One of the satisfactions of the crime caper “genre” is that the writer of the crime caper has quite a few more story options than some other genres. In some ways, it’s a meta-genre like the Western or Science Fiction, rather than a a way of describing a story formula.
We can illustrate the variety of the construction by looking at the three Ocean films by Soderbergh. Ocean’s Eleven is a heist film that’s also a trick. The real heist takes place after the heist they fake. Ocean’s Twelve again uses misdirection, and inside dealing – but they also stage several genuine robberies early in the film. Ocean’s Thirteen involves a long con to provide some key information, and some misdirection to throw off their opposition – but the main event is a technologically powered robbery, almost straightforward. Each of these plot bits, used in the Ocean’s films to tell the same basic story, could be its own film, and one of the very appealing things about the more playful crime stories are the suggestive names given to each kind of ploy.
I don’t propose to offer a comprehensive taxonomy of crime caper story mechanics, but there are a few absolutely essential ploys in the genre. Perhaps the most crucial is the art of misdirection. Most capers rely diverting the attention of their target away from where the real crime is – from the “bump” used by pick-pockets on up. Misdirection works best when the mark wants to see the alternative to reality. The more keen the target is on what you want them to see, the greater the odds of the distraction working. Even if misdirection is not directly available, the mirage can be used to hide the truth. Without the ability to redirect attention, by enticement or misdirection, most crime caper plots won’t work. The last essential stratagem of the criminal is the ability to observe the truth themselves – criminals who lose sight of the real stakes inevitably run into trouble. In the best caper fictions, as in the best espionage fictions, there is move and counter-move.
This is the basis of the most complex kind of caper – the Long Con. The basic strategy of the Long Con is always the same. The con artist creates a desirable mirage for the mark, and claims that they can have the pot of gold – for a small investment up-front. The grifter escapes through building a misdirection into the tail end of their set-up that makes it look like everyone loses together, or that there was no loss at all. It’s different from straightforward theft in that on some level, it requires the consent of the mark. That consent, that need to trick someone, is what makes it so tricky.
The simplest con in the world is the Hustle – a friendly game, for low stakes. The mark wins a few games, and gains confidence. Then, the Hustler jumps the stakes – that’s the mirage, the pot of gold. They play again, and the Hustler wins. The mark can’t really complain they lost, because the game itself was fair, and they gave consent. The other classic being the lost-dog routine – but we won’t want to be here all day discussing the myriad cons available. The smarter the mark, the more elaborate the set-up needs to be, but the basic principle stays the same. Handily, these same mechanics are used in modified forms by a fair number of detective and espionage tales too – so it’s always worth keeping an eye out for them.
Narratively, stories about con artists have one little problem. It’s not that they’re too complex, because once you know the core tricks it’s not that hard to work through the specific permutations. What makes it tricky is that it’s much easier to identify with good people than criminals. While there’s no shortage of your anti-hero type, it’s actually quite tricky to make audiences get interested in bad people. Very few crime caper films are prepared to work through the small details of characterization and gamble on getting emotional buy-in from an audience. There’s a far easier option, which is to con the audience into seeing what we want to see: a hero, using the tactics of an antihero. The mark in caper films is almost always the real bad guy.
I’ve never seen this more brazenly employed than in the excellent British TV show Hustle, where the motto of protagonist Mickey Bricks is that it’s impossible to con an honest man. An honest man isn’t putting down that $100 on a friendly snooker match, because an honest man doesn’t want to take advantage of his superior skill and his opponent’s poor judgement. It’s a brilliant way of allowing an audience to enjoy a score by re-framing what’s really going on as an illumination of the mark’s real moral character. By having the characters state that maxim explicitly, the show has barely any work to do in order to garner audience sympathy. It’s, of course, utter rubbish. The moralizing hiesters in Hustle ruthlessly cheat the owner of their local bar, and use anyone they need to in order to make their score. Through a combination of charm and narrative sleight of hand, it all works, and that trick alone makes it a joy to watch.
Like all formula fiction, understanding the formula is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a million Golden Age detectives that are by now all but forgotten. Dashiell Hammett’s personal bugbear was SS van Dyne’s detective, Philo Vance, who also got a savaging from Chandler a couple of decades later in “The Simple Art of Murder”. His was the best-selling, best-known, best-loved American detective of his age, famously played by William Powell in a series of films. Vance is forgotten now, and if anyone thinks of William Powell, it’s to bring to mind his sparkling performance in The Thin Man. Hammett endures because he brought more to the table than a formula, while van Dyne consciously didn’t. Do we remember the Sting because we thought that their plan was worth immortalizing? It was already an old tale in the 1970s. We remember it for the sparkling wit with which it was executed. We don’t begrudge Soderbergh his re-make of a crime caper classic, because he carried it off with a panache and verve – but we still prefer The Good Thief, because it brought real human characters to the story.
That’s always the other half of a narrative, or, indeed, the other 90%. And with all that background safely out of the way, next time we can talk about American Hustle.