The Sting (1973) Director: George Roy Hill
“Not only are you a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well!”
After Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 Director George Roy Hill, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman teamed up again, this time for a faux 1930s gangster film about an elaborate sting operation in Chicago. They researched a variety of old Hollywood gangster films from the 1930s and developed a color scheme of muted browns for the film. The Sting is a wonderfully original movie -throughout the film the audience is giddy to watch down and out grifters become the heroes as they scam a scammer. Each ploy that unfolds in the film is delightful and in the end the audience is the true victim of “the sting” -as our expectations are subverted. The idea for the story came from David S. Ward who was inspired to research and write about pick-pockets and conmen. It is an amusing and playful movie with a light-hearted tone that masks its complex underlying story.
The setting is 1936 during the Great Depression. We are treated to wonderful scenes of the town of Joliet and the city of Chicago with old-timey ragtime Scott Joplin piano music as the names of the “players” appear in the style of the old Saturday Evening Post. In fact title cards appear throughout the film to set the scene: “The Set-Up,” “The Hook,” “The Tale,” “The Wire,” “The Shut-Out” and “The Sting.” Robert Redford plays a grifter known as “Johnny Hooker” who sets up small scams and ruses for money with his partner Luther Coleman (played by Robert Earl Jones). They accidentally steal a windfall of cash from a henchman for Chicago crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan (played by Robert Shaw of Jaws, A Man For All Seasons, and From Russia With Love fame). Coleman announces his retirement and tells Hooker to pay a visit to an old friend in Chicago named Henry Gondorff (played by Paul Newman). That evening Hooker blows his windfall and he is stopped by a corrupt Joliet policeman named Lt. Snyder (played by Charles Durning) so Hooker pays him off with counterfeit money. Before the fraud is realized Hooker escapes town, but only after he discovers the killing of his partner Coleman.
Hooker travels to Chicago for the “big con” where he meets the drunken Gondorff who is hiding from the FBI. They decide to go after Lonnegan in an elaborate scheme called “the wire.” Gondorff poses as a wealthy but arrogant businessman. He boards an opulent train and weasels his way into Lonnegan’s poker card game (knowing that Lonnegan cheats). Gondorff out-cheats Lonnegan to win $15,000. Infuriated, Lonnegan returns to his room and Hooker posing as a disgruntled employee of Gondorff shows up at Lonnegan’s room. He persuades Lonnegan to try to scam Gondorff with a horse race sting. Lonnegan is skeptical at first, but Hooker persuades him by using his own money (at first). Meanwhile Officer Snyder tracks Hooker to Chicago, Lonnegan orders his best assassin Salino to track down the man who stole his money in Joliet (which, unbeknownst to Lonnegan, is actually Hooker), and a mysterious man with black gloves begins following Hooker.
Lonnegan agrees to a $500,000 personal horse race bet and Hooker is brought before a cohort of FBI agents who demand that he betray Gondorff in the sting. The night before the elaborate sting for Lonnegan’s $500,000; Hooker sleeps with a girl who works at a local coffeeshop he frequents, but as it turns out she is a hired assassin by Lonnegan -she is “Salino.” The next day the sting of Lonnegan goes down but he makes a mistake by ‘placing’ his bet on the horse called Lucky Dan, when in fact he should have bet that Lucky Dan would merely ‘place’ (i.e. end the race in 2nd place). Lonnegan panics and demands his money back but in that moment FBI agents storm into the scene and a fake shoot-out is staged (we, the audience, wonder if it is true). Lonnegan is led out by Snyder to avoid any press corps. The remaining men erupt in laughter. Hooker declined his share of the loot saying he’d only “blow it.” He and Gondorff walk away together.