When they are written and directed tightly enough, no sub-genre is able to exhilarate quite as powerfully as the con game film. Complicated plots involving false identities, double bluffs and grand, elaborately staged scenarios replete with prop-and-set fakery are rightfully lauded for their ability to shock, excite and relentlessly tease the brain if executed with enough care and formidability. Prime examples of works that excel in this regard would include several of the big noises made by neo-noir stalwart David Mamet, such as House Of Games, Heist, & The Spanish Prisoner, Fabian Bielinsky’s breakout 2000 Argentine hit Nine Queens, and even sillier and more eccentric fare like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Matchstick Men. As sly, solid and respectable as all of these efforts certainly are, they’re unable to hold a candle to the shrewdness, buoyant theatricality and incredible warmth of George Roy Hill’s classic 1973 caper The Sting. It’s not only the cleverest confidence-trick movie that’s ever been pulled off, but a highly amusing and touching tale of friendship, righteous vengeance and redemption.
It’s 1936, and we’re in the slums of Joliet, Illinois. The Great Depression is beginning to cool off, and small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) has been eking a living performing penny-ante scams with his partners Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) and Joe Erie (Jack Kehoe). Proceedings kick-off when the trio relieve an unsuspecting stranger of $11,000 (a little over $200,000 in 2020). Their largest windfall yet, the elderly Luther announces his plans to retire, offering to put Johnny in touch with an old Chicago friend who can teach him the art of the ”big con” and discipline him to save diligently and stop blowing all of his scores at the roulette table.
Unfortunately for them, the man they ripped off was an employee of one Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). An immensely wealthy and powerful Irish crime lord residing in New York, Lonnegan has several illegal gambling operations across the United States, and it’s the one in Illinois that our boys have unwittingly lifted thousands of dollars from. A sinister and vicious man known for his ruthless precision in adjusting all setbacks, Lonnegan orders the killings of the three men.
In a tragic turn of events, Luther ends up a cadaver as Hooker & Erie manage to evade Lonnegan’s Illinois goons, compelling Hooker to seek out Luther’s aforementioned friend from Chicago, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). A one-time bigshot confidence trickster, Gondorff wound up scamming somebody too high on the political ladder, and has spent the past few years evading the FBI, subsequently becoming an alcoholic and ride operator at a local carousel. Initially uninterested and irritated by Hooker’s youthful pushiness and naivete, Gondorff eventually relents out of empathy for the younger man’s need to get even (it’s also an opportunity for him to truly get back into the game), and with the assistance of a large network of old colleagues, the two devise a highly complex, big-balled and madcap scheme to deceive and defraud Lonnegan so hard that he’ll forget what day of the week it is.
First and foremost, this film is an absolute blast. Watertight, whimsical chemistry flowing between all players (Redford & Newman, especially), it is replete with snappy, wryly comical dialogue, colourfully well-detailed (and at times hilariously ugly) costume and set design, and an endearing anachronistic aesthetic. With a running motif of Scott Joplin’s turn-of-the-century ragtime classic ‘The Entertainer’, The Sting depicts a wonderfully crisp, candy-coloured illustration of 1930s America, featuring pinstripe gangster suits, old-fashioned express trains, blue-plate-special diners and the wealthy man’s stereotypical preoccupation with clandestine games of poker. There’s even the archetype of the boorish, bumbling crooked cop in Lt. William Snyder (brilliantly portrayed by Charles Durning), perpetually hot on the tails of our heroes yet woefully outdone by them at every turn. There’s the axiomatic temptation to rave about the revenge scam at the heart of the film, but it’s so heavily predicated on ingenious twists, turns and wonderful surprises that giving away any of it would just completely defeat the purpose of advising the uninitiated to see it. So it’ll just have to be gushing about every other aspect for now.
As much as I adore both Paul Newman & Robert Redford, Robert Shaw is one of my all-time favourite performers, and he delivers a crucially excellent performance here as the Big Bad, Doyle Lonnegan. Representing the antithesis of the normal human emotions and aspirations that drive guys like Johnny & Henry, Lonnegan is a racket boss of such omnipotence that he rarely sees the faces of the adversaries he wipes out. A man whose only conceivable vice appears to be gambling, he is in a ceaselessly sour, calculating mood, openly showing contempt for people who don’t carry themselves in a stoic and ‘classy’ way, and having no qualms about murdering people for the slightest infraction. Interestingly, Shaw sustained a knee injury shortly before filming began, and director Hill requested that he incorporate it into the character, and it adds a nicely mysterious dimension to the enigmatic mobster. In a film that is predominantly very fun, there is an unusual and refreshing contrast in having a serious villain who never verges into cartoonishness. Lonnegan isn’t a goofy, fundamentally weak or stupid gangster; He’s a very nasty, shrewd, tension-inducing psychopath. He’s just contending with tricksters whose livelihood depends on them being that little bit smarter.
Another fantastic touch that undoubtedly lent a hand in bagging The Sting its Best Picture, Director & Original Screenplay Awards at the 1974 Oscars (and a device that has been replicated in numerous and inevitably inferior styles since), is the breakdown of the film into 7 ‘episodes’, each with its own illustrated title card (‘The Players’, ‘The Set-Up’, ‘The Hook’, ‘The Tale’, ‘The Wire’, ‘The Shut-Out’, and ‘The Sting’) that examines the individual stages of the mighty titular con, and each one is more resplendent with clever, sneaky and suspenseful developments than the last. It’s something that a lot of snarky film students seem to believe their modern god-kings invented (*cough* Tarantino *cough* *cough) but it has never been as enjoyable and anticipatory as it is here, and it never will be either.
As I mentioned in the title, it is a buddy movie, but not in a manner reminiscent of Redford & Newman’s previous outing together in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. They don’t become as close as the titular duo of the aforementioned film, their relationship remaining work-oriented for the most part, but their mutual love of the craft, respect for the other’s ability, and common ground in the form of fallen comrade Luther all coalesce into something of a professional admiration-cum-interpersonal affection. There’s an initially hostile, street-smart condescension on the part of Henry Gondorff as the older man who’s been around the block a few times, but he and Hooker ultimately work so well together that you root for them as a team every step of the way. Whether or not it’s concrete that they’ll remain BFFs doesn’t matter.
One of, if not the, wittiest, classiest, smartly-written and rewarding combinations of comedy, drama and thriller that has ever graced the screen, The Sting brings together a top-notch cast of veteran players to create a work that is layered in ridiculous rewatchability, both for the sheer kick of the cinematic experience and also for the smaller tells that you might miss the first time around (what’s a more appropriate medium for that than a film about con artists, right?). Every performance is sublime, the soundtrack and cinematography endearingly kick ass, and you can tell that everyone involved is having the time of their life doing it. Please, if you’ve yet to see this one, drum it straight to the top of your priority list.