The Sting: Good-Hearted Grifters

ALL IT TAKES IS A LITTLE CONFIDENCE.

thestingOne of David S. Ward’s first scripts introduced us to the world of confidence men. Not that they hadn’t been seen on screen before The Sting, but Ward found a new angle. He based his story on two actual grifters called Fred and Charley Gondorf, brothers who became legendary con artists in the early 1900s. The difference between them and the characters we see in this movie? The Gondorfs were not quite as noble and they did go to prison for their crimes.

In 1936, Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) has become a skilled con man together with his mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones). After scamming $11,000 from the wrong guy, Luther is murdered and Johnny escapes to Chicago. Their victim was a numbers racket courier for a crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who does not accept being taken for a fool. Johnny, who is now also on the run from a corrupt cop (Charles Durning) who knows about his Lonnegan problem, looks up Henry Gondorff (Newman) in Chicago. Henry is a former world-class grifter who used to work with Luther, but now he’s hiding from the FBI. He wants Henry to teach him how to stage “the wire”, an elaborate con that requires the creation of a phony off-track betting parlor in the city.

Henry is initially unwilling because he knows the hard work and dangers involved, but Johnny wants to get back at Lonnegan and talks his new friend into it…

The music is all “wrong”
Redford read the script, liked it but since Ward might direct the movie himself and Redford thought this might be too complex for a rookie, he passed. Once George Roy Hill, the director behind the already classic Redford-Newman Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), signed on to do it Redford changed his mind… and soon Newman was asking if there might be a role in it for him too. A few scenes were shot in Chicago (and Pasadena), but most of it was filmed on the Universal lot. The complexity of the film was not really in location work, but how to build the scam in a way that was believable and entertaining at the same time.

Ward did a terrific job and his sharp dialogue is another reason why it’s such an enjoyable experience. We believe that we’re in the midst of the Great Depression thanks to meticulous efforts from everybody involved in costumes and the production design. At the same time, the music is all “wrong”. Marvin Hamlisch adapted Scott Joplin’s ragtime melodies, music that was popular almost 30 years before the story of this film. But somehow, it seemed to fit the action on screen in a marvelous way, adding humor, warmth and a broad sense of nostalgia. Some critics looked down on the choice… but it was ingenious and became a smash hit (especially a tune called “The Entertainer”) after the release of the movie. Part of the appeal is also the old-fashioned way Hill takes us through the movie, with wipes in the editing and animated title cards.

Redford and Newman flash their star charisma as the con artists who are playing with fire; it’s no coincidence (and not a bad thing either) that the way they interact is so reminiscent of Butch Cassidy. Shaw is perfect as the intimidating, hot-tempered mob boss with a limp (an actual injury the actor suffered that became a feature of the character) and Durning is fun to watch as the bull-headed cop on Johnny’s trail.

The film’s pacing is a bit uneven, but a few excellent twists near the end is an exclamation point in Ward’s writing. Much like a perfect sting is meant to deceive its target, this movie does the same with us – and it’s a pleasure to see the filmmakers get away with it.

The Sting 1973-U.S. 129 min. Color. Produced by Tony Bill, Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips. Directed by George Roy Hill. Screenplay: David S. Ward. Editing: William Reynolds. Music: Marvin Hamlisch. Art Direction: Henry Bumstead. Costume Design: Edith Head. Cast: Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff), Robert Redford (Johnny Hooker), Robert Shaw (Doyle Lonnegan), Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan… Sally Kirkland.

Trivia: Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were allegedly considered for lead roles. Followed by The Sting II (1983).

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design.

Last word: “George reshot his first week. He didn’t like what he did the first week of shooting and thought it could be better, so he reshot it. It’s the very beginning sequence with Mottola and the cut up paper in the envelope, that he rides away with, thinking he’s taken these two rubes to the cleaners. Once we started I wasn’t worried because George Hill is so thorough as a director, he went over everything in the script in preproduction. I felt he was more than prepared and his previous track record was so good, and I felt he understood the material so well. I wasn’t worried it would be a failure. I didn’t know it would be as big a hit as it was, but I felt confident going into the shooting.” (Ward, The Sydney Morning Herald)

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