Max Castle (John Davidson) is a conman who gets arrested in Florida because of a shady real estate deal. The judge releases him into the custody of his older brother, an attorney named Stephen (Robert Castle). Though Max is technically just a paralegal, he secretly helps out his brother’s clients but running elaborate scams on the people who have cheated them. When businessman Lyle Rafferty (Jack Kehoe) embezzles money from his own charity and then lets one of his employees take the fall, Max decides that Rafferty is going to be his next target.
Shell Game was a made-for-TV movie. It’s pretty obvious that it was meant to be the pilot for a weekly series, where I guess Max would have pulled a con on every different evildoer every week. Because the show is more interested in setting up who Max is and why he cons people, there’s not much dramatic tension in Shell Game. Max tricks Rafferty into buying a worthless gold mine and Rafferty falls for every single trick that Max pulls on him. Unfortunately, since Rafferty is such an easy target, there’s no real pay-off to seeing him get conned. It’s not like The Sting, where there were real stakes and dangers involved in Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s pursuit of Robert Shaw’s money. The con is just too easy.
On the plus side, Max’s old partner-in-crime is played by Tom Atkins. Atkins is so believable as a veteran conman with a heart of gold that he probably would have been a better pick for the lead role than the likable but bland John Davidson. The rest of the cast is forgettable.
Would Shell Game have worked as a weekly series? Maybe, especially if Tom Atkins was a part of the regular cast. The idea of a former conman now running scams on other con artists had the potential to be intriguing and Max hints that he was framed by his partners in Florida. I guess a weekly series would have explored that in greater detail. However, it was not to be. This shell game was played once and then forgotten.