Crime Doesn't Pay: Notable Financial Crimes in Film

Crime Doesn't Pay: Notable Financial Crimes in Film

The day that many Americans dread is here - Tax Day, when millions file their federal and state tax payments from the past year. It can be a stressful time for many, especially those who don't have their finances organized or forgot and left things too close to the deadline. While surely a nerve-wracking process, and one that's tempting to get carried away with through cutting corners and not reporting everything, it's nothing compared to the high stakes schemes that have depicted in popular crime films dealing with the financial world. In the spirit of today, we here at Talk Film Society have concocted some of our favorites dealing with the subject, all making for a nice palette cleanser for after sending in your documentation.

Trading Places (1983)

Billy Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III (Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, respectively) commit one of the grandest and most plainly obvious acts of insider trading ever seen, in John Landis’s Christmas classic Trading Places. They do so to overthrow and bring low the Duke Brothers, Randolph and Mortimer (veteran actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), in retaliation for the Brothers’ own machinations and upending both Valentine and Winthorpe’s lives as part of a petty bet. What’s crazy about their crime is that their specific type of insider trading wasn’t explicitly on the books as illegal until 30 years after the film was released. The “Eddie Murphy Rule”, introduced as part of the Dodd-Frank financial sector reforms in 2010, dealt with the exact scheme: Valentine and Winthorpe intercept an unreleased crop report that, upon release, would cause the trading market for frozen orange juice to explode. They replace the real report for a far bleaker one, and use their ill-gotten knowledge to undercut trading by significant margins, allowing them to corner the market while also causing the Duke Brothers’ seats on the commodities exchange to be put for auction to cover their loss margins when they overbuy the commodity.

- Sean Beattie

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

In Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio's much celebrated collaboration, penny stockbroker Jordan Belfort's pump and dump scheme is equally beautiful and disgusting in its simplicity. Buy a bunch of worthless stocks, hype the HELL out of them to chumps who will fall for it, then sell off all your shares once the chumps have bought enough to make the stock worth something. It is a genius plan, if one knows how to live subtly and not draw attention to themselves, and Belfort's inability to do so proves to be his undoing. The crime is just as infuriating as it is entertaining. It's horrendous watching Belfort con gullible, innocent, poor people out of their life savings, and the ease with which he manipulates them makes Belfort appear even worse.

- Harrison Brockwell

Margin Call (2011)

J.C. Chandor's feature film debut is set over a 24 hour period during the early stages of the late 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing recession that followed. It's taut, invigorating, and alarming to say the least, as various employees of an investment firm slowly come to realize the impending sense of doom facing the greater United States, due to the recklessness of white collar criminals. But like other films depicting this contemporary event, it presents the consequences of trying to take advantage of the economy for personal gain and profits, and does so with considerable flair and intensity. On paper, Margin Call seems like a boardroom drama with an inevitable conclusion that makes its preceding events lacking in suspense, but conversely, Chandor's film manages to pull off the opposite through ensnaring a wide ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgely, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci) each relating distinct personalities and positions to the unfolding situation.

- Rob Trench

Boiler Room (1999)

As the main character Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) says early on in the movie, Boiler Room is the rise and fall of a bunch of "white boy gangsters." In ways, the inhabitants of the titular boiler room, the loud, cramped, sweaty brokerage firm stuffed with young men making calls and closing bunk stock deals, are worse than gangsters because at least gangsters are up front about their crimes. The men are rewarded for their selling skills with fancy cars, suits, houses, and more money than they can burn. Seth wants a piece of this life, fed up with college and running a casino operation of his house. Seth is a skilled dealer of cards, and those shady skills translate well to hawking bad stocks. He quickly rises to the top of the firm only to learn and have misgivings about the nature of the business, ultimately setting up its downfall. It's a seedy operation that makes you feel scummy, even through the pleasant slick style of the film.

- Marcus Irving

Do you have any other favorite films dealing with financial crime? Be sure to sound off in the comments below!

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