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The Etymological View. Though conning others is an ancient tradition, the words “grift, grifting,” and “grifter” are relatively recent. According to Merriam-Webster, grifting’s first appearance in print came in George Bronson-Howard’s God’s Man. originally published in 1915: “Grifting ain’t what it used to be.”
The Political Perspective. No, today, grifting is writ large in the political realm. As an example, just Google “grifter politician” and take your pick. One of my favorites is the article “Grifter or Grafter? A New Parlor Game That Explains Trumpworld,” by Jacob Weisberg in Slate, May 10, 2018.
Weisberg notes that “The grafter, by contrast, is a run-of-the-mill abuser of the public trust…. Illinois governors are inevitably grafters, as is any politician whose name is preceded by ‘Boss.’ ”
But I stray from grifters.
My Favorite Grifters. I find it comforting that my favorite grifters are fictional: Orson Welles’ wonderful Harry Lime and The Sting’s Henry Gandorff and Johnny Hooker similarly pulling the wire con. Lime’s 1951 grifting predates the Paul Newman/Robert Redford 1973 flick.
Harry Lime’s Con. In old-time radio’s The Third Man, Orson Welles conjures up Harry’s “Horse Play” on November 23, 1951.
Harry’s con is a complex one, though possibly familiar: He convinces the mark that horse racing is fixed, with knowledgeable sorts knowing the winning ponies in advance. As proof, he sets up a complete off-track-betting venue populated with other cons reacting to race results delayed just a tad.
As in many of his adventures, matters go subtly awry for the likable Harry.
Henry Gandorff and Johnny Hooker’s Con. You may recall a similar wire con in the 1973 movie The Sting. In particular, a key aspect of both is the semantic difference between “placing a bet” versus “placing,” as in a horse finishing second.
In the plot’s interaction with FBI agent Polk, The Sting has the added nuance of conning the audience.
Sort of like Washington, D.C., only Lime, Gandorff, and Hooker are likable grifters. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018