“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?
The story follows Johnny Hooker, a con man in New York in 1936. He and his aging partner in crime, Luther Coleman, pull a simple but very effective con and end up with a huge chunk of cash. The problem is that the cash belonged to Doyle Lonnegan, a rich and dangerous man determined to make them pay. When Luther winds up dead, Hooker seeks to hit Lonnegan back the only way he knows how: conning him out of his money. He seeks help from veteran con man Henry Gondorff, and the stage is set for the two of them to pull the con of their lives. But Lonnegan’s men are still after Hooker, and a burly police detective is also hot on the case. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that some others get in on the fun as well, making things much more complicated for the two con men than they’d hoped.
Not only are you a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well!
Seeing as this is a bit of a reunion movie, it begs a comparison to its predecessor, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The same mix of comedy and drama is here and done equally well, but the vehicle for that is completely different. In the first film, the draw was in seeing the camaraderie between the two eponymous characters and their antics together; in The Sting, Johnny Hooker and Henry Gondorff don’t know each other and, frankly, don’t really trust each other until near the end of the film. The emphasis is on the clever plot, although the characters are just as deep and charming. Instead of showing two aging outlaws struggling to adapt to a changing world, it shows two seasoned outlaws who are firmly in their element. This isn’t a rehash of the first film; it’s its own thing, and this is a classic in its own right.
This film was released in 1973, but it’s a love letter to the early days of gangster films in the 1930s. Director George Roy Hill researched numerous movies and books from that era to get the dialogue and details right. He even used cinematography techniques from films of that era, including wipes and inter-title cards for each segment of the film, which were considered old-fashioned in the 70s. The music went even further back, pulling from the first two decades of the 20th century, creating a retro but fun feeling for the film and winning composer Marvin Hamlisch an Oscar. The costumes were great as well, earning costume designer Edith Head another Oscar. This is retro done right, and it gives the film a unique and charming feel. Also, perhaps somewhat ironically, this throwback to the 30s was the first film from Universal Studios to win the Best Picture Academy Award since the 30s.
But you don’t have to have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or be in love with the 1930s to appreciate this film—it’s just a really fun film, and the clever plot will keep you guessing. Paul Newman was mostly known as a serious actor, but this role proved he could do comedy equally well, and Robert Redford seamlessly mixes action, drama, and comedy into his role as well. The plot doesn’t go out of its way for mind-blowing plot twists, but the details of how everything will play out will keep you guessing. There are plenty of red herrings thrown in to keep the audience—and the characters—wondering what will happen.
Is The Sting the perfect con movie? If not, it’s close. It’s a great mix of intricate plot, real drama, and irreverent comedy, and the whole thing works exceedingly well. It also plays into nostalgia for a time that’s often today thought of as a distant memory, and this makes the film better rather than detracting from it. This is rated PG, but it came out before the PG-13 rating was created and would probably merit that rating today—safe for most audiences, but maybe a little too much for kids. If you’re looking for an entertaining con movie with plenty of vintage charm, though, this fits the bill.
Director: George Roy Hill
Genres: comedy, crime, drama