THE STING (1973)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford were keen to follow up their dynamite partnership from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNSHINE KID, but they exercised the great judgement that was typical of both of their careers by waiting till just the right movie came along. That was to be the feel-good classic THE STING.
Redford was offered a script by David Ward that instantly piqued his interest; a brilliant and original 1930s period piece about the world of the con artist based on his extensive research into that world, its lingo, characters and lifestyles. Ward’s ambition was to direct it himself. Redford, by now firmly established as a star and careful to protect his reputation, was apprehensive about trusting such a rarely superb and ambitious vehicle for him into the hands of a first-timer. George Roy Hill, director of BUTCH CASSIDY, found out about it and was on board as a much more experienced choice to helm the project. By chance, Newman heard about the script which only then prompted Hill to consider him for the role of the revered Henry Gondorff, legendary con-man mentor to Redford’s younger grafter Johnny Hooker. The cash register of potential rung in Hill’s mind. Newman though was not so sure. His own ego was strong enough to be concerned about playing what he thought of as an old king passing on his crown – Newman thought this a little premature at his age. He was persuaded by the perfection of the script, Hill’s talent and the chance to recapture the on-screen magic with Redford. The con was on…
The plot demonstrates the precise execution of a confidence trick, performing this not just on the ‘mark’, the target, but also adding a second level of fun by playing one on the audience. Hooker (Redford) is a small-time grifter running scams with his black surrogate father Luther. When they rip off a numbers racket courier working for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (the sublimely intimidating Robert Shaw), Luther is killed. Hooker seeks revenge, enlisting the help of the aforementioned Gondorff (Newman) to pull off a hugely ambitous fake horse-racing wire scam to fleece Lonnegan. Gondorff assembles a veritable army of pro tricksters, following the rules of their profession by rigid discipline of set-up and execution to earn the vital component of streetwise Lonnegan’s confidence before encouraging his greed and then ripping him off without him knowing the identities of his opponents. Along the way, Hooker is pursued by the perfectly-cast Charles Durning as bent copper Snyder who along with Hooker is leaned on by FBI agent Polk to assist the Hoover boys in entrapping Gondorff.
The resulting con is so massive in scale that whilst we don’t find out till the end that in fact Hooker was in on this elaborate part, solely set-up as a crucial means of dispatching Snyder and Lonnegan when the horse-racing loss of Lonnegan’s $500,000 is a successful dupe, Hooker himself doesn’t know that the waitress Loretta (Dimitri Arliss) who he beds is actually a very clever deep-cover assassin who was hired by Lonnegan to kill him, Gondorff saw so far ahead, as is the nature of his supreme skill, that he sent a bodyguard to protect Hooker all along and kill her as she is about to take his life.
The pleasures of THE STING are greater than a suitcase crammed with used bills, and some elements still surprise many years after having watched it multiple times, such is its artful building of artifice.
Ward steeped himself in the lore of the confidence man, following their rules governing the keys to their success, namely the instilling of utter confidence in the mark via superb acting skills, turning his own greed against him, and ensuring that the greatest cons are carried out against the richest men, which morally is somewhat redeemable in a semi-Robin Hood style. Ward also ensured that the vernacular of the 1930s was heard in the dialogue; words such as ‘jake’, ‘spiffy’, but more importantly the clandestine language of con artists: “Those boys’ve got to be the Quill” stresses the wonderful Harold Gould as Kid Twist, needing a team of the highest calibre to cheat Lonnegan. The eye is treated as sumptuously as the ear: Edith Head provides gorgeously cut sharp suits and feminine clothing; the sets are terrific and deeply detailed.
Ironically, one of the most evocative aspects of the film is actually its most anachronistic; the famous Scott Joplin music was actually over thirty years out of date - ‘The Entertainer’ was written in 1902. The Ragtime tunes used in the film, played by celebrated composer Marvin Hamlisch, made it quite a shock when I saw the ‘1936’ card at the beginning as I’d always felt THE STING was set in the 1920s due to that jaunty score. However, who cares? Hill was right to choose mood over strict authenticity in that regard and no-one can hear that piece without fondly thinking of the gleeful hoodwinking tone of the film.
Incidentally, another quirky detail commandered is Robert Shaw’s limping in the film. Whilst it oddly fits his character, it wasn’t intentional. Shaw sheepishly confessed to Hill that he’d damaged his leg playing handball before filming. He feared it would rule him out and was fully ready to take responsibility. Hill asked him to walk up and down, pondered the gait it gave Shaw and simply decided it would be incorporated. (Conceivably, as an Irishman, it could have been a First World War wound).
This was just one example of Hill’s trusting in his own instincts that make him a very under-rated film director, one whom I’m going to explore much more within my blog. He inspired absolute respect from his crew and especially the actors. If you watch any interviews from this or BUTCH CASSIDY, the verdict on his judgement from actors is universally glowing. Even his stern discipline at times was overlooked as it was always in the service of the film, not his need to impose some external ego-driven style. Charles Durning was rebuffed when he attempted to add ideas to his part. “I hate New York actors”, grumbled Hill. “They’re always thinking”. For Hill, the concern was in telling the story for the audience’s benefit, nothing else mattered artistically. Newman made a valid point in the DVD documentary interview that film-makers like Hill had a mind-set that would be almost impossible to support in today’ committee-focused studio system, where fear of failure has given preview screenings and test cards precedence over sound artistic gut judgement. Back then, a film was shot, edited and then released by its director based on faith in their work, not endlessly second-guessed to the point of reduction into a pale shadow of itself (e.g. FIERCE CREATURES).
Sit back and enjoy the bravura magic trick performed by this classic Hollywood movie, made by creatives at the top of their game who clearly love their work and embrace the good fortune to be based on a marvellous script.