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Leverage and The Big Con

on Wed, 08/10/2011 - 00:00

In 1940, David W. Maurer published The Big Con (Anchor Books, 1999), which tells the story of the early Twentieth Century conman pieced together from interviews with the actual practitioners. Maurer was an academic linguist by trade, and had a fascination with the unique vocabulary developed by various criminal elements. Through the course of his career, Maurer published works on everyone from moonshiners to prostitutes, but it is The Big Con that stands out as his crowning achievement. While the language of the conman is most definitely explored within its pages, in actuality the book has an inherent narrative element that is both entertaining and historic in nature. The Big Con served as the inspiration for the 1973 Paul Newman/Robert Redford film The Sting, as well as the blueprint for every similar motion picture and television series that has been produced since.

While the TNT drama Leverage contains a cast of characters encompassing grifter, hitter, hacker, thief—as well as a former insurance fraud investigator who serves as the “mastermind”—the series is more about the con than any of the other dubious undertakings portrayed on the show. Like the 1980s The A-Team, the crew of Leverage operate outside of the law to bring criminals to justice, while their method is the sort of elaborate subterfuge utilized by the original 1966 television drama Mission: Impossible. And whether intentional or not, Leverage is likewise a direct descendent of David Maurer’s The Big Con.

Maurer outlines the numerous steps used by conmen when launching a new con, for instance, but the list could just as well serve as an outline for the majority of the episodes on Leverage. From “locating and investigating a well-to-do victim,” to “gaining the victim’s confidence,” to “steering him to meet the inside man,” to “fleecing him,” Leverage is as much of a blueprint for conducting a con as it is for producing an entertaining and successful television series.

David Maurer spends a considerable amount of time in The Big Con tracing the evolution of the American con artist from the hucksters of the late 1800s to the more elaborate practitioners of the “big con.” Along the way, he documents many of the techniques utilized well over 100 years ago—techniques that are easily recognizable to viewers of Leverage.

For Maurer, the story begins with the Three-Card Monte, the classic game of chance where a Queen and two other cards from a standard deck are placed upside down and moved from spot-to-spot in rapid-fire fashion. The “mark” is then expected to find the Queen despite some clever sleight of hand by the card handler. The Three-Card Monte also serves as the name of a season three episode of Leverage in which “mastermind” Nathan Ford must outguess his mob-enforcing father and discover his true criminal intentions.

In the 1860s, con artist Ben Marks regularly operated the Three-Card Monte in the western outpost of Cheyenne, Wyoming. As the town grew and entertainment options multiplied, Marks came up with the idea of taking his ploy indoors as opposed to out on the streets. Devising what became known as the “Dollar Store,” he opened a thrift shop to lure customers into the establishment, where they then found numerous Three-Card Monte games operating simultaneously and designed to entice them.

The Dollar Store eventually evolved into a “fight store” by the end of the century. The swindle involved illegal fights that, according to the story told to the mark, were fixed by a millionaire sportsman. A disgruntled employee would then explain how he had devised a way to outsmart his boss—and make a lot of money in the process—but needed a partner in order to pull it off. The mark would inevitably put up his own money, given such a large promised payoff, but during the fight one of the boxers would deliver a “death blow” to his opponent. In the ensuing chaos, the mark would leave his money behind as he rushed to exit the area before the law was called in to investigate. The team on Leverage used a similar con in the season two episode “The Tap-Out Job.”

From there, the concept of a “con store” merged with a small scam conducted by out-of-work telegraph operators. In the late Nineteenth Century, these unemployed hucksters would travel the country and sell expensive equipment to gullible gamblers that supposedly was able to intercept the results of horse races before the information was transmitted to betting parlors. Professional conmen stumbled upon the deception and developed what is arguably the most famous con of all time—the wire. Anyone who has ever seen The Sting knows the basic concept, which incorporates elements of the “fight store” with the ruse devised by the former telegraph operators. The wire has likewise been a staple of episodic television and served as the main plot for installments of numerous series ranging from Remington Steele in the 1980s to the modern day White Collar and Leverage.

While female Parker is a master thief, Alec Hardison an unbeatable hacker, Eliot Spencer the resident tough guy and Nathan Ford the leader capable of concocting an ingenious plan-of-action, only one member of the Leverage cast is a true conman—grifter Sophie Devereaux—and many of the observations regarding the nature of the profession that David Maurer makes in The Big Con directly relate to her.

“Confidence men are hardly criminals in the usual sense of the word, for they prosper through a superb knowledge of human nature,” he writes. “They are set apart from those who employ the machine gun, the blackjack, or the acetylene torch.” Throughout Leverage, Sophie Devereaux exemplifies the personification of such a statement. “I am a grifter,” she explains during season three when not familiar with a state-of-the-art security system. “If I’m doing my job right, then the mark just turns off the alarm for me.”

As previously stated, David Maurer was a linguist and the final chapter of The Big Con focuses on the language of the conman. “Criminal argots are really artificial languages used by professionals for communication among themselves,” he explains. “Of all criminals, confidence men probably have the most extensive and colorful argot. They not only number among their ranks some of the most brilliant of professional criminals, but the minds of confidence men have a peculiar nimbleness which makes them particularly adept at coining and using argot.”

Leverage utilizes a similar colorful language for the unique names it gives the numerous cons that unfold within each episode. The list includes such intriguing monikers as the Mummy’s Tiara, the Moscow Circus and the Edward Albee. In the season three episode “The Morning After Job,” however, a debate ensues as to the actual con being enacted. The narrative of the installment centers on a former hockey goon that has made a fortune by giving bad stock advice. The Leverage gang inevitably set him up by getting him drunk, drugging him and then making him believe that he killed Parker during a night of passion. Eliot Spencer refers to it as the Dead Hooker Con, while Alec Hardison maintains that it is the Vegas Wake Up Call. Sophie Devereaux, meanwhile, has a different interpretation of the complicated hustle. “So it’s the lawyer, the prosecutor, the deal and the dead girl in the bed,” she remarks to Nathan Ford. “It’s the Cuban Sandwich.”

“A ‘big store’ will never beat a mark,” David Maurer writes in The Big Con. “It will not take off a score by itself. It is effective only when it is manned by good professionals, and when the props and personnel are used most strategically. Little by little, conmen discovered which parts they could fill best. Some showed special talents which they developed and perfected to a truly remarkable degree.”

The same holds true for the TNT drama Leverage. By diversifying its cast from mere conmen and incorporating hitter, hacker and thief to go along with grifter and mastermind, executive producer Dean Devlin has crafted a unique blend of specialized characters that keep the action entertaining and fresh. Leverage is also more than just another entry into the confidence game genre, but a direct descendent of the source that started it—David Maurer’s The Big Con—and keeper of the legacy that began in the late Nineteenth Century.

After all, as Sophie Devereaux herself states in the season three finale of Leverage, “There are no new cons.”

Anthony Letizia

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