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LLOYD MICHAELS The Confidence Man in Modern Film Although his literary onglns can be traced at least as far back as Chaucer's Pardoner, the confidence man has generally been regarded as a modem character.type, a development of the trickster figure reflecting and ultimately subverting the growing diversity, literacy, and selfassurance of a new urban culture. His history, in this regard, rather neatly parallels the development of the movies during the past century. Certainly, Georges Meliesmay stand as cinema's first great confidence man, both as an actor transforming his own image on the screen and as a director exploiting his audience's faith in that image. While an affinity with the confidence man has stirred the.imagination of numerous writers including Melville, Twain, Nathanael West, Mann, and Fowles, filmmakers following in the expressionist tradition of Melies may have sensed this identification even more strongly. Ingmar Bergman has defined the paradigm linking his own art with the confidence game in this way: And even today I remind myself with childish excitement that I am really a conjurer, since cinematography is based on deception of the human eye. I have worked it out that if I see a film which has a running time of one hour, I sit through twenty-seven minutes of complete darkness - the blankness between frames. When I show a film I am guilty:of deceit. I use an apparatus which is constructed to take advantage of a certain human weakness, an apparatus with which I can sway my audience in a highly emotional manner - make them laugh, scream with fright, smile, believe in fairy stories, become indignant, feel shocked, charmed, deeply moved or perhaps even yawn with boredom. Thus I am either an imposter or, when the audience is willing to be taken in, a conjurer. I perform conjuring tricks with apparatus so expensive and so wonderful that any entertainer in history would have given anything to have it. (Bergman, 15) No wonder, then, that so many filmmakers have been drawn to depicting elusive, evanescent character types such as the spy, the double, the cipher, and the confidence man. Compounding the ocular deceptions of flicker fusion and persistence of vision that create the illusion of movement, the film images themselves remain inherently deceptive, inspiring false confidence in their reality and UNlVERSI1Y OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 62, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1993 376 LLOYD MICHAELS presence. The recorded objects and actors, of course, are not really there: when they were, during shooting, the audience was absent; when the audience is present, during projection, they remain absent. This truism helps explain the enduring appeal of the confidence man in film: he is both a cipher, his identity 'absorbed into the illusions he creates for those around him' (Blair, 24), and a double of the cinema's process of signification , expressing what Leo Braudy has termed 'something of the inner aesthetic of films, the double exposure, the fleeting insubstantiality of the image, its potential lack of authority even at the moment .of greatest assertion.' As Braudy suggests (writing about the double), the can man ultimately stands not only for the 'simultaneous reality and lTansience of the film image' but for Everyman, implying that 'character itself, so palpably before you, is merely a construction' (227). Melville made much the same point throughout his novel The Confidence Man, anticipating the structuralists' argument about character being simply an agency of narrative but also relating the chameleon qualities of his protagonist to the mystery underlying all human identity: 'Nobody knows who anybody is. The data which life furnishes, toward forming a true estimate of any being, are as insufficient to that end as in geometry one side given would be to determine the triangle' (209). At the same time as he subverts all efforts to krlow him, the confidence man embodies certain positive values that make him seem more than 'merely a construction.' As the double of the artist, he also may be admired for his 'technical facility' as well as 'some larger promise' derived from his power to inspire belief (Lindberg, 7). Thus, his moral character, like his objective identity, remains fundamentally uncertain. By exploiting 'a certain human weakness' in his victims...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 375-387
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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