American Hustle (2013) is loosely based upon the late 1970s FBI Abscam sting

Several overviews based upon the movie American Hustle (2013) – from The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, and The Telegraph, among other sources – are available online.

The IMDb overview of the film sums up the story: “A con man, Irving Rosenfeld, along with his seductive British partner, Sydney Prosser, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso. DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.”

I had the good fortune to see the movie recently. I enjoyed the movie. It fulfills the bargain inherent in the movie-going experience: The movie-goer pays up front to be entertained for two or three hours; whereupon the movie delivers what is expected.

Gangster literature

My first thought was: Where does American Hustle (2013) fit in with regard to the history of gangster literature?

It’s not a typical gangster film. Gangsters aren’t central characters. However, a key feature of gangster literature – namely, the blurring of lines between legitimate and illegitimate culture – is evident in the screenplay. It’s also evident in the non-fiction Abscam narrative on which the film is loosely based.

Abscam was a late 1970s law enforcement project, in which the FBI hired a swindler to help organize a sting operation, which led to the bribery convictions of several politicians. The swindler now lives in retirement in Florida.

Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)

In previous posts, I’ve discussed Erving Goffman’s contributions to the study of social interactions.

American Hustle (2013) is a classic study in how everyday social situations are defined, when viewed from a Symbolic Interactionist perspective, the frame of reference that positioned Goffman’s research.

A feature of Canadian documentary filmmaking, during the Second World War and in the postwar years, comes to mind, when I think of American Hustle.

In the 1940s, Goffman worked briefly at the National Film Board in Ottawa where he met Dennis Wrong, a recent University of Toronto sociology graduate. Wrong, who encouraged Goffman to complete a BA degree in sociology at the University of Toronto in 1945, discusses this stage in Goffman’s life in Authors of Their Own Lives: Intellectual Autobiographies (1990).

Gregory W.H. Smith (2006) (pp. 14-15) notes that “Goffman’s contribution to the war effort was to work for an agency [that is, the NFB] then heavily involved in the production of propaganda films. At that time the noted Scottish documentary filmmaker, John Grierson (1898-1972) directed the Board.”

The decomposing of everyday life into elements

“While Goffman’s duties were mostly low-level and routine (boxing films for dispatch and preparing cuttings files from magazines), he could not,” Smith notes, “have avoided exposure to discussions about filmic practices for decomposing ordinary life into elements that could then be reconstructed as a representation of reality [Y. Winkin, ed., Erving Goffman: Les Moments et Leurs Hommes (1988), pp. 20-21].”

The decomposing of ordinary life into elements is a central feature of National Film Board productions in Goffman’s era and beyond, as two documentaries about Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood demonstrate.

Similar scene construction techniques are in evidence in feature film development, production, and editing.

The point of the exercise is to achieve tight control over the viewer’s response – including in situations where the response entails the explicit perception and enjoyment of ambiguity or equivocation.

Scenes in American Hustle focusing upon the relationship, for example, as portrayed through dialogue, between con man Irving Rosenfeld and con woman Sydney Prosser, are concerned with whether or not the love that each professes for the other is real, or is part of each person’s version of a scam.

Film as a medium is well suited to the depiction of the inherent ambiguity of such an encounter. In terms of Goffman’s analysis of self-presentation in everyday life, the situation in such an interaction is a collaborative project, in which an agreed-upon, provisional “definition of reality” drives the interaction forward.

The screenplay highlights the view that scamming of one’s self is at times a feature of everyday life, that “people believe what they want to believe,” and that some people choose to view scamming as a means of economic survival. In the latter situation, one can say that the profit motive takes precedence over other motivations including honesty, integrity, ethics, and fair play.

What is real and what appears to be a scam

Scenes involving the relationship between FBI agent Richie DiMaso and con woman Sydney Prosser are similarly concerned with a distinction between what appears real, and what appears to be one or another person’s version of a scam.

It’s a credit to the film’s producer, screenwriter, director, cinematographer, sound designer, and editor – and to the actors, among others – that the inherent ambiguities in such encounters are handled skilfully and effectively.

Irving Rosenfeld’s elaborate scam involving a transfer of funds – within the framework of the FBI sting operation itself – to ensure that the New Jersey politician, Carmine Polito, gets off easy when justice is delivered at the end is handled well, and serves as an innovative twist to the storyline.

Scamming as a creative enterprise

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, Sherri Cavan (2011) has noted that since childhood, Erving Goffman had been acquainted with the theatre, card games and confidence games, and carnival life. Some of his studies were focused upon the aspects of impression management that make for successful con game interactions – successful, that is, from the viewpoint of the con artist, not the person being conned – at card games and casinos.

One of Goffman’s studies concerns a process known among con artists, if I recall the term correctly, as “cooling out the mark,” the final stage of a scam when a victim is persuaded to accept a loss of property, or loss of face, rather than embarking upon drastic action.

Railway scams & plagiarism

The Canadian writer Pierre Berton was also a student of scams. In a chapter about Canadian railway scams, in one of his books – at a time when trains were a primary means of public transportation – he notes that scripts that railway-based scam artists developed and shared were often precise and elaborate. If a small number of words in the script were omitted, the scam would be less than perfect in its execution.

One can add that in some scams – in political, economic, financial, scientific, academic, and other circumstances – the victim (voter, citizen, investor, and so on) is not aware that a scam has occurred. One can say that plagiarism is a particular form of academic, and journalistic, scamming.

Much of the key dialogue among the con man, con woman, and FBI agent in American Hustle is concerned with tactical and strategic details of setting up scam scenarios to enable the sting to proceed smoothly during the stages of its unfolding.

The effective cinematic portrayal of such details helps to engender a voluntary suspension of disbelief, on the part of the movie-goer, as a participant in the movie experience, as the story unfolds. The movie-goer is immersed in the story. American Hustle is a movie worth seeing.

In summary, an effective and successful scam artist is experienced in the realms of production design, script writing, rehearsal, and casting of characters to serve as accomplices, and is attentive to pacing, timing, and detail in each element of a con.

Scamming can be characterized as variant of performance art, a variant of marketing and public relations, a creative enterprise conducted in the service of instrumental reason. Deception, in scamming as in warfare, serves many purposes.

Door to door scam artists

From time to time, I check Google Analytics to get a sense of which topics are of interest to visitors to this website. Posts about energy scammers going door to door are among the most visited pages. Another page that’s often visited is a blog post I wrote in December 2012 about the early years of Erving Goffman’s academic career.


A March 26, 2014 Bloomberg News article is entitled “Sentinel Chief Bloom Guilty in $500 Million Investor Scam.”

A Feb. 2, 2014 Los Angeles Magazine article regarding the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is entitled: “Downfall.”

The article notes:

  • Before Brown’s connection with the FBI came to light, the presence of federal agents poking around in the LASD’s business had been making department executives crazy. “They were sure that the phones and the offices in Men’s Central Jail were bugged,” an officer who worked in the custody division at the time told me. “It got so nuts that they started having any sensitive meetings in this barbecue area outside the jail called Hero’s Park, where they figured they wouldn’t be heard.”

 [End of excerpt]

The latter longread article is well worth reading.

It explains what happened, in a particular law enforcement agency, at a particular time, and also helps the reader to understand – in some depth – why it happened.

The article vastly enhances my understanding of the narrative that drives American Hustle (2013). The movie “brings to life” a story in a way that a text – a short story, a novel, or a longread magazine article – is not able to do.

Yet the Los Angeles Magazine article enables a person to get an understanding of sociological and personality dynamics, as they relate to criminal activity in any organization, in a way that American Hustle is not able to do.

The two resources serve as great complements to each other. They enable a person to get an understanding that is not available solely through watching of the movie, or solely through reading of the article.


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