and high-profile events in era of prohibition, Elliott Ness and the FBI, and dramatic or action movies showed the violence of the crimes and shootings as well as the 'good guy' winning out in the end. Edward G. Robinson's rugged face is almost a visual synonym for the word 'gangster' because of his numerous roles in such movies.
Criminal But Lovable:
Robinson also applied his art in comedic films at times, though. And sometimes crime mixed with laughter in those productions.
In the 1942 classic, Larceny, Inc., Robinson and a fellow ex-con entertain the audience through a series of bumbling behaviors (including trying to excavate their way into an underground bank vault) as their sweet niece (Jane Wyman) tries to help them start life on the outside. Once again, the message to the audience is that crime pays - at least in terms of laughs and audience appeal.
Female Con Artists in Films
Men are not the only dishonest characters in comedic movies about con artists.
Wily women, usually in search of easy money, are an ongoing cinematic theme that dates back to at least the 1930s.
A more recent example is the one popular actress Goldie Hawn portrayed in the 1992 flick,Housesitter, where she cons the parents of a complete stranger (played by Steve Martin, whose character spent one night with her) into thinking she has married their son. After some initial surprise that their son didn't inform them, they welcome her lovingly.
Never mind the emotional distress it might cause the parents when they learn the truth - it's comic fodder for the audience, as they watch Hawn's character tell one lie after another in her goal to live in the nice house Martin's architect character has built.
Despite her outrageous lies, Hawn's trademark zaniness (and fascinating dishonesty) appeal to Martin's character, and, guess what, they fall in love! Makes perfect sense to the rest of us, doesn't it?
A few years after the Hawn/Martin film, Sandra Bullock charmed audiences in 1995's While You Were Sleeping, by allowing the parents of a man in a coma to think she is his fiancée. Unlike the Hawn housesitting stint, Bullock's character does struggle with the misunderstanding she has allowed the parents to sustain, and of course, she and the guy fall in love when he comes to.
Bullock revisits comedic dishonesty in the 2009 'romantic' film, The Proposal, where she forces a corporate underling to marry her so she can avoid deportation. The perfect way to start a happy marriage, right? Well, true to Hollywood's penchant for unreality, the two indeed hook up by the end of the film.
What Is the Potential Effect on Society of Comedy Movies About Con Artists?
Little formal research has been done about the long-term effect of comedic films that portray con artists for laughs.
But some fair assumptions can be made, given that we know children and teens often learn from what they watch on television or in the movies.
Bullock's 'Proposal' film garnered numerous nominations as a teen favorite, which suggests audiences between 13 and 19 found the idea of forcing someone into marriage in order to con immigration officials was entertaining and appealing.
The "Bad Boy" syndrome in dating is commonly heard of, if not researched thoroughly, and it's reasonable to assume movies that show men winning over the woman through dishonest charm might contribute to this confused approach to romance.
So, along with monitoring the violence and offensive language in the films your children see, you might want to examine the comedic themes to see if the wrong message is conveyed through seducing the audience into laughing at something society generally considers inappropriate, illegal and harmful.
Marcy Goodfleisch, MA, has done graduate research and written a thesis on sociopathic behaviors in comedic cinema and has taught university courses on Comedy and Deception.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 09, 2015:
These movies are a bit more fun to watch than the dark ones filled with suspense. Hope you enjoy them, Peach Purple! I still love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels!
peachy from Home Sweet Home on January 09, 2015:
i haven't watch any, will be watching on youtube
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 29, 2013:
Hi, B. Leekley - thanks for reading and commenting here. You make a great point about the fact that those who wish to con will still do so, even if there are no movies to add inspiration. Conning was certainly part of every civilization long before we had cinema! Another classic oldie is the movie The Flim-Flam Man. Not as well known as the others, but rather comical in its own way.
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on January 28, 2013:
Up and Interesting.
Another example is the W. C. Fields 1939 movie You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. In one scene Fields is selling tickets at a carnival. A sign says Count Your Change Before Leaving. He folds paper money in a way that customers think they are getting more change than was owed them; too late they learn they got short-changed.
In the movie The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman, they pull a con to get even with some crooks.
In Trading Places, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd con crooked financiers.
My parents' first date was with a man who was a good writer but also was obsessed with the fantasy of being able to outfox the law with forged checks and other schemes. Much of his later life was in prison. Movies reflect such fantasies as being a hero that defeats a whole gang of violent crooks without getting hurt, as being the scientist who saves the world through quick thinking, as being a clever con artist, as being a poor person with whom a rich person falls in love, and so on. Movies mirror such fantasies. People would not stop having the fantasies if movies stopped mirroring them.
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 28, 2013:
Lol! Don't feel badly, Thomas - I am very behind on virtually everything that's up for the Oscars this year! Lots of catching up for both of us, I think!
Thomas Swan from New Zealand on January 28, 2013:
Oh dear, I think the only one I've seen is the Sandra Bullock movie... damn my lack of culture! I've got some catching up to do!
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 06, 2013:
Oh yes! That's a classic! I agree - The Sting is a big one on the list!
Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on January 06, 2013:
Of course, we have to include "The Sting," an academy award winner, one of my favorite films, and arguably one of the best con artist movies ever made. Voting this Up and Interesting.
Suzie from Carson City on January 05, 2013:
Marcy.....While I can agree, to some degree, that terribly violent,brutal & bloody movies, can be influential, when viewed by particular individuals (especially those with a propensity to violence), that's pretty much, as far as I can see fit, to stretch it. (Personally, I am seriously adverse to this type of film and don't watch them, anyway.)
Intentional and obvious "comedy," is another thing, altogether. The primary problem I have with the concept and/or question, as to ANY film or book, for that matter, having negative influence on viewers/readers, is the high degree of insult toward the general public.
I am fully against censorship of any sort.
Intelligent, mature and authentically moral adults, (16 and up) are hardly going to romanticize criminal behavior or less than righteous people, in a film that is done with and for comedy. In terms of "children," it is the parents who have the responsibility to know, to check ratings and to disallow children to attend, any event which is not age-appropriate.
Quite honestly, when it comes to my grandchildren, "movies," are my least concern. What appears on our TV screens, in our own homes, is something I am constantly monitoring and screening, according to their ages and level of maturity!
When it comes to "Comedy," I'm in the front row, every time.
You presented this so well and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Thanks, Marcy. "Happy New Year," to you and yours.....all the best to you....UP+++
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 05, 2013:
I agree, aviannovice - it's mind-boggling that the premise in the romance versions is for the victim to suddenly live 'happily ever after' with the person whose been conning them through the past six reels of the movie.
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on January 05, 2013:
Excellent work. It sure makes you think about how the human mind works to try to "save" those bad apples.
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 05, 2013:
Hi, drbj - I have to say, I am addicted to some of these titles, too - even though I now watch them and think, "OMG - he's conning her!" Or, "She's lying to everyone!" They're classics - and they're entertaining, despite the ethics involved!
drbj and sherry from south Florida on January 05, 2013:
This is absolutely, positively one of your best, Marcy. I am familiar with all these films and they were very entertaining and profitable for the studios. 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' is shown on my cable TV regularly and I watch it almost every time it is on. Thanks for the literate and humorous deja vu.
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 05, 2013:
Hi, Sherry - I love that movie, too - and the others here. They truly are funny and entertaining, so I hope audiences can parse out the laughs from the behaviors that provoked them! Thanks for dropping by!
Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 04, 2013:
Wonderful hub, Housesitter is one of my all-time favorites. Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin are so good together. I think Goldie's character actually believes the lies she tells, and toward the end Martin's character begins to just make the story up as he goes along, just like she does. Voted up.
Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on January 04, 2013:
Hi, Billy - thanks for dropping by! I think we both remember the same 'vintages' of movies (cough, cough!). I adore the Rock & Doris flicks, but it's disconcerting to realize he's actually conning her the entire time!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2013:
Great hub! You mentioned some classics here; I have seen quite a few and I love this genre of movie.