We hate them in real life but love them in the movies. Conmen, or in the case of Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson in new comedy The Hustle, conwomen – occupy a special place in the public imagination. It’s the only place where we celebrate them for their temerity to steal people’s money from right under their noses.

Part psychologist, part sociologist and all illusionist, the grifter is unlike any criminal. She is a charismatic chameleon who can part you from your money without violence in broad daylight. It is all about the art of confidence, and that’s why we call them con artists.

Want to learn a few tricks so you can pull a fast one on your next mark? (For the uninitiated, that’s swindler slang for “victim”.)* Here’s some scams and shams from the silver screen, starting with one that can make you millions… legally.

* The Popping Post does not endorse criminal behaviour and the following information are for educational and entertainment purposes, lest you plan to be a con-vict.

1. Card counting in 21

Inspired by the mostly-true story of the MIT Blackjack Team in the book Bringing Down The House, 21 stars Jim Sturgess as a mathematics major at MIT who gets accepted into Harvard Medical School but cannot afford the tuition. He gets roped in by his professor (Kevin Spacey) into joining a card-counting team that goes on weekend trips to Las Vegas to win big at blackjack tables, but the stakes are raised when they come under the attention of a brutal casino enforcer (Laurence Fishburne).

The objective of blackjack is to get as close to 21 points as possible without busting. The card-counting system seen in the film is the High-Low Strategy, which involves assigning cards count values based on their advantage to the player, keeping track of the “running count”, converting that into the “true count” based on the decks remaining and then sizing bets proportionally based on the “true count”. You can learn more about this system, as explained by the cast, in the above video.

Mentally counting cards is absolutely legal and is one of several lawful methods under advantage gambling, which includes other sneaky tactics like shuffle tracking and edge sorting. But these practices are frowned upon by casinos and may get you blacklisted and barred from games. So if you’re going to try them, do so covertly.

The next type of con, though, is very much on the wrong side of the law. In fact, the man who committed this repeatedly was wanted by 12 countries and sentenced to the same number of years in prison…


2. Cheque forgery and impersonation in Catch Me If You Can

Director Steven Spielberg’s 2002 biographical film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life con man Frank Abagnale. Before his 19th birthday, Abagnale successfully performed cons worth millions of dollars under the fake identities of a Pan American World Airways pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. His primary crime was cheque fraud – in the movie, he is shown forging Pan Am payroll cheques using a typewriter and the logo stickers from model airplanes.

He escaped from police custody twice (once from a taxiing airliner and once from a US federal penitentiary) before he was 21 years old. He served less than five years in prison before becoming a Federal Bureau of Investigations consultant and running his own financial fraud consultancy company. Abagnale eventually wrote a book detailing his exploits called Catch Me If You Can, which inspired the Spielberg movie and a Broadway Musical of the same name, and a TV series, White Collar.

Abagnale’s nemesis in the movie is FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks. In their first encounter, Abagnale manages to talk his way out of apprehension by pretending to be a Secret Service agent named Barry Allen (DC fans will recognise the name before Hanratty does). The scene is a masterclass in con “patter”.

Watch in the clip above how Abagnale doesn’t overreact when Hanratty confronts him with a gun and calmly introduces his fake persona. When Hanratty asks Abagnale for identification, Abagnale gives him a glued-shut wallet and puts him in the spot by asking if the FBI agent wanted his gun too. While Hanratty struggles to open the wallet with one hand, Abagnale distracts him further by asking him to look out the window. Note: misdirection is a common tactic conmen use. When Hanratty is convinced, Abagnale excuses himself and takes the typewriter he forges cheques on as “evidence”. Hanratty then finally opens Abagnale’s wallet and realises he’s been duped.

While Abagnale did his crimes solo, this next swindle requires a partner or two…


3. Pigeon drop in The Sting

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid co-stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman reunite in this 1973 crime caper as grifters who team up to take on Robert Shaw’s mob kingpin. In the opening scene, Redford’s Johnny Hooker and his accomplices pull off a classic short con called the pigeon drop. This quick number needs at least one shiller (accomplice) to bait the mark, referred to as the “pigeon”.

Hooker and Robert Earl Jones’ Luther Coleman stage a failed robbery in front of a numbers runner during one of his delivery trips. Coleman, pretending to be injured and unable to walk, tells the runner and Hooker, acting as a bystander, that he has to deliver $5,000 to some gangsters before a deadline or he will be killed. Coleman then offers them both $100 to help him deliver the money. Hooker flatly refuses and Coleman then offers the reward to the runner, who accepts. Before the runner walks away with the money, Hooker shows the runner how to wrap it (along with the runner’s own delivery) in a handkerchief and hide it down his pants. The runner then leaves and hails a cab to make his escape, thinking he’s made “the world’s easiest five grand”. Only later does he realise, upon opening the handkerchief, that Hooker had switched all the money for paper wrappings.

Hooker’s job earns the wrath of mafioso Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). After a tragedy orchestrated by the gangster, Hooker teams up with legendary hustler Henry Gondorff (Newman) to fleece Lonnegan out of half a million dollars in revenge.

The following con has no name in the trade, but it’s certainly a unique one and can only come from the mind of someone as sly as a fox…

4. Jumbo Pop hustle in Zootopia

In Disney’s Academy Award-winning buddy (or should we say, bunny) cop flick Zootopia, Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a leporine country bumpkin joining the titular city’s police force. On her first day on the job, she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox trying to buy a Jumbo Pop ice lolly for his son at an elephant dessert parlour. The outwardly speciest owner invokes his “right to refuse service to anyone”, but Judy manages to coerce him by pointing out hygiene lapses in his employee’s food preparation. Nick and his kid get their Jumbo Pop (Judy’s treat), and Judy thinks she’s done a good deed.

But a later encounter with the ostensible father-son duo in Sahara Square leads Judy to think she has been outfoxed, when she sees Nick melting the lolly down into jars handled by his “son”, who really is an adult fennec fox. The two foxes then refreeze the liquid into tiny “pawpsicles” in Tundratown’s snow and sell them to lemmings walking out of a bank.

This con relies on two things: Covering yourself legally and a naive mark. Nick took care of the first by getting a food-sale permit and receipt of declared commerce to show to Judy when she confronted him afterwards. As for the second, Judy was new to Zootopia and believed Nick when he conveniently “forgot his wallet” at the parlour.

In a deleted scene shown at Disney convention D23 and included in the home-video special features, Nick’s sob story was more elaborate, with the fox claiming he adopted his son at the orphanage “30 minutes ago” and that the latter was afflicted with “pachydermiopathy”. The film-makers eventually reworked the scene because they felt it was too obvious Nick was cooking up the tale and that Judy came across as too gullible falling for it, but you can watch the original scene in the video above.

The Jumbo Pop hustle might be relatively new in the cheat’s repertoire, but for our final trick, it’s time to return to the oldest in the book…


5. Spanish Prisoner in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Steve Martin and Michael Caine go head to head in the ultimate con-test in this 1988 comedy. Caine plays refined British conman Lawrence Jamieson, who bilks rich women and lives a life of luxury in the French Riviera. When a small-time American rival, Freddy Benson (Martin), muscles in on his turf, the two agree on a wager: The first to fish $50,000 out of a selected mark wins; the other must leave town. They pick Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly), a seemingly innocent American socialite who just arrived in town, as their target.

One of the scams Jamieson pulls with Benson is a variant of “the Spanish Prisoner”. The trickster tells the mark that he is connected to a wealthy princess being imprisoned in Spain and that he needs the mark’s help to put up some funds to bail her out, with the promise of a greater monetary reward and her hand in marriage. The hustler strings the victim along, saying the princess needs money to travel to the mark’s country, that her relatives are also incarcerated, and so on. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it birthed a modern version, the Nigerian 419 scam.

In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Jamieson masquerades as an exiled prince who needs help to regain his throne. Of course, the victim will eventually be cleaned out or call the grifter’s bluff, at which point it is time to finish the “play”. That’s where Benson comes in, playing Jamieson’s deranged brother, Ruprecht, to scare the mark off. You can see some of Martin’s nutty antics in the video above.

So, now that you know a few frauds and flimflams, do you think you know a dirty, rotten scoundrel when you see one? What if said scoundrel was a woman? In The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Anne Hathaway plays a high-class scammer who takes her gauche “sister-in-arms” (Rebel Wilson) under her wing so that they can bring down the dirty, rotten men who have wronged them.

“We’re not nice women,” Hathaway’s character tells Wilson’s, “We’re con artists.” Or as the above trailer calls them, they’re the Revengers. How will their game end? Will they split their take 50-50? To find out, hustle down to your nearest Golden Village cinema when the film screens on May 9!

The movie opens tomorrow, but ladies can catch it today before everyone else on GV Movie Club Ladies Night!


Date and time: May 8, 7pm at Gold Class Suntec City and 7.25pm at GV Suntec City
Who’s invited: Exclusive to female GV Movie Club members (you can sign up for free here).

A ticket to the Gold Class Suntec City show is $58 and inclusive of a goodie bag worth $15, mini Anna de Codorníu sparkling wine and a Couverture chocolate crumble Cake, while the GV Suntec City one is $20 and inclusive of a goodie bag worth $15. Patrons can check out a photobooth and MAC make up booth, as well as stand a chance to win prizes from Goldheart worth up to $250 and more. Follow this link to read the terms of this promotion and book your seats for a wild girls’ night out!

Credits: Golden Village Cinemas, Singapore Legal AdviceMovieclips, Walt Disney Records, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission