If the definition of a good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes as Howard Hawks suggested, then The Sting is a great movie. Not only is it totally bereft of bad scenes, it’s nearly scrubbed clean of false moments, and it has a number of great scenes so I’ll just pick three: a poker game on a train, a makeshift Western Union office, and its wonderful finale in which nothing is revealed but everything is explained. Yet when people talk about the great films of the ’70s, The Sting gets routinely overlooked and doesn’t stay in the public’s imagination the way the other collaboration between stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford and director George Roy Hill does, the vastly inferior Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1967).
I think the movie has failed to remain on the cultural radar because as Best Picture winners go it was sandwiched between the two Godfather movies and it had the audacity to be great entertainment during the only time in Hollywood’s history when the industry was driven by little pictures with great ideas. Had it been released after Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) put glitz and thrills back in vogue, The Sting might be better remembered. It’s a wonderful movie.
In Joliet, Illinois, in 1937 a low-life is on an errand to run some racket money to his bosses until he’s cleaned by a couple of con men. This is Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) and Johnny Hooker (Redford) a pair of small timers who discover once fleecing their charge that they’ve hit the jackpot. “Jesus, Luther, we’re millionaires,” Johnny exclaims after seeing the thousands they’ve taken the guy for. Hooker has two problems, however; the first is the hole in his pocket (he’s gambled away his share of the kitty by the end of that night) and the second is the stooge he and Luther bumped over was working for Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a powerful New York banker who doesn’t take kindly to being grifted and promptly sends goons to rub them out. They get Luther that evening.
This prologue doesn’t last long, but it introduces a number of elements that will be our constant companion during The Sting. The con that Hooker and Coleman pull to open the movie isn’t as elaborate or as inventive as the ones that will come later (it’s a fairly simple set-up that culminates with a sleight-of-hand switch of two parcels), but it trains the audience to pay close attention and to listen. One of the pleasures of The Sting is its period dialogue and confidence game jargon; the script by David S. Ward does a nice job of introducing these phrases and expressions early and often, so that the first time we hear Lonnegan’s Irish brogue punctuate the end of a speech with “Ya falla?,” for example, we may be confused but by the sixth time we discern “You follow?” pretty easily.
The Sting is very much about the way things aren’t as they seem, but if you pay attention, its twists aren’t twists, just revelations. Hill tells the story like a magic trick; his direction doesn’t hide anything but it’s a visual mode of sleight of hand. Everything is there for those who pay attention, even though it’s nearly impossible to anticipate its bends and changes of direction the first time around. In that, The Sting itself is like one of the cons it presents: giving us all the information we need but devilishly trying to distract us from it, so we, too, get taken but with a big grin on our faces. Curiously, this open-faced style actually hurts the movie in terms of rewatchability; once you know its secrets there’s little left for you, but it’s a terrific movie to watch again with someone who has never seen it before. It’s like watching a con being played except you know all the tricks; it makes you wonder how the grifters keep a straight face.
With Coleman dead and the heat on him, Hooker moves to Chicago to look up a friend of Coleman’s named Henry Gondorff (Newman), a burned-out big timer who used to be part of huge, elaborate schemes to lighten the purses of America’s richest saps. Hooker, and certainly Coleman’s death, convince Gondorff to get back in the game to play for Lonnegan. Gondorff assembles a team of crack hustlers, some of whom immediately quit their legit jobs to join the gang, and they plot on how to make money part ways with a fool who doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses. They decide to set up a fake horse racing book and devise a plan that will, hopefully, get Lonnegan to bet a huge sum of money on a race they know he won’t win.
First, they’ll have to hook Lonnegan, who takes a train from New York to Chicago every few weeks to check in on his racket operation. On the train he plays in a high-stakes poker game and frequently cheats. In a bravura sequence of writing, performance, shot selection and editing, Gondorff buys his way to the poker table then beats Lonnegan at his own game. Like many sections of The Sting, this section is both funny and anxious as Gondorff has opted to play an obnoxious drunk who talks trash to the other players, blows his nose with his tie and routinely mispronounces the increasingly irritated Lonnegan’s last name. “What gives, Lumina, I was just starting to do good,” Gondorff protests when Lonnegan calls for a break in the game so that he can rig the deck to beat Gondorff. The final hand rachets up the tension with camera zoom-ins and atmospheric signifiers (what is it about trains, with their bevy of different sounds, that lends itself to suspense so well?). We learn that Lonnegan has the hand to beat Gondorff until, to Lonnegan’s surprise much more than ours, Gondorff lays down a winner. “What was I supposed to do,” Lonnegan roars later to his body man, “Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?”
Then Hooker springs the trap by coming to Lonnegan’s car pretending to be Gondorff’s second at the sports book, offering Lonnegan a chance to get even. Hooker has a partner who works for the wire service who gets racing information before the betting places do, and if Lonnegan acts fast and puts up the money, he can place a bet in Gondorff’s place that will break him. Lonnegan is hot and ready for revenge, but he’s not stupid enough to hand over a bundle without a little evidence that the scheme will work. He demands a test bet, then another, then he wants to meet the partner in the wire office, all of which the con men arrange in increasingly harried fashion, but finally Lonnegan is convinced enough to front half a million dollars to see Gondorff go down and the final con is set up.
That would be enough for a pretty good yarn, but Hill and Ward aren’t satisfied just playing our anxieties about the big score. Hooker is used to tease out more tension, as the same recklessness that cost him all of his cut in the first part of the movie haunts him as he tries to make the big time. Unlike the professional and seemingly omniscient Gondorff, Hooker is a man trying to keep all the plates in the air, and Hill and Ward fiendishly keep throwing plates at him. Not only is there the smart and distrusting Lonnegan to worry about (who’s hit men, including the dangerous and mysterious Salino, are still after him for the earlier job), there’s a pesky bunko cop from Joliet who has followed Hooker to Chicago, and then on top of that, the FBI, after Gondorff for years, is trying to squeeze Hooker into giving up his partner. If confidence tricking is about knowing every angle, the build–up to the final scene gives us a half-dozen elements that on first viewing we don’t know how they are going to be resolved. The effect is dizzying.
The Sting belongs on a short list of the great caper movies; it has its roots in set-up and pay-off French crime masterpieces like Rififi (1955) and Bob le Flambeur (1956), and its influence can be seen in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies. These are criminals, yes, but they’re likable and cool, and they have a Robin Hood quality to them. I doubt very much that any of them will be giving their share to the poor, but we certainly have no sympathy for their target who is played by Shaw with a mixture of the magnificent steely resolve he displayed in From Russia with Love (1963) and some of the animal rage he would show two years later in Jaws (1975). Like the movies that inspired it and it has inspired, The Sting doesn’t share any deep thoughts on the nature of crime or the psychological state of people who live their lives by deception; it’s just an entertainer, one of the best, and coincidentally that’s the name of the Scott Joplin tune that opens and closes the movie, although after seeing The Sting, I’m not sure I believe in coincidences anymore.