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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #127: The Sting

It’s never fun to get conned, but you have to admit it is loads of fun to see professional con artists at work. Whereas today any moron with a laptop can exhort money from gullible people by pretending to be a Nigerian prince in need of quick cash in return for a fortune, there was a time when a good con required a team of expert hustlers, hours of preparation, and one devious plan B in case the whole thing went up in flames. George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973) depicts such a con featuring one of the best on-screen duo in movie history: Paul Newman and Robert Redford, reuniting with Hill a few years after working on another classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  

When watching a movie about a con job, it is almost as though the filmmakers are the con artists and the audience is the mark. The objective of the screenwriters and the director is to have the con artists in the movie pull off their job without the audience knowing exactly how they are doing it. If the audience can’t see that ending coming, and if that ending is particularly clever, then the filmmakers have succeeded. When I rented The Sting I went in more or less cold, just knowing it is a classic involving a con and two great actors at the top of their game. At one point I had a vague idea of what they were doing, but was still somewhat surprised by the last reveal and was very pleased with how they pulled it off.

Set in 1936 Illinois, and making great use of ragtime music by Scott Joplin, the film focuses on the relationship between grifter Johnny Hooker (Redford) and renowned con man Henry Gondorff (Newman). Hooker desperately needs Gondorff after he has pulled a very profitable con on a numbers racket courier who unfortunately works for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan doesn’t take kindly to being swindled and has Hooker’s partner in the con murdered.

If Hooker was a violent criminal he would probably retaliate by taking out Lonnegan’s crew one by one in bloody gun battles, but Hooker is a thief and therefore he retaliates in the only way he can: by taking even more money from Lonnegan. Alone he cannot do much, but with help from the great Gondorff and a large crew he just might be able to walk away with his life and fat load of cash. Unfortunately when he meets Gondorff what he sees is a man passed out from too much drinking, hiding from the FBI, and unsure if he has what it takes to pull off a big con.

For the sake of Hooker’s late partner Gondorff agrees to take on the risky venture. They begin working on a scam known as “the wire,” which involves a crew of con artists who create a phony off-track betting parlour. The whole system is rather complicated, but what matters is that it will convince Lonnegan to invest a fortune, which the crew will snatch away from him at a precise moment.

In order to reach that moment many things need to go right, such as Gondorff getting in on a high stakes poker game aboard a train and taking a lot of money from Lonnegan. That entire train sequence is extremely entertaining, from the moment Newman arrives late to the game explicitly saying he was taking a crap, to Lonnegan realizing this bum has cheated at the game. Unfortunately Lonnegan can’t do anything about that, because he was cheating too. What’s he going to do? Accuse him of being a better cheater?

One of the great pleasures of The Sting is watching Newman and Redford work together and having as good chemistry as they had on Butch Cassidy. Redford’s Hooker is a brash young man, whereas Redford’s Gondorff is older, wiser, and more careful when dealing with a man like Lonnegan. Hooker has his doubts about Gondorff when they first meet, but although he is rusty Gondorff quickly shows him he is still one of the best. It’s a shame these two didn’t work together more often. They were not present for The Sting II, so of course it failed.

Watching Hooker and Gondorff work the con together you of course know they are going to get away with it, but the filmmakers put enough obstacles and danger in their way to instil doubt in the audience’s mind. If they were stealing money from hard-working people you would definitely resent these two criminals, but since they are conning an even worse criminal you are cheering for them to pull off the crime. As for the filmmakers, they pull off one beautiful con on the audience and absolutely deserve their money.


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