Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A big con from Argentina

What's the greatest movie ever made about con artists? The Sting? I don't know; I've never seen it. But Nine Queens probably stacks up well, and I'm guessing it stands out in ways a big-star, big-budget movie never could.

For one thing, this Argentine production,written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky and released in 2000, is a quiet movie, literally and figuratively. It has no background music that I can recall, no thudding, fast-paced soundtrack to hammer home the message that something exciting is happening. It's a sweet-natured buddy movie, in part, a tale of one con man teaching a younger colleague the tricks of the trade.

It's also a deadpan comedy of two men trying to make a living in a hard world. "Those are thieves," the older scamster, Marcos, tells his protégé, Juan, pointing out the pickpockets and snatch-and-grab thieves in a sequence whose rapid cutting among shifty characters at work is a sly satire of action movies.

"I'm not a crook!" is a catch line throughout the movie, and it works because it's always delivered straight and always accepted at face value. It even works when Juan's jailed father confides to his son during a prison visit that "This place is full of crooks."

The Nine Queens of the title are a sheet of rare stamps from the Weimar Republic, a counterfeit copy of which Marcos and Juan try to sell to a millionaire about to be deported. The customer's haste means he lacks time to verify the stamps' authenticity with chemical tests, and therein lie Marcos and Juan's hopes for success.

Complications naturally ensue, one provided by the snatch-and-grab thieves mentioned above, and Juan and Marcos end up scrounging for money to finance their scheme. That's when the fun really starts and, even when tension is highest, the mood remains quiet. Its mood is perhaps best encapsulated in this droll exchange, Marcos' proposal of a business partnership after he rescues Juan from a botched convenience-store con:

"I'm Marcos, and you are?"

"Juan."

"Juan. But you've always wanted to be called – "

"Sebastin."

"Guys called Juan always want another name. Let's do business, Sebastin."

"Juan."

"Juan."
And now, readers, here's your assignment: Rent and watch Nine Queens. Then tell me how far in advance you figured out what was going to happen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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13 Comments:

Blogger Dave Knadler said...

I saw Nine Queens a couple of years ago, based on a Netflix recommendation. I liked it quite a bit, and although I'm a little fuzzy on the ending now, I don't believe I saw it coming.

I'd probably still go with the The Sting as my favorite con-man movie, but Nine Queens is deft and funny -- and it's always nice to see actors you don't recognize in the starring roles.

August 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Nine Queens was a surprise for me. I had never heard of it, I took a chance, and it was worthwhile. My research tells me that it was remade in 2004 as Criminal. I'll see how the story holds up in an Americanized version. Fabián Bielinsky, the writer/director of the original movie, gets a writer's credit on the remake, which is probbaly a good sign.

Maybe I'll watch The Sting, too. One thing about Nine Queens is that its setting is contemporary. That means no 1930s setting or 1900s music to induce nostalgia. The movie has to rise or fall as a crime story.

August 16, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

I caught some minutes of NINE QUEENS on the Finnish tube some months ago, but for some reason they didn't impress me, so I didn't stay to watch it. Only later I found out that a Finnish reviewer whose taste I trust gave it three stars out of five and highly recommended it.

As for conman movies, I couldn't resist Mamet's THE SPANISH PRISONER with Bill Murray.

August 16, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Surely the greatest con man movie ever made could only be David Mamet's House of Games. Virtually a manual for the con man with superb acting by Joe Mantegna and the fragrant Lindsay Crouse.

August 16, 2007  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Yes, House of Games is a memorable con-man movie and probably a classic. It's also a bit too noirish for the genre, I think.

Long as we're on the subject, how about The Hot Rock? It's a slight little movie, but quite funny, I thought.

August 16, 2007  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Actually, The Hot Rock is a caper film, not a con-man film. So I withdraw the nomination.

August 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Juri, I don't know your tastes in movies, but perhaps Nine Queens failed to hold your attention on a casual viewing because of that quiet mood that I mentioned. Perhaps a longer viewing would have pulled you in. And I enjoyed both Mamet's "con" movies (though it was Steve Martin, not Bill Murray, taking that unexpected villain role in The Spanish Prisoner.)

Uriah, I'd call both the movies more advanced textbooks for the con man than manuals. And I agree with you on the performance of the two leads in House of Games, especially since that flat, uninflected voice that Mamet makes his actors use robs them of one of their main resources, even if it contributes to the creepy atmosphere. I watched both movies around the same time, and I inevitable compared Lindsay Crouse's performance in House of Games to Rebecca Pidgeon's in The Spanish Prisoner. Crouse was the better (ex-)Mamet spouse.

Dave, House of Games is more noirish than most con movies, which may be one reason I was mildly surprised to see it turn up here. But why not? Mamet just does things differently. Maybe he would call his two con movies meditations on the nature of truth, or something, but they're about cons, and the man knows how to tell a story. Call him a genre-bender if you like.

I would't worry too much about con vs. caper. Sometimes the difference is just a matte of emphasis. Juan and Marcos are con men who, arguably, move up to caper status. In any case, I always welcome the opportunity to talk about Donald Westlake. Two things caught me by surprise about The Hot Rock, but only because I read the novel on which it's based. In the book, Dortnmunder's gang tries to steal the gem six times. If I remember correctly, the movies cuts it off after three, so the movie's end came out of nowhere for me.

The other surprise was the choice of Robert Refdord for the role. In the novels, Dortmunder is a tired, midde-aged guy. Westlake himself expressed amused suprise at the choice of Redford. I recommend the Dortmunder stories highly, including the novella Walking Around Money in Ed McBain's Transgressions collection, (I liked Jimmy the Kid and Bad News less than the other Dortmunder novels, but even those two have clever premises, just two more indications of Westlake's intelltigence.)

August 16, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

You can pretty much guess my tastes in movies (even though I'm known to be also a huge fan of experimental movies). But I think you're right, those few minutes seemed a bit amateurish and the lack of music may have contributed to it.

And thanks for the correction - of course it was Steve Martini. I was maybe thinking of Bill Murray's performance in John McNaughton's underrated MAD DOG AND GLORY.

August 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I'll take that as a recommendation for Mad Dog and Glory. Thanks, and it will be interesting to see what kind of performance Bill Murray gives. I've always been a bigger fan of his comedy than of his "serious" roles.

August 17, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

Me, I'm just the opposite. Can't stand Murray in his comedies.

August 18, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Hey, I didn't say I liked his comedies. Well, I guess I did come close to saying it. Let me state the case more precisely: I liked some of his work on Saturday Night Live, I thought his highjinks were the only thing that made What About Bob? bearable, and his sort-of-serious performance helped make Rushmore the tedious bore that it was.

August 18, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

I was thinking mainly of MAD DOG AND GLORY and Jarmusch's, now, what was it called, something about flowers... (Sorry! My mind is wandering somewhere here...) And what about ED WOOD?

August 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Broken Flowers? (Don't be impressed. I had to look it up. I'm not a Jarmusch fan off the several of his movies that I've seen. Quiet, deadpan apathy never grabbed me, I guess.) OK, Ed Wood. You're talking me into newfound respect for Bill Murray.

August 21, 2007  

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