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The Sting is an Academy Award-winning 1973 caper film set in September 1936 that involves a complicated plot by two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw).

Created by screenwriter David S. Ward, the story was inspired by real-life con games perpetrated by the brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and documented by David Maurer in his book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. In a 1951 Orson Welles radio show, The Third Man, in an episode airing in November titled "Horse Play," the plot is very much the same, along with many similar details, so the actual genesis of the idea may be in question.

The movie was directed by George Roy Hill, who previously directed Newman and Redford in the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The title phrase refers to the moment when a con artist finishes the "play" and takes the mark's money. (Today the expression is mostly used in the context of law enforcement sting operations.) If a con game is successful, the mark does not realize he has been "taken" (cheated), at least not until the con men are long gone.

The film is divided into distinct sections with old-fashioned title cards with lettering and illustrations rendered in a style reminiscent of the Saturday Evening Post. The film is noted for its musical score—particularly its main melody, "The Entertainer", a piano rag by Scott Joplin, which was lightly adapted for the movie by Marvin Hamlisch. The film's success encouraged a surge of popularity and critical acclaim for Joplin's work.

The film was a box office smash in 1973, taking in more than US$160 million. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

A less-successful sequel with different players, The Sting II, appeared in 1983. In the same year a prequel was also planned, exploring the earlier career of Henry Gondorff. Famous confidence man Soapy Smith was scripted to be Gondorff's mentor. When the sequel failed, the prequel was scrapped.

A deluxe DVD, The Sting: Special Edition (part of the Universal Legacy Series) was released in September, 2005, including a "making of" featurette and interviews with the cast and crew.

Plot

The Players (0 min)

At the opening, after a 1930s-era Universal logo complete with bejeweled circling globe adorned with the text, "A Universal Picture," the movie credits the actors with extracts from the movie, in a style reminiscent of films from the 1930s.

Johnny Hooker (Redford), is a small-time con man (a "grifter") from Depression-era Joliet, Illinoismarker. Hooker and his accomplices Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) and Joe Erie (Jack Kehoe) manage to swipe $11,000 in cash from an unsuspecting victim (a "mark"). In the wake of this apparent success, Luther tells Johnny that he's retiring from his life of crime and moving to Kansas City, Missourimarker to work in a "mostly legal" business with his brother-in-law. He advises Hooker to seek out an old friend, Henry Gondorff, in Chicago, who can teach him the art of the 'big con'.

Unfortunately for the three con artists, the mark they robbed was a numbers racket courier named Mottola (James Sloyan), transporting the money to Chicago for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Corrupt Joliet police Lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning) confronts Hooker, demanding a $2,000 cut of the $11,000 and revealing Lonnegan's involvement. Realizing that he and his partners are in danger, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills, having already spent and gambled away all of his share of the money. Hooker goes to warn Coleman, but he arrives too late to save him from Lonnegan's hit man. With nowhere else to turn, Hooker flees to Chicago to ask Gondorff for help in avenging Coleman's murder.

Note: The film is divided into seven sections, each introduced with a title card accompanied by music. The titles are used to structure this synopsis.

The Set-Up (24th min)

Gondorff (Paul Newman) is a seemingly broken-down con artist on the run from the FBImarker, living in the back of an amusement park that doubles as a tavern and brothel. He's initially reluctant to take on Lonnegan because "revenge is for suckers," and also because the New York gangster/banker has a reputation for ruthlessly killing his enemies. Gondorff nevertheless agrees to help Hooker run a sting on Lonnegan, since he's touched when Hooker says that he'll take Lonnegan on anyway "because I don't know enough about killin' to kill him." Since Lonnegan is a shrewd man of few vices ("Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't chase dames") and won't be taken in by a simple confidence scheme (he is a banker and knows the market), Henry resurrects an elaborate ruse that involves casting Hooker as the inside man in an off-track betting scam known as "the wire." The con men believe that this is ideal, since "the wire" is considered an out-of-date scam, and therefore unlikely to be recognized. A large number of con artists are required to create the atmosphere of the betting parlor; they are recruited from the drinking den of Duke Boudreau (played by Jack Collins), where they congregate.

The Hook (40th min)

First, Gondorff's lover and partner in crime, Billie (Eileen Brennan), picks Lonnegan's wallet aboard the famous 20th Century Limited train en route from New York to Chicago. Gondorff poses as boorish Chicago bookie "Shaw" and buys his way into Lonnegan's private high-stakes poker game on the train with the latter's own money. He bursts into the game late, feigning drunkenness and insulting and taunting the other players. Gondorff, a cardsharp, and brilliant cheater, wins the first few hands and, through "Shaw"'s obnoxious behavior, goads Lonnegan into cheating with a cold deck to "bust that bastard bookie in one play." Anticipating this, Gondorf out-cheats a shocked Lonnegan, who loses $15,000 in a single hand and, without his wallet, cannot immediately pay the debt. Surrounded by a table full of upper-crust (and purportedly legitimate) business magnates, Lonnegan cannot call Gondorff on his cheating, since he only knew Gondorff cheated because he cheated as well.

Redford earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Johnny Hooker.
Gondorff tells Lonnegan that he will "send a boy" to his room to collect the money, who turns out to be Hooker, posing as a disgruntled employee of Shaw's, and calling himself "Kelly."

The Tale (67th min)

"Kelly" plays on Lonnegan's desire for revenge by asking for his help to break Shaw and take over his business. Johnny convinces Lonnegan that he has a partner in the Chicago Western Union office (portrayed at a meeting by "Kid Twist," played by Harold Gould), and that he can use this connection to win large sums of money in Shaw's off-track betting (OTB) establishment by past-posting. All of this, including the OTB parlor itself, is really an immense hoax crafted solely for hoodwinking Lonnegan: the supposed play-by-play comes from a surplus tickertape wire, which an accomplice in the back ("J.J.," played by Ray Walston) reads into a microphone to make it sound as if it were live on the radio; meanwhile, Erie manages to prove his own worth as a con man, posing as a regular gambler to help convince Lonnegan of the reality of the place. Lonnegan's "tip" horse wins, of course, and Hooker and Gondorff hope that it convinces Lonnegan to bet a large amount on his next attempt, but Lonnegan is cautious, and "wants to see it again", resulting in "The Shut Out", below, on his second attempt.

The Wire (83rd min)

In addition to luring Lonnegan into this con (as Kelly), and eluding the assassins Lonnegan has sent to kill him (as Hooker), Johnny must continually avoid Snyder, who has followed him to Chicago, looking for either his cut of the original $11,000 or revenge on Hooker for cheating him. Snyder's efforts are derailed when FBImarker agents make their presence known to him and Hooker. Snyder is brought into a warehouse serving as a front for FBI operations. Special agent Polk is discussing strategy with another agent in the foreground, heard plainly by the film audience though not necessarily by Snyder at first. Snyder observes while special agent Polk coerces Hooker into helping them capture Gondorff (by threatening to arrest and prosecute Luther's widow), but agrees to let the con be completed first. Snyder is to be part of that operation also.

The Shut-Out (93rd min)

Meanwhile, Hooker begins a romance with a local waitress named Loretta. Unbeknownst to Hooker, Lonnegan has grown frustrated with his men's inability to find and kill Hooker, so he arranges for a professional killer, "Salino," to finish the job. (Not having previously met Hooker, Lonnegan is unaware that Hooker and "Kelly" are the same person). A mysterious figure with black leather gloves is soon seen following and observing Hooker. The title of this act comes from "shutting out" Lonnegan from the betting window when he intends to place a bet much bigger than the phony wire set-up can cover, so the window is closed as the race begins, just as Lonnegan is stepping up to bet. His intended horse does "win", however, further convincing him of the effectiveness of the method.

The Sting (112th min)

All the pieces of the elaborate puzzle come together on the morning of the sting that is planned to swindle Lonnegan. Various players are seen making preparations for the day. Then the action begins:‎
  • After Hooker spends the night with Loretta, he wakes up alone and begins walking to work. He sees Loretta coming toward him, but not the black-gloved man behind him, aiming a gun in his direction. The bullet hits Loretta in the forehead and kills her instantly. It turns out that the hired killer was "Loretta Salino", who was carrying a concealed gun and preparing to kill Hooker at that moment. The gloved man, hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker, drives him to work. The reason Loretta had not killed him in her room is that the nosy old lady next door had seen Hooker go into her room.
  • After getting word from Kid Twist to "place it" on a particular horse, Lonnegan brings a briefcase containing a half-million dollars to bet on the horse to win. Shaw/Gondorff argues that the bet is too large, for which Lonnegan calls him a "gutless cheat." Shaw/Gondorff, feigning stung pride, accepts the bet.
  • Kid Twist (in his Western Union persona) arrives and quietly asks Lonnegan how it's going. Lonnegan smugly informs him that he has a half-million on the horse to win. Kid Twist feigns shock and tells him he was supposed to bet on the horse to "place", as it's going to finish second. The panicked Lonnegan rushes to the window and demands his money back from mild-mannered con man "Fast Eddie" Niles (played by John Heffernan), who argues that, as the race has (supposedly) begun, it is against the rules.
  • Just then the FBImarker and Snyder burst in and order everyone to freeze. In the noise and the chaos, Polk steps up to Shaw/Gondorff and quietly (compared with the ambient noise in the room) says, "Hello, Henry — it's been a long time."
  • Polk then gestures to Hooker and says, "You can go," revealing to all that Hooker had betrayed Gondorff to the FBI. Hooker starts walking toward the door, but Gondorff pulls a gun and shoots him in the back; Polk then shoots Gondorff in the gut and orders Snyder to get Lonnegan out of there. Lonnegan realizes that, for the sake of his reputation, he can't be involved in this incident, but he's conflicted, because he's left a half-million dollars inside, as he tries to explain to Snyder while the detective whisks him away.
  • With Lonnegan and Snyder safely away, Polk leans over Hooker's body and says, "He's gone!" Hooker opens his eyes and gets up, as does Gondorff, to the cheers and laughter of the rest of the group. Not only have Lonnegan and Snyder been "stung", so has the film audience. Gondorff expresses as much as "Polk" helps him up: "Nice con, Hickey. I thought you were Feds myself, when you first came in." Hooker and Gondorff then proceed to nonchalantly walk out of the alley way, as the rest of the players and members of the Sting strip the room of its contents before Snyder and/or Lonnegan and his men can come back to retrieve the money.
  • As Hooker leaves, Gondorff offers him his share of the take. Hooker refuses, saying "Na, I'd only blow it".


Cast

Paul Newman as Henry Gondorff.


Awards

Wins

The film won seven Academy Awards.

Nominations



Music

The soundtrack album, which was executive produced by Gil Rodin, contained the following selections, most of which are Scott Joplin ragtime pieces. Ragtime had just experienced a revival due to several recordings by Joshua Rifkin on Nonesuch Records starting in 1970. There are some variances from the actual film soundtrack, as noted. Joplin's ragtime music was no longer popular during the 1930s, although its use in The Sting evokes a definitive 1930s gangster movie, The Public Enemy, which also featured Scott Joplin theme music. The two Jazz Age style tunes written by Hamlisch are chronologically much closer to the film's time period than are the Joplin rags:

  1. "Solace" (Joplin) - orchestral version
  2. "The Entertainer" (Joplin) - orchestral version
  3. "The Easy Winners" (Joplin)
  4. "Hooker's Hooker" (Hamlisch)
  5. "Luther" - same basic tune as "Solace", re-arranged by Hamlisch as a dirge
  6. "Pine Apple Rag" / "Gladiolus Rag" medley (Joplin)
  7. "The Entertainer" (Joplin) - piano version
  8. "The Glove" (Hamlisch) - a Jazz Age style number; only a short segment was used in the film
  9. "Little Girl" (Madeline Hyde, Francis Henry) - not in the final cut of the film
  10. "Pine Apple Rag" (Joplin)
  11. "Merry-Go-Round Music" medley (traditional) - "Listen to the Mocking Bird" was the only portion of this track that was actually used in the film, along with the second segment of "King Cotton", a Sousa march, which was not on the album
  12. "Solace" (Joplin) - piano version
  13. "The Entertainer" / "The Ragtime Dance" medley (Joplin)


The album sequence differs from the film sequence, a standard practice with vinyl LPs, often for aesthetic reasons. Some additional content differences:
  • Selected snippets of Joplin's works, some appearing on the album and some not, provided linking music over the title cards that were used to introduce major scenes. (The final card, "The Sting", introducing the film's dramatic conclusion, had no music at all.)
  • Some of the tunes in the film are different takes than those on the album.
  • A Joplin tune used in the film but not appearing in the soundtrack album was "Cascades". The middle (fast) portion of it was played when Hooker was running away from Snyder along the 'L' train platform.


Chart positions

Year Chart Position
1974 Billboard 200 1
Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart


Other production information

  • Plans were made for a prequel to The Sting. The film was to be based on the early days of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). His mentor was to be the infamous 19th century confidence man Soapy Smith, known as "the king of the frontier con men." Plans were scrapped after the failure of the sequel, starring Jackie Gleason.


  • Harold Gould's character, "Kid Twist," shared that nickname with (though apparently not the profession of) at least two different mob hit men, Max Zwerbach and Abe Reles.


  • At the beginning of the film, the Universal Pictures logo from 1936 (the glass Art Deco globe with the words "A UNIVERSAL PICTURE") is used instead of the contemporary version to establish the film's time setting.


  • In 1974 The Big Con author David Maurer filed a $10 million dollar lawsuit claiming at least part of the film's story had been taken from his book. The matter was resolved out of court in 1976.




  • Robert Weverka later wrote a novelization of The Sting.


  • The diner in which Hooker meets Lonnegan is the same diner interior used in the 1985 movie Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly first meets his father and calls Doc Brown, and re-used as the interior for the Cafe 80s in the sequel, Back to the Future Part II.


  • Doyle Lonnegan's limp in the film, used to great effect by actor Robert Shaw, was in fact completely authentic as Shaw had slipped on a wet handball court at the Beverly Hills Hotel just a week before filming began and had split all the ligaments in his knee. He had to wear a leg brace during production which was kept hidden under the wide 1930s style trousers he wore. This incident was revealed by Julia Philips in her 1991 autobiography You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. She said that Shaw saved The Sting since no other actor would accept the part and that Paul Newman hand delivered the script to Shaw in London in order to ensure his participation. He no doubt paid the price for the extremely high salary his agent John Gaines held the producers up for since he was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, the general feeling being, as Philips states in her book, that he should not have demanded that his name follow those of Newman and Redford before the film's opening title.


  • Rob Cohen, later a director of 1990s action films like The Fast and the Furious, years later told of how he found the script in the slush pile when he was working as a reader for Mike Medavoy, a future studio head then an agent. He wrote in his coverage that it was "the great American screenplay and ... will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film." Medavoy said that he would try to sell it on that recommendation and promised to fire Cohen if he couldn't. Universal bought it that afternoon, and Cohen still has the coverage framed on the wall of his office.


Cultural references

  • The BBC series Hustle frequently makes reference to The Sting, the first episode "The Con is On" having one character shot and a fake policeman, and series 1 episode 6 "The Last Gamble" features a con similar to the plot, with a horse-racing scam as the central plot.
  • A 1975 episode of The Bob Newhart Show, "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," parodies The Sting.
  • Episode 10 from season 6 of the cartoon King of the Hill titled "The Substitute Spanish Prisoner" has Peggy Hill staging a fake off-track betting scheme to recoup the money she spent on a fake PhD, with the antagonist bailing before the last bet leaving with the infamous nose swipe.
  • Australian cricket player Rod Marsh watched the film 33 times while touring Pakistan in 1982.
  • John C. McGinley's character Dr. Perry Cox in the sitcom Scrubs, shares Johnny Hooker's habit of touching his nose.


References

External links




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