Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw
Directed by George Roy Hill
Small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) pulls the wrong con on the wrong guy, and winds up with a dead partner and a target on his back. Wanting revenge but lacking the skills and knowledge to put a hit on his nemesis, racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Hooker tracks down master con artist Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and proposes that they join forces to trap Lonnegan in a perfectly-executed version of the legendary Big Con. Gondorff, a once-great practitioner of the art who's fallen on hard times and alcohol, accepts, and the two men assemble a rogue's gallery of Depression-era Chicago's great scamsters to take Lonnegan for a ride, using the gangster's own greed and corruption to strip him of a huge sum. It's a dangerous game--can the young up-and-comer and the washed-up old pro pull it off?
Four years after director George Roy Hill put Paul Newman and Robert Redford together for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the trio teamed up again for The Sting, a comic tale of underworld hijinks set against the Chicago of the 1930s and the ragtime music of Scott Joplin that won the Best Picture Oscar for 1973 and remains one of the most well-loved movies of all time. Screenwriter David S. Ward was inspired by The Big Con, David W. Maurer's 1940 nonfiction book about the colorful itinerant confidence men that worked the streets and rivers of America at the beginning of the 20th century, and the two principals build on chemistry they established in their previous movie to bring the spirit of Maurer's real-life subjects to the screen. It is fitting that Redford's and Newman's first picture together was a lighthearted reimagining of the Western genre, which had not previously been known for Butch Cassidy's brand of gentle comedy; like the cowboy, the confidence man holds a special position in the romantic firmament of Americana, a likeable rogue who operates on the wrong side of the law but only takes advantage of people who are more venal and dishonest than he is. In some ways, Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker are just Butch and Sundance transplanted into a new era and setting, two optimistic outlaws relying on their wits far more than their weapons.
After introducing characters and motivations and setting up the plot, The Sting becomes a straight procedural, which is the best possible direction a film like this can take. Everyone loves to see a plan come together, after all, and as the con becomes more complicated and ambitious the audience becomes more eager to see if they can pull it off, and how. Con men are like stage magicians in a way, but whereas finding out how a magician performs his feats only spoils the illusion, watching a grifter operate "behind the scenes" has an allure of its own. The Sting may not want to make viewers hit the road and devise elaborate scams of their own, but after watching the film, they might be forgiven for imagining that they could.
Points to ponder:
- Robert Shaw is probably most familiar to today's audiences as Quint, the bigger-than-life shark hunter in Jaws.
- The Sting's ragtime soundtrack is at least 20 years out of date; ragtime had long since given way to jazz in American culture by the mid-1930s. Nonetheless, the film helped touch off a brief ragtime revival in the 70s.