The "con man" is one of the most predominant characters
in all of American culture. Deriving from the word "confidence,"
the con man was allied with the Yankee peddler of early America
by Constance Rourke and filled the pages of Herman Melville's
last published novel, The Confidence Man. The con man is always
selling something, but most of all he is selling himself.
He is selling the "confidence" of his character, and his wares
are words as much as any consumable or currency. In O Brother
Where Art Thou?, the archetype of the con man is embodied
by "Big Dan T" (John Goodman). Below is a clip from the first
encounter that the film's protagonists have with this character:
Although in the film "Big Dan" plays the dual role of the Cyclops of the Odyssey and the con man, I think that the figuration as con man is far more vital to the O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In his conversation with Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), "Big Dan T" reveals himself to be endowed with "the gift of gab." He is working-or so he says, anyway-as a bible salesman. But he notices Everett and Delmar by the sound of money being pulled out of Everett's pocket. He introduces himself and then the three men retire. What follows is in the clip below:
"Big Dan T" breaks serious protocol with the conventional ideas about the "con man" and his trade. Since what the "con man" is selling is in no small part confidence, the acquisition of money is not supposed to be done with violence. No, the con man bilks a rube out of his cash by suavely convincing his prey that that they in fact want to give him the money. But "Big Dan" does not do this. With his gigantic size, he breaks off a tree limb and uses it as a club (echoing the Cyclops in the Odyssey, one supposes) in order to knock out Everett and Delmar. As he is wielding his bludgeon, he yells out, "It's all about the money boys…the Do-Re-Mi." This line is a reference to the Woody Guthrie song, "If You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi" which cleverly puns the traditional singer's warm-up scale against the slang term for money, "dough." This furthermore goes against the "con man" type, since the actual money in question is far less significant than the elaborate ploys and faultless execution of the "con" itself.
The "con man" is an immediately recognizable archetype. But O Brother, Where Art Thou? subverts the expectations of the character's behavior in light of all previous presentations of the "con man" type in cultural texts. As with the other examples given of parodied mythic types in the film, "Big Dan T" is both a stand-in for all "con men" and an ironized form of the type itself.