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American Hustler 1961

The best American hustler films

Cut & Wrapped: From the X-rated Midnight Cowboy to cult classic Flesh, we chart the best American hustler films

Out this week is David O. Russell's frothily funny and farcical latest, American Hustle. Leading the Oscar hype with its gallery of loveable fuck-ups (J-Law's loud-mouthed, disaster-prone moll chief among them), it sees a pair of small-time hustlers plunged into the mafia big leagues by a power-hungry FBI agent. The underside of the American Dream, with its populace of the survival-desperate selling their skin, stealing or scamming, has often appeared on screen in much less socially sanitised form. Here are some of our favourite American hustler incarnations.


This comic cult classic - with frequent nods to classic Hollywood - sees its underground director Bruce LaBruce play Juergen Anger, a European writer who's in California to research a book on gay hustlers and develops a crush on a handsome rent boy (Tony Ward) he meets on Santa Monica Boulevard.


New York director Jerry Schatzberg's grimy, naturalistic New Hollywood classic sees Al Pacino in his breakout role as a junkie and small-time crook on a downward spiral with his girlfriend - a performance that had the intensity to convince Francis Ford Coppola to cast him in The Godfather.


The black-and-white indie debut of My Own Private Idaho director Gus Van Sant, based on street poet Walt Curtis's autobiographical novella, was shot among the shabby tenements of Portland's skid row. It clocks the desperate nature of existence for illegal immigrants in its portrayal of a liquor store clerk who proffers cash for favours from his Mexican crush.


The only X-rated film to have ever won the Best Picture Oscar, director John Schlesinger's bleak and gritty drama sees a former Texan dish-washer (Jon Voigt) ineptly try to make it as a prostitute in New York, while sharing a condemned apartment with the grifter (Dustin Hoffman) who initially swindled him.


This picaresque indie from Melvin Van Peebles kick-started the blaxploitation genre. In it the director plays an African-American who works in the brothel where he grew up and is wrongly accused of a murder by the corrupt cops, prompting him to take flight toward the Mexican border.


Gregg Araki's hauntingly odd indie, soundtracked by dream pop, sees a teen obsessed with alien abductions (Brady Corbet) seek out a former teammate from his small-town Kansas baseball team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who shared an emotionally scarring childhood experience with him and is now a New York rent boy.

FLESH (1968)

Directed by Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, this cult classic of casual licentiousness follows the exploits of Joe (underground star Joe Dallesandro), a laconic youth who is working the New York streets as a hustler to make some money to help out his wife's girlfriend with an abortion.


Madonna built her image around palatably soft-edged, bad-girl smart-assery in the '80s and here she plays a street-smart hustler and kleptomaniac with a heart who becomes a target of fascination for a bored suburban housewife (Rosanna Arquette), embroiling them both in a farcical mix-up around a pair of stolen Egyptian earrings.


Martin Scorsese's viscerally forceful, seminal film sees a small-time hood and conflicted Catholic (Harvey Keitel) try to move up in the underworld of New York's Little Italy, hampered by his loose-canon friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), who's being sought by a local loan shark.


Paul Newman plays small-time pool hustler "Fast Eddie" Felson in Robert Rossen's dingy, downbeat classic. Battling his own shortcomings of character, he goes for triumph over one of the game's big-time players with a nasty gambler-manager and long-suffering, hard-drinking girlfriend at his side.