[Essay] Are you watching closely?: Plot Twists in Con-Artist Cinema — Dan Norman


A great end-of-film twist is one of the most effective ways to generate the positive word-of-mouth that can boost a film to box office success. Some genres have a stronger association with twists than others – in horror, film noir or science fiction, the chance of a third act surprise is increased. Films about con-artists are another such sub-genre. It seems to be an irresistible method of marrying form with content – what better way to display a central characters’ sleight of hand than by having them fool the audience?

Some con-artist films though, look to achieve even more with their twists. Their surprises reverberate out of the movie narrative, making a point about the world outside the screen. It’s ambitious, it’s risky, and the effort should be celebrated. Below are four examples of great films about con artists which apply their late-film reveals in order to advance an overriding theme.

F for Fake

F for Fake

Film can’t stop talking about itself and F for Fake is one of the more overt examples of this. In this pseudo-documentary Orson Welles plays Orson Welles, hosting an examination into the world of art forgery. He is not shy about drawing comparisons between what the art forgers do and what he does, as a professional storyteller. He opens the film by playing a magic trick on some enraptured children (“Why not?” he remarks to an onlooker, “I’m a charlatan”), before transporting himself to a film set. “This is a film about trickery. Fraud. About lies.” he announces down the eye of the camera. He swans around the streets dressed in a top hat and cape, relishing the dual role of ringmaster and magician. Welles sets up his trick less than three minutes in, declaring that “This is a promise! During the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true, based on solid fact.” This promise is important enough that Welles repeats it a further six minutes in, and it appears in subtitles so the viewer may have Orson’s word in writing. Of course, an hour is suspiciously short for a feature-length film, and turning over the DVD case lets slip that F for Fake in fact lasts 85 minutes.

The twist then is barely disguised at all – the final story Welles re-enacts regarding Picasso and an esteemed art forger is fictional. But this isn’t about the surprise – in many ways it’s the very opposite. Welles is using this documentary, ostensibly about art forgery, to disclose and delight in the role of the storyteller (specifically filmmakers, given the copious shots of Welles in the editing suite, selecting which shots we see) as magician. The Picasso story works as the final point in Welles’ thesis on the bond between story and forgery, providing us with a concrete example of a disguised fake. Not only this, the story doubles as an argument for the value of art forgery – the real case which Welles has been making throughout the film: if the fake is entertaining, well-made and believed to be true, it obtains a form of truth.

Welles pretends to deceive the audience, whilst letting us anticipate the rabbit emerging from the hat. Anyone familiar with Welles’ career will recognise how often Welles revels in trickery – from his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, to the iconic endings of Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai. By casting himself as a visible presence in the film – the guiding presence – Welles plays on this persona, and his reputation for showmanship. Whether the audience buys Welles’ postulation on the legitimacy of forgery or not, the glee he radiates at their exploits shows how much Welles relates to his disgraced subjects as a storyteller. He airs his belief at the very start, before going on to demonstrate, with all the directorial wizardry at his fingertips: “Tell it by the fireside or at a marketplace or in a movie! Almost any story is almost certainly some kind of … lie”

White Men Can’t Jump

White Men Can’t Jump runs off of twists, and subverted assumptions. Woody Harrelson’s Billy hustles money at pick-up games, relying upon the low expectations which non-white basketball players foist upon him. He strikes up a partnership with Wesley Snipes’ Sidney as a way of gaining even more money, only to realise after losing his entire winnings that Sidney has set him up. As Billy is fooled, so are the audience, and it proves a major turning point for the film, which becomes excitingly weird and unpredictable from hereon out.

WMCJ expertly subverts film tropes throughout, appearing to lead us down one familiar path before abruptly changing direction. Rarely does the film allow us to settle for our first impression. This disorientation keeps the audience on its toes, and reminds us how much we lean on filmic shorthand when watching a film, opening our eyes to the assumptions we make. As neither Billy nor Sidney can be taken at face value (and will punish those who do so), WMCJ catches its audience off-guard – pointing out clichés by confidently discarding them. Having been told to shut up by Billy, one of Sidney’s friends sarcastically apologises, saying “I’ll go back the way you like it” before launching into an exaggerated caricature of urban black America. WMCJ uses its exploration of Billy and Sidney’s con-artistry to criticise how often we impose easy stereotype onto multi-faceted people, to our own cost. Sidney – introduced as an arrogant, aggressive streetballer – is an upwardly mobile business owner away from the court. These two disparate worlds collide for Sidney – not only when Billy and his girlfriend Gloria confront him in his middle-class home, but also when Billy interrupts Sidney’s business dealings with a well-dressed client in order to enlist his help to win back Gloria.

WMCJ begins to experiment with structural surrealism in its third act. The big tournament at which Billy and Sidney earn redemption is quickly hurried over, and then proves irrelevant once Billy immediately loses his share to Sidney. Basketball gets put to the side for ten minutes as a new resolution is conjured up in which Rosie Perez’s Gloria rises to glory on the U.S gameshow Jeopardy – a development that takes a personality quirk and gleefully spins it out into deus ex machina. Microcosms of the film’s anarchic attitude are scattered through the film, as when a shot of Billy appearing to lie dead mirrors an earlier photograph of one of the victims of the mob chasing Billy. The camera then reveals Billy is posing for the mob to take his picture in order to corroborate their own image as dangerous killers.

Perhaps the boldest surprise is that at the film’s end Billy and Gloria are no longer together. Her promise to leave Billy if he gambled their money again stays kept, in spite of his victory against the odds. In a different, less interesting film, Billy’s victory would win Gloria back, papering over the cracks in order to give the audience an unchallenging, uplifting climax. Here, the film dares to suggest that its central romantic couple – both of whom the audience has been conditioned to like – are still “better off without each other”. WMCJ works to remove the stereotypes and expectations its audience has about film narrative and film characters on both a textual and sub-textual level.

The Imposter

Twists are surprisingly common in documentary filmmaking. The films which break out of the documentary ghetto and gain attention often do so due to a surprising turn of events partway through which tips the film on its head. In the case of most documentaries however, these twists come about as a chronological necessity. This was what happened next, and by reserving it until late in the film’s runtime, the film is simply presenting events to the audience as they were experienced by the film’s subjects. Documentaries such as Catfish or Dear Zachary contain shocking plot developments, but unusual events occur in real life all of the time. These films just happen to document one specific example.

Initially, the 2012 film The Imposter seems to be utilising this very same trope. In fact, it plays upon audience assumption to set up the twist – before pulling the rug from under our feet and revealing how carefully constructed the film’s narrative structure is. The Imposter tells the story of a compulsive liar, Frederic Bourdin, who has forged new identities across the globe. The film focuses on his claim to be Nicholas Barclay – the long-lost son of an American family, reappearing years after he was last seen. Shockingly, the family seem to believe him – despite all evidence to the contrary: the two ‘Barclays’ look completely different; Bourdin has a French accent; he has none of Barclay’s memories. It is difficult to accept that the Barclay family are willing to overlook all evidence to the contrary, and welcome Bourdin as their son.

Then the film turns. Bourdin – who has affably been relating his history to the documentary makers throughout, calmly addressing the camera – introduces a new development. He starts questioning the Barclays’ account of their son’s disappearance. In doing so, he reopens the investigation as to whether Nicholas Barclay was murdered by his brother, and the killing then covered up by the boy’s family. It sounds like a plausible explanation as to why this family would accept this stranger into their home as their missing son, to alleviate any further suspicion. The film explores this thread, and follows the journey of an independent investigator, convinced of the Barclay’s guilt, searching for the truth.

All of this is done with apparent sincerity. That is until the end of the film when the P.I goes to the garden where he believes the real Nicholas Barclay to be buried, planning to dig it up. This scene is interspersed with interviews with the film’s subjects, in particular the Barclay family. As we hear how this nightmarish situation has caused the Barclays agony, the audio is complimented by the video of the investigator digging holes deeper and deeper, excited to find Nicholas’ body. Nicholas’ sister points out that there is no actual evidence for this theory. There is nothing more than conjecture – mostly centred around the word of a repeatedly proven compulsive liar. As the penny drops, the focus returns to Bourdin. A shot of him in handcuffs, still grinning for the camera and giving a thumbs up, while Nicholas’ sister unloads her frustration on the audio track. As she breaks down in tears, he’s seen dancing in prison. A voiceover outlines that Bourdin would continue to exploit families of missing children, even after he was exposed as a fake Nicholas Barclay.

The Imposter 1

“He’s an habitual liar and it blows my mind that anybody could take anything that is said out of his mouth as truth.” Nicholas’ sister tells the camera, and the audience realises that they too have been taken in by Bourdin. The final shot is of the private investigator, continuing to dig fruitlessly. Without explicitly saying so, the film has rejected Bourdin’s claim that the Barclays knew about the murder of their son. The audience realises that they themselves have been fooled by an expert conman – even knowing who he was, and in the face of no evidence but his word. Whereas we begin the film with disbelief as to how the Barclays could have been so easily fooled by Bourdin, we leave it with more understanding and more sympathy, realising how terrifyingly willing we were to be fooled by his extraordinary story.

The Imposter 2

The Prestige

The Prestige

The Prestige tells the tale of two rival magicians obsessed with besting each other. Their rivalry centres around a trick called The Transported Man, as each produces their own version of the trick, confounding the other. At the end of the film, the full extent of Angier’s obsessive desire to best Borden is finally revealed on-screen as he frames Borden for his own death, whilst we also learn Borden’s own solution to the trick. Angier’s ability to clone himself takes the film in a darkly fantastical, gothic direction and the floating bodies of his disposed copies provide a fitting visual for the cost to the two magicians. Angier’s reaching beyond the bounds of human ability in order to match Borden shows how committed he is to his goal.

His selfish use of such a scientific breakthrough in order to perform an illusion (one that already exists, with Borden’s version), and then to frame Borden, shows how inhuman this commitment has made him. Borden is exposed as two men – twins – one of whom is always hidden. However, Borden’s twin is just as tragic as Angier’s drowned clones, having remained a secret the entirety of his/their career, making the ultimate destruction of both (or all three) magicians feel inevitable. The two solutions shown back-to-back like this serves to accentuate just how much each man has sacrificed in order to be the better magician, and all ultimately in vain.

Both twins are forced to live a compromise in order to achieve this one goal of the perfect trick – “we each had half of a full life, really”. One twin always being concealed by make-up, in the guise of a servant to the magician, provides another apt visual metaphor. The ending of The Prestige is the reveal of the film’s magic tricks – a conclusion that confirms the film’s dominant themes, two of director Nolan’s favourites: the confusion between reality and illusion, and the corruptive force of obsession.


Dan Norman is a writing based in the UK.

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