By Jason McBride (Seattle, Washington, US)
The train porter hooks you up with a high-stakes poker game, the hectic office that looks like a newsroom runs a numbers racket, and that merry-go-around? That’s just a front for a whorehouse.
Welcome to The Sting, where everyone is on the make.
The scene: Joliet, Illinois, 1936, the Great Depression. Robert Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a penny-ante con man who rolls the wrong guy—a bagman for racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). When Lonnegan’s goons toss Hooker’s partner Luther off a fire escape, Hooker flees to Chicago to lay low and avenge Luther’s death. He tracks down renowned but retired flimflammer Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who runs the aforementioned merry-go-round. Hooker convinces Gondorff to get back in the game and pull “the big con” on the ruthless Lonnegan.
“The big con” is a big promise, and it’s a promise director George Roy Hill keeps. The Sting swept the 1974 Academy Awards, grabbing seven Oscars, including best picture and best director for Hill. It didn’t hurt that it reunited audience favorites Redford and Newman, who had teamed up in the 1969 award-winner, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The Sting doesn’t ride Butch Cassidy’s coattails. It’s got what any good caper film needs: a good caper. This particular caper, designed to hornswoggle a mobster out of his fortune, centers around a fake betting parlor with fake staff and fake patrons, requiring a location, set and actors. Not only is it an ingenious con but a wink-nudge at the viewer—a film within a film.
Not that The Sting leans on art house pretentions. It’s a straightforward action film, only the acting doesn’t a take backseat to the chases and shootouts. When Gondorff has to play a drunken boor to swindle Lonnegan in a poker game, Newman takes a deep breath and, completely transformed, barges into the room with the line, “Sorry I’m late, guys. I was taking a crap.” Seeing Newman play two roles within the same film reminds us that he earned his fame for craft, not just good looks.
But Redford is Redford. Instead of becoming a character, he filters whatever’s in the script through his own character, and it works. Somehow a guy who looks like an Ivy League quarterback makes you believe he’s a squirrelly street kid who probably never finished grade school. Plus, sauntering around in his gaudy striped suit, he looks like he’s having the time of his life.
And he probably was. Redford and Newman were great friends all the way up to Newman’s death in 2008. They were bromancing when Judd Apatow was still in diapers, and that friendship figures strongly in the film. In one of The Sting’s brilliant ironies, Hooker plays his role as the betting parlor flunky, sweet talking Lonnegan into their web, while Lonnegan has no clue this is the same weasel his goons are trying to plug for robbing him. Gondorff secretly hires a guy to protect Hooker, and when Gondorff sees Hooker arrive safely at the parlor, it’s clear by Gondorff’s relief—and the lingering point-of-view shot on Redford—that he’s, well, kind of gotten used to the young whippersnapper.
An earlier subplot that tests Hooker’s loyalty reveals that the affection is mutual, and in a world where everyone is on the make, friendship is critical. Perhaps any good actor could fake that loyalty, but that Newman-Redford chemistry is the main reason The Sting holds up today.