When we first find William Douglas Street Jr., he is newly married and thoroughly bored. There’s a drudgery to his life and he finds little enjoyment languishing in cars while his father installs burglar alarms. He also resents living at home with his family still, but he’s stuck with both the job and the domestic arrangement. His main cohort of friends are all guys who hang out at a local bar perpetually gambling, while simultaneously keeping up a constant stream of complaints about their money issues. While theorizing how to get more money he and his friends devise a scheme to write a letter to exhort the wife of Detroit Tigers player Willie Horton. The letter subsequently gets published in the newspaper after being leaked by one of his co-conspirators and it garners Street a brief bit of fame. He mugs for the cameras and preens beneath the bright television lights, basking in the infamy he’s gained — it is his first successful grift and his entry into the world of fraud and con artistry.
Street decides to raise the stakes by impersonating a Times reporter, an identity that is quickly uncovered once it is revealed he has left a typo in his cover letter for an interview request. The trouble that this blunder causes doesn’t deter him, as he next goes on to assume the role of a Harvard medical school graduate and begins interning at a hospital. When his lies are discovered he goes to jail, but quickly escapes and begins to blend in as an international student before being caught again. In his last con he begins working as an attorney volunteer and is caught right before he’s supposed to begin receiving his first paycheck. Street adapts well to new environments and is able to quickly dazzle with his eloquence and air of authority. Many of the positions he cons his way into have some degree of status and of course wealth — money for him is the answer to all of his inconveniences and a means to pleasing his second wife, Gabrielle. As a student, though, he isn’t collecting any wages but keeps the ruse up to be close to Tatiana, a coed he begins a love affair with, and his reporter job is used to get close to a female athlete he lusts after. While money was a powerful factor for him in the beginning, it’s not the true reason he enjoys pulling these cons. Street revels in playing a character and pulling one over on professionals. Even as he sweats, fretfully reviewing medical jargon in a bathroom stall or listening to French tapes before attempting to pass himself off as fluent, he still delights in each time he pulls off the performance. His cons change from being a habit, a means to make his life more vibrant, into being a way of life.
Tatiana, his college lover, is one of the only people he seems to respect and the only person he forms a bond with while he’s performing a con. He reveals his story of being busted for not being a fluent French speaker to her and she discovers in the midst of their affair that he is married, but they still carry on a flirtation. She’s intelligent, discerning, and multilingual, all of the things he believes or wants to see in himself. Though he once raved rhapsodically about his wife, he shows no qualms about cheating on her with Tatiana. It seems that one of the most arresting components of this relationship is the attainment of a self-image he greatly enjoys.
Though Street perceives himself as crafty and clever, especially compared to the everyday people he finds himself around, there is a gap between his fantasy and reality. While he can con his way easily into high-status roles there’s an inability to go the legal route and actually study and work to gain these positions. It speaks to a fear he never vocalizes, that at the end of the day for all of his posturing he is just a criminal and the friends at the bar he abandons are much nearer to his intellect than he’d like to admit. His voiceovers throughout try to impress us with his inner musings, oversight of events, and classic musical taste (ranging from Vivaldi to the Sex Pistols), as though to prove his primacy over the simpletons of his daily life. He’d like to see himself as a viable option for Tatiana but knows that she is beyond him; instead of trying to keep up with her he severs the relationship to protect his own ego. It’s easier for him to believe his arrest thwarted their relationship than to admit that, even if he had tried to hold her interest, she would have eventually left him. As Street treads deeper into his fictions he loses his own identity and begins to see his wife and later daughter as an inconvenience holding him back from something more. He even partially blames them for always asking for money to provide for the family, as though they are pushing him into more cons. I saw the film as a character study of a man with narcissistic attributes and a dive into the social constructs in American society.
He has a contemptuous monologue in voiceover about his first wife, Darlene, after he marries Gabrielle, but soon enough he grows contemptuous of Gabrielle too. He emphasizes her physical qualities and what she provides to him when describing her; he does the same with several women in the film. People become objects to him and cease to be considered human, instead becoming shrill caricatures in his delusions. As he smiles away on television talking about his extortion letter, we see Gabrielle viewing him, unaware of all that is unfolding. Later, after she tells Street she’s pregnant, we never see signs of their daughter until she’s a toddler who he resents for her pleas for more toys. After his father hangs up when Street calls from jail, we never see his family on screen again. Yet he eases through many professional doors and is seen as likable and competent at many of his positions even as he lacks empathy for others. He is accepted into the fold of a hospital and academia by looking the part even while he is filled with vacuousness, revealing that people are just looking at and perceiving what they want to see. Although he has achieved status and tasted power, at the conclusion of his story we find him utterly alone, a sharp contrast to his beginnings.
A racially charged encounter he and Gabrielle experience when they are out to dinner reveals more of the tension prevalent in the world he lives in and the bitterness he feels about his lot in life. After being called a slur and insulted by a drunk racist, Street schools the man on how to curse but is quickly beaten with no interference from the people around him. There’s no telling whether this is the inciting incident that led him to his life of fraud and desire to be in a place of higher authority, but it certainly shows what we suspect is beneath his smooth-talking façade: deep resentment. Street is educated and can talk eloquently, but none of those things got him far before he adopted multiple identities. In his view of America, he is clearly unable to find equal footing until he lies and deceives. The means may not be honorable but living a different life is preferable to his own. Later on, while sitting with powerful lawyers, he spouts off his reflections on race and privilege amongst white elites and they shrug it off, not detecting the malice in his words. Afterwards he’s praised for his handling of them. His chameleon qualities have given him the power to express himself, show his resentment, and still move up the corporate ladder, a much different outcome than before.
There are several scenes in which when confronted with a counselor or mental health professional he bristles beneath their gaze. He skirts around questions and derisively dismantles their jobs and intentions, throwing his wry wit into the mix. Through his actions during the sessions, we see a hatred for self-examination. While the professionals probe his mind for answers to his behavior, they find hostility and sharp rebuffs. He isn’t embarrassed by his escapades, but is reluctant to divulge his intentions, perhaps knowing when he looks deeper he’ll see parts of himself he’d rather hide. Also true to the narcissistic traits he displays in most of the film, he doesn’t like the idea of anyone outsmarting him. He is scared of really being seen as he is, a man without a home who neglects his family. The counselors would rip away his own self-aggrandizement, the very thing he’s come to prize and the fear of losing that brings out his anger and watchfulness. He dons many different masks in his life, but the one he has worked the hardest to keep under wraps is that of William Douglas Street Jr.
The real William Douglas Street Jr. that the film is based off of was in fact welcomed to come back and work at the Detroit Human Rights Department where he assumed an identity as an attorney; they cited his good legal counsel during his tenure as the reason for their offer. He did not return to the profession, but I wonder if it was because too many bridges had been burnt or because he didn’t want to take up the same mask again. After all, he was a chameleon, and for much of his life there was only forward and very little looking back. We don’t see what happens to Street after leaving jail following his last con in the film, but if the real-life Street is any indication, there are always more people to trick, more jobs to assume, and more cons to pull off.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories.