Directed by George Roy Hill, 1973’s The Sting re-teamed Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who had previously starred together in 1969’s classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It would go on to win seven Oscars (and three more nominations), including Best Picture and Best Director.
The Sting is a tale of the con, and the con artists at the crux of it are Redford and Newman. Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a small-time grifter who is good at taking people for their money but bad at holding onto it. When he and his mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones) grift the wrong person, Johnny finds himself on the bad side of mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Luther is killed, and Hooker is on the run, seeking out the one man who may be able to get him some measure of revenge against Lonnegan: Henry Gondorff (Newman), master of the big con, and friend of Luther’s. Together the two start scheming on how to take Lonnegan for all he has. Once Hooker and Gondorff meet, the film breaks into several acts, each named after part of the con, and their machinations take up the whole of the film. I’ll not spoil it here.
Now here’s a couple of trustworthy faces.
The film is set in the 1930s, and does its best to convince the audience of the fact. Besides the period-appropriate attire (one of the film’s Oscars was for costuming), the film pays careful attention to getting the look of 1930s Chicago right, and the attitudes as well. Further, the film does its best to look as though it were itself a product of the 1930s; it’s in color, but it’s a light, washed-out color, like when they hadn’t completely worked out the technique yet. Scott Joplin’s ragtime music, particularly “The Entertainer”, plays throughout the film. The title cards — both in the beginning and interspersed throughout the different “acts” — are clearly inspired by old theatre marquees and Norman Rockwell paintings. The film even gives its “cast of players” in the beginning, with the roles called out just as several old pictures do. It’s a nice touch, and it really gets the audience in the mood for the film.
Robert Redford was nominated for Best Actor for his role as Johnny, and he’s in fine form here. Johnny is right at the balance between a slick grifter and an inexperienced kid; someone who can charm anybody into anything, but who hasn’t worked out all the angles yet. He’s surprisingly gullible in his own way, but he’s adept at fooling other people. I suppose it might be easy for a good actor to play somebody who’s a good actor, but Redford still deserves some praise for how natural Johnny makes it all look, particularly considering how panicked he can look when he finds people chasing after him. (And in another nice touch, Johnny has to run through the alleys of Chicago when this happens; he doesn’t know how to drive, which is believable for the 1930s, and wouldn’t work in a story set in the 70s or today.)
Newman, of course, is also pretty slick. He doesn’t get as much screen time as Redford, but when he is on screen, he shines. Gondorff exudes confidence, always knowing exactly what the set-up needs to be, and is able to drop in and out of character at the drop of a hat. When he fakes being drunk at one point, it’s easy to see how the marks were convinced. And Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan makes for a good foil for both Redford and Newman, the serious straight man in a gag he isn’t aware is taking place.
There are a lot of other incidental characters in the film, but a few bear particular mention. Harold Gould plays Twist, one of Gondorff’s aides in the con, and he’s sufficiently charming and fun to watch that it’s too bad that the film couldn’t devote more time to him. And Charles Durning plays corrupt Joliet cop Lt. Snyder, and his bull-headed attitude makes his scenes some of the highlights of the film.
For me, the strength of a con movie always comes down to the con in question. In The Sting, it’s laid out precisely and accurately, and when hitches come up, the team improvises in ways that are intelligent, believable, and most importantly, entertaining. The con they play is an old-time classic (and is loosely based on actual events), and if you know con tales at all, you’re going to see some of the twists coming. But it’s all done so well that when it happens, it feels more like a reward for being an attentive viewer than a predictable twist.