The O’Neals, Ryan and Tatum, make for appealing swindlers in Paper Moon

The O’Neals, Ryan and Tatum, make for appealing swindlers in Paper Moon

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Just in time for The Family, starring Robert De Niro as a mobster who enters the Witness Protection Program with his wife and kids, we’re recommending five tales of crime and kinship.

Paper Moon (1973)

Paper Moon wastes no time in suggesting that con man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) may be the father of 9-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal). When Moses arrives to pay his respects at the funeral of Addie’s mother, other characters point out their physical resemblance, which the O’Neals share as real-life father and daughter, and Addie floats the possibility herself several times. Moses, in turn, wastes no time denying it: “Just because a man meets a woman in a barroom doesn’t make him your pa.” Whether out of guilt or pity, he allows himself to be roped into driving the tyke over to her next of kin, so long as he can make some stops to sell Bibles to widows on the way.

With questions of paternity dismissed (or at least set aside) early on, Peter Bogdanovich’s comedy moves at the speed of its cons, efficiently forcing a smooth-talking hustler into collaboration with a surly, radio-loving, cigarette-smoking prepubescent. The littler O’Neal regards the elder warily—not because of his scams, but because she feels entitled to a cut. Indeed, she introduces additional nuance and plausibility to this questionable line of work. Given the small-time nature of their cons, the not-inconsiderable work involved, and the film’s Depression-era setting, selling unrequested Bibles and bilking cashiers out of change begins to seem almost like a legitimate day job. 

There’s a fine line between reveling in the cinematic pleasures of con artistry and romanticizing the criminal life, especially when family (or maybe-family) are involved. Paper Moon walks that line both verbally—Alvin Sargent’s screenplay from the Joe David Brown novel is a fast-talking delight—and visually. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography sets the O’Neals against wide open Midwestern skies and endless fields; the frames are sometimes so sparely populated that questions of culpability, or just plain getting caught, seem secondary.

To emphasize the growing intimacy of this father/daughter-ish relationship, Bogdanovich lets several of their conversations play out in unbroken two-shots; an early scene, shot from the front seat of a car, brings them from testy semi-adversaries to partners in a single take. These shots also set up the ways that dancer Madeline Kahn, a con artist of a different sort, upsets the balance between those partners when she takes up with the elder O’Neal. 

Paper Moon may seem episodic at first—a series of demonstrations and light scrapes. But real feeling makes its way into the pair’s arrangement, even when that feeling continues to manifest itself through scheming and screwball bickering. Both O’Neals give excellent performances; he masterfully blends charm and desperation, while she takes control of scene after scene (she won a supporting Oscar for her totally-lead-role performance). Tatum isn’t playing a charming orphan who convinces a ne’er-do-well to give up his life of crime, but there is a subtle sense that together, the two con artists begin working toward something bigger.

Availability: Paper Moon is not yet on Blu-ray, but it’s available on DVD (obtainable through Netflix), and for rental or purchase from the major digital providers.

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