Directed By: George Roy Hill
Written By: David S. Ward (inspired by the book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Men by David Maurer)
Starring: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw
The trio that missed out on the big prize with 1970’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, would find Oscar gold this time around with their slick and satisfying upbeat caper. Cinematic soul mates Robert Redford and Paul Newman are again helmed by George Roy Hill in 1974’s superficial, but ludicrously entertaining Best Picture winner, teeming with enough twists and jaunty charm for a thousand awards contenders just like it.
When Newman or Redford are on stage the screen is their’s, but here the day may belong to writer David S. Ward. His script would win Best Adapted Screenplay at the 46th Academy Awards, drawing inspiration from a pair of real life confidence men , but original is the only word for Ward’s work. The ink it was written with has more personality and wit than most crime films we see. It’s a remarkable juggling act of cons and twists and characters. With a balletic grace and an aw-shucks whimsy it navigates a web of plays that I couldn’t begin to summarise if I wanted to. The salient point is that the fun of a film like this is in the twists, and the twists Ward offers are as unpredictable as they are transfixing; it hooks and swerves you so audaciously, the fact that it gets away with it may be the greatest con of all.
The story concerns a couple of grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Henry Gondorff (Newman), seeking “the big con” in 1930’s Illinois. Hill’s creation of Depression era America is wonderfully exaggerated. Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne’s sets, along with Edith Head’s costumes, borde r on caricature, but for a film of this sought of jubilant imagination, it’s required. The major phases of the con are triggered with Evening Post title cards and are accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch’s reworking of Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano of the early 20th century, stuffing the picture with as much quixotic charm as one could bear to stomach.
Hooker and Gondorff’s target is brutal, big-shot, numbers racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who has done more than strong-arm his way into a fortune to earn the scheming of the savvy duo. After Hooker unknowingly rips off one of Lonnegan’s men for $11,000, he and his partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones) attract the Irish mobster’s violent ire. Luther never had a chance to play “the big con”, but now it’s time to move on, not before pointing Hooker to the renowned Gondorff who can guide him to the big time. Lonnegan has Luther made an example of though, and in a plot that’s half revenge half competition, Hooker and Gondorff hatch a near incomprehensible scam of high stakes poker, betting parlours, phoney horse races, opulent trains, double plays, and a thousand faces, while still finding time to entwine themselves with FBI investigations, hitmen and police scams of their own. It’d be enough to spin the room if Hill and Ward didn’t somehow keep it all so straight.
The reason The Sting works is because it plays by its own rules. The twists in the narrative are absurd. In any other cinematic universe the plot would be impossible to endorse, but all this outrageous scamming is only natural in the internal logic of Hill’s dashing Depression America. As Gondorff explains to Hooker, being a grifter in this world is the same as being an average citizen. Hill isn’t after a snapshot of reality, he’s after a romp through America’s upbeat underbelly, and not for a second does this film pretend otherwise.
Redford and Newman aren’t far removed from a reprisal of their famed outlaws. Once again they’re given a near overabundance of witty dialogue to chew on, and once again their oozing chemistry proves the perfect vehicle. Our response to these two is almost Pavlovian, the sight of their faces alone is cinematic shorthand for charismatic heroes, whilst Robert Shaw’s bulky jaw and cockerel eyes need only a fleeting glance into the camera to let us know who we’re dealing with. There’s nothing more you can learn about these characters after ten seconds of their company. Their development is surface level, but in a way this simplicity is what allows The Sting to triumph over its sister film in Butch and Sundance.
With his previous effort Hill wanted it both ways. A jaunty ride with downbeat undercurrents. It didn’t quite gel. Here, any pretensions of poeticism or poignancy have been stripped, leaving us with a clear eyed adventure that focuses solely on entertainment. There mightn’t be a great deal in the way of emotion, but you sense if there was it would only be an obstacle given the story.
Actually, The Sting does guarantee you one feeling. Excitement. It is preposterously fun.