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October 10, 2004 - Have we got a deal for you?

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World’s Laziest Journalist


By Bob Patterson


“Hello Sucker!” was the traditional cry Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan used to greet a new customer when one entered her New York City speakeasy.  Americans have loved con men since the days of snake oil salesmen and they still do.


Stories about lovable con-persons have fascinated writers since Delilah wanted to practice her barbering skills on Samson.  Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King was about some rapscallions who try to become rules of a country near Afghanistan.  The story ends with failure and a head in a bag.  Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper provided the basic premise for an incredible variety of movies about identity exchanges.


There are many books available that consider the vast subject of frauds, impostors, hoaxes, and swindles.  In the mystery section of the big book stores, there are many authors who have repeatedly told tales of devious rascals who are motivated by the conviction that your cash would be provided a more loving home in their wallet.  The lurid tales (which often provided “adapted from another medium” material for films) are plentiful and comprise their own subgenera: “the crime procedural (if there is such a term).”  If “unarmed robbery” appeals to you then Ross Thomas’ The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, Charles Willeford’s The High Priest of California, and/or the novels of Elmore Leonard might be books worth buying or “borrowing” from a friend. (Does Elmore Leonard hold the record for most novels turned into movies?)


In Donald Westlake’s Put a Lid on It, a professional burglar is put to work by the campaign committee for a guy running for President. 


[Films about spectacular examples of armed robberies or burglaries abound, but they are known as “caper” movies and are a distinctly different category.  Maybe we’ll write a column about that particular topic some other time.]


Nonfiction books, ranging from scholarly tomes to entertaining anecdotal volumes, also add to the trend.  Ferdinand Demara passed himself off as a variety of impressive personalities (including a ship’s surgeon) and wrote a book that was popular in the fifties.  The book was adapted into the 1961 movie The Great Impostor starring Tony Curtis.


Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Catch Me If You Can, which was based on the book by Frank W. Abagnale about his own life of living high -which he financed by forging checks.


Movies about con men abound.  The Sting was not only a popular movie, it brought about a revival in interest in the career of Scott Joplin and his music.  One online source indicates that the book The Big Con by David W. Maurer contained the basic facts for the particular convoluted machinations used in telling The Sting story.


Other popular con-men movies were The Flim Flam Man, Matchstick Men, Breakers, Bound, and/or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, to name a few.


A wise old movie critic counseled a young rookie that the rule of thumb to keep in mind (but it will spoil the surprise) when watching a movie about con men is: It’s always the con men who get conned.


During deadline week for this column, the writer went to the movies on Thursday.  The Last Shot was a film about the FBI using the ruse that they were making a film as a diversionary tactic.  The second movie for the day was The Yes Men, which was a documentary about corporate pranksters.  America’s love affair with deception is apparently not over yet.


William Claude Dukenfield (also Known as W. C. Fields) specialized in playing fast talking profit oriented hustlers with little or no regard for business ethics. 


One popular wrestler, Eddie Guerrero, augments his ring persona and makes some merchandising profits by offering T-shirts and other items with his motto:  “Lie Cheat Steal.”


Sometime back we heard about one religious organization in Florida that was offering a one-time only $35.00 flat rate fee for eternal salvation with a money back guarantee.  They proudly proclaimed that they had never had an unsatisfied customer asking for the refund.


There are a great many books available about writing scripts for movies.  Many advise that the novice should avoid plots that have previously been over utilized, such as a story about some veteran thieves who decide to pull one more spectacular score which will give them enough money to retire.  One of the co-writers of Ocean’s 11 said that there were four other “caper” scripts in production when he and his partner decided to embark on their effort.  [Sorry, fact checker, I can’t prove that, it’s just something I heard him say.]


Maybe some young new arrival in Hollywood will assess the potential of the lovable poltroon character and concoct a story about an affable world leader who takes his country to war for bogus reasons and then, after his reasons are exposed as phony, he gets, with a smile and a wink, reelected by the voters who have always known that war is good for business.  The pitch would be: It’s a combination of The Mouse that Roared, The Man Who Would Be King, and Dr. Strangelove.  The lead would have to be a star with oodles of charm - a modern James Coburn or Lee Marvin type guy. 


There was a movie that had a sarcastic line that conveyed the opinion that a fellow who was going to go on trial was putting his fate in the hands of 12 people who were too dumb to avoid jury duty.  That philosophy seems to be spreading.  If the current presidential election gets any nastier, the one candidate might (speculation about an opinion here) wind up alleging that the other shouldn’t be commander-in-chief because he was too dumb to avoid going to Vietnam.  These days a line like that might get thunderous applause from some devious chicken-hawks who seem ready to reinstitute the draft.


[As this column was being prepared, the writer jotted down this quote “a snake oil salesman has to find people who want to buy snake oil,” but since we didn’t write down the source, the fact checker won’t let us use that for the closing quote.]


In Chapter 31 of In Defense Of Women, H. L. Menken wrote:  “My experience of the world has taught me that the average wine-bibbler is a far better fellow than the average prohibitionist and that the average rogue is better company than the average poor drudge, and that the worst white-slave trader of my acquaintance is a decenter man than the best vice crusader.”


There are many songs about lies, liars, cheatin’ wives, and loveable rascals, but we gotta pick just one.  If the disk jockey will play Waylon’s version of “Ladies Love Outlaws” we will ride out of here for this week.  Maybe we’ll attend a meeting of E clampus vitus and then again maybe we won’t.  Don’t take any wooden nickels and if you find any double your money back guarantees, let us know.  Have a slick week.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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