Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week, as the galaxy’s most popular smuggler returns to the big screen in Solo: A Star Wars Story, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite movies about charismatic crooks and cons.
The con as both art form and personality type is a pet subject of Steven Soderbergh, whose films make a point of showing the similarities between a criminal’s craft and their own—misdirection, practicality, the importance of timing and knowing your tools. Because while Soderbergh may be the American director most fascinated with showmanship and its tricks and façades, his films aren’t really extravagant; their showmanship is like a swindler’s or a magician’s, the confidence that a minimum of angles can make a scene. The comparison to a magic trick—and specifically, the idea that the magic is in the show and not in the magician’s secret—is even worked into Soderbergh’s superb Elmore Leonard adaptation Out Of Sight, through a minor character’s obsession with learning the trick behind that magic-show staple, the woman being sawn in half, and his eventual disappointment in learning that it’s just “fake legs.” But one could also point to bank robbery that Jack Foley (George Clooney) executes at the beginning of the film, and Soderbergh’s minimalist direction of both Foley’s bluff and his arrest outside the bank. Or to the millions’ worth of uncut diamonds at the center of Out Of Sight’s climactic burglary, which look “just like rocks.”
Produced on the heels of the successful Leonard adaptations Get Shorty and Jackie Brown, Out Of Sight has a lot in common with Soderbergh’s subsequent collaborations with Clooney on the Ocean’s movies, in that the values of its filmmaking are identical to those of its plot. The big one is chemistry, obvious in the classic screwball pairing of Foley and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), whom he initially takes hostage while breaking out of a Florida prison—a flirtation that begins in extremely close quarters, with the two squeezed into the trunk of the getaway car driven by Foley’s associate Buddy (Ving Rhames), and then over long distance after she escapes and pursues Foley and Buddy all the way to Detroit. Lopez and Clooney make a terrific screen couple, the tough cop and the softhearted crook with perfectly opposite motivations—she lives to catch, he to escape—that are also the two drivers of a chase plot. The visual storytelling is some of Soderbergh’s most dexterous, aided by the late editor Anne V. Coates, most famous for her work on Lawrence Of Arabia. (Coates’ editing got Out Of Sight one of its two Oscar nominations; the other was for Scott Frank’s clever screenplay.)
Like so many founts of apparently superficial entertainment, Out Of Sight actually has a lot of moving parts, breezing back and forth in time to fill in previously unnoticed blanks in the plot. It’s got a lot of parts in the other sense, too, with one of those great late 1990s ensemble casts: Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Luis Guzmán, Michael Keaton (reprising his role from Jackie Brown), Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, a then-unknown Viola Davis. (There are some deep cuts of bit casting, too, like Chameleon Street director Wendell B. Harris Jr. popping in as an FBI agent.) Although conflict is less central to Out Of Sight than in the Ocean’s trilogy, it similarly comes down to treachery versus trickery, with antagonists who represent the antithesis of the movie’s artistry: They are overarmed, greedy, fractious, and don’t know how to take their time. What makes its unlikely love story work is that, like Out Of Sight itself, it’s ultimately about pleasure.
Availability: Out Of Sight is available to rent or buy through all the major streaming sites. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.