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Edward Burns in James Foley’s Confidence: Straight Man

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James Foley‘s Confidence is a movie about a group of grifters led by Edward Burns who unintentionally steal money from an underworld kingpin and then, in order to work off the debt, pull another grift in collaboration with him. (Burns’s character is named Jake Vig. In street parlance (in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, for instance) “vig” is short for “vigorish,” meaning usurious interest on a loan, say from a loanshark, i.e., the plot of Confidence in three letters.) It boils down to the same game as in the Robert Redford-Paul Newman movie The Sting (1973) but without the superstar radiance and the moral justification provided by the fact that the target of their sting had murdered a Negro friend of Redford’s. I say “Negro” to underline the archaic melodramatic function of the friend who was introduced only so that he could be murdered. I don’t take that moral justification seriously, and I’m not wild about the Redford-Newman pairing, either. Newman works at his comedy routines, especially the poker game, but what does Redford do? All the same, Redford’s waxy remoteness as a performer, his refusal to get ruffled, by action or emotion, is clearly integral to his star image, which is as inarguable as a geological formation.

Confidence isn’t “cute” like The Sting (with the stars way too palsy-confident of their appeal, and Scott Joplin’s stately-stepping ragtime music whipped to froth), but I’m not sure that its lack of star power and its relative amorality (the murder of the friend is integrated into the characters’ criminal activities, so Burns’s revenge is just gangland payback) are in themselves big plusses. Edward Burns is in the tradition of the handsome rough, Clark Gable being the most famous example. Gable poured his masculine charm on the role, often to the point of smirking, but even when he overdid it he put a lot of energy into it, and softened the boundary between melodrama and comedy, between rascal and hero. He wasn’t a complex actor but he was no deadbeat. With a perfectly even face and a tall, muscular frame, Burns is a catalogue stud beyond question, and never false. He doesn’t coast on his looks, as Brad Pitt has, but he’s not really a sparkplug. He’s like broad-shouldered, long-jawed Chester Morris, a tight, efficient disreputable urban hero from the very early talkies, except Morris’s vehicles were themselves so tight they didn’t call for a more developed star personality. In that context Morris was a hot ingot. (Gable and Morris both did escort duty opposite Norma Shearer in her “daring” modern-woman pictures.) Burns comes across more like Dennis Morgan, an undercharged, second-string studio star of the ’40s, really more of a co-star than a star.

It doesn’t help that Burns’s character is pitched right at the young men in the audience. The script compensates too hard by making the kingpin, played by Dustin Hoffman, into a whackjob: he runs a nightclub with porno-go-go dancers whom he instructs to go down on each other “tastefully”; is eerily intuitive and openly, inappropriately sexual, with men and women; and has attention deficit disorder, so he talks talks talks, everything spilling out; and all of it with a hovering sense of retributive violence. It’s a funky creampuff of a role for Hoffman, who chews and chews and chews it. He shows an amazing command of gesture–he can shape scenes just by changing the volume of his voice. Whatever is cheesy in the attempt to make him creepy is more than made up for by Hoffman’s late-career vitality. Actually, Hoffman’s vitality is so nearly comic that the menace is impaired, but I didn’t care, he was too entertaining to watch.

What hurts Burns isn’t so much that Hoffman outacts him as that his character recoils from the crime boss’s freakiness. There’s a deep sense in which Burns is only comfortable appearing “normal,” even when he’s playing a conman, who by almost any real-world standards would count as some kind of sociopath. You sense that Burns wants young men to identify with him; cautious blandness, however, is not the most reliable way to achieve that in a movie. (He and Ben Affleck could star as twins in a movie nobody would want to see.)

American male movie star’s personae have often fallen outside of sexual bounds. There’s something recessive about Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty, John Travolta, and George Clooney, and something dominant, even to the point of threatening rape, about Clark Gable and at times Marlon Brando. Even square, respectable Spencer Tracy had a visible sexual hold over Katharine Hepburn–he sexualized her in a way that Grant, a more congenial co-star for her, never could, and she does the same for him just by staring at him with flush-faced adoration. Robert Mitchum could be both passive and overpowering.

Burns is more inert than recessive in the way that beckons to the audience. But he’s not sexually imposing, either. He’s more what you could call “ready when duty calls.” In Confidence he both comes on to the girl and spends much of the movie pushing her away, but not with the anger and cynicism of Humphrey Bogart that explain the resistance (and allow the movie to turn it around in the last act). Burns is also fairly humorless, even in the nutty bits when he gets superstitious about redheads and birds, or at any rate he fails to get laughs (Newman’s specialty in both his criminal roles opposite that rugged mannequin Redford). I could stare at Burns for hours (a nude scene would have been a real bonus), I just don’t enjoy watching him that much. He’s self-protecting to the point of dullness at the center of a fast-moving, tricky, amoral suspense movie.

Still, Burns is the star here, though opposite him Rachel Weisz comes off better because her character has to range more widely for the purposes of the grift. In the scene in which Burns recruits her for the job, there’s a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West-green light on her face as she comes on to Burns and tells him to fuck off at the same time. She’s no gang moll; Burns chooses her because of her skill at picking pockets, and she turns out to be a talented con, too. Weisz, who resembles Elizabeth McGovern and has a hint of Joan Cusack’s cartoony wiliness, makes her impersonations–of a law student’s wife especially–almost as funny as sketch characters. You sense the trickster’s pleasure in putting the world on while the actress suggests that the person inside there somewhere wants to please Burns.

Foley’s direction is thankfully swift. There’s involuted narration–we think we’re at the end of the line when we’re still in the middle of a game–and Foley keeps it all moving with fast wipes from scene to scene. I was never bored, except to the extent that I’m not tempted by economic crime and, unlike the characters, don’t feel any thrill in pulling off a big imposture. (I prefer the fantasy of total idleness to that of criminal work, which requires as much time and application and skill as legal work with all the energy given to evading detection added on top.) I also think that to the extent there are holes in the plot (Burns pulls a sting on a guy after revealing to him the details of an identical one) they don’t matter. That is, if you’re noticing the plot holes then it’s probably because the movie isn’t engaging you in any other, arguably more important, ways.

Confidence is an exhibition of fancy card-shuffling with no pretensions to more. So it makes Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief look like a masterpiece because of that movie’s stylistic forms of “more” (though there turn out to be other, more advanced, limitations). (If you really want more in an entertaining movie about conmen, check out Stephen Frears’s 1990 movie The Grifters, starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening.) But the kinds of “more” you get with a big-studio product like The Sting, the kinds that money can buy, leave me indifferent.

When Burns and Weisz go to talk to Hoffman, I realized that the movie was doing some of the things that Pulp Fiction (1994) failed to do: show us in face-to-face exchanges the competitive tensions between the head guy and his underlings before those tensions exploded. But then Pulp Fiction has in aces what you’ll really miss in Confidence: a host of pungent, elliptical characterizations. Burns plays his conman as straight as an actor could. He has some of the rigidity of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but John Huston knew how to bring out the violence in that repression, in Spade’s scenes with Joel Cairo and Wilmer the gunsel, and then at the end with Brigid O’Shaughnessy. I know people who use “heterosexual” as a pejorative term, meaning fearful of straying outside conventional boundaries; you can apply it in that sense to Burns and to Confidence overall.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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