Genre: Heist Running Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.
Release Date: December 25th, 1973 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: George Roy Hill Actors: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould
hile making a debt delivery to the mob, Luther (Robert Earl Jones) is knifed by a thug in an alley. He’s aided by Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), a coincidentally placed Good Samaritan, and Mottola (James J. Sloyan), a courier for a criminal betting operation. When Mottola agrees to finish the drop for the wounded man’s $5,000 payoff (intent on high-tailing it out of there with the loot), he realizes all too late that he’s been robbed by a trio of grifters – and their take is Mottola’s current envelope of $11,000 of a racketeer’s money being ferried through Chicago.
The money is spent almost instantly (easy come, easy go), out on a date with his regular girl Crystal (Sally Kirkland), a burlesque dancer. On the way home, Johnny is assaulted by corrupt cop Lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning), who wants a cut of the conman’s prize. It’s money that he’s been informed belonged to New York mobster banker Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). This foretells of greater problems, since Snyder always gets his information last. And sure enough, Hooker discovers that Lonnegan’s assassins have murdered Luther, intent on making an example of the incident. Hooker skips town to meet up with Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), a skilled swindler mastering the “big cons” that typically involve the feds when things go south – and a man who can help with revenge. It doesn’t take much convincing before Gondorff begins the set-up process for a major cozening, targeting the generally unreachable, usually un-trickable criminal heavy.
“He’s not as tough as he thinks,” scoffs Hooker. “Neither are we,” reminds Gondorff. It takes a lot of money to design a believable con, and in this scenario, the scope of the hoax is massive. The film starts in September of 1936 in Joliet, Illinois, with the effects of the Great Depression still weighing heavily upon civilians, though Gondorff and his chief associates, including J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston) and Kid Twist (Harold Gould), remain profitable nonetheless. Gondorff does comment on his former operations, especially when so many entities were involved (especially corrupt officials): “No sense being a grifter if it’s the same as being a citizen.”
“The Sting” cleverly clings to a few extra twists, refusing to show all the cards even when the big con needs to make sense to audiences well aware of the heisters and the marks. The plot is deliciously complex; additional mysteries hover until the very end. So too lasts the humorous, quirky dialogue, and the enjoyably chummy chemistry between Redford and Newman, nicely recreating the repartee and camaraderie of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (also directed by George Roy Hill) four years earlier. Here, audiences are also treated to an unconventional editing technique through the use of separated chapters (something Quentin Tarantino would borrow for many of his films) that designate particularly significant plot occurrences.
The action isn’t explosive or over-the-top. Instead, it’s of the rivetingly intelligent kind, with unchecked emotions reaching boiling points and unnerving glances bordering on palpable. “Suspenseful” doesn’t even begin to describe the level of nerve-wracking verbal dueling that ignites between conversing opponents. To contrast the unspoken tensions and steadily soaring scam is a subplot of Snyder’s increasingly near-miss apprehensions by Hooker, who must flee on foot through streets, train stations, and crowded staircases. Instantly notable and easily identifiable is Scott Joplin’s unforgettable ragtime music, accompanying the physical excitement (including the aforementioned chases) right alongside the calmer romantic ones (Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss serve as supporting love interests). The lighthearted tunes brilliantly set a tone and mood for the events of this heist-movie-to-end-all-heist-movies (or rather to serve as a solid template for future similarly themed productions), which deservedly went on to receive the Best Picture Oscar of 1973.
– Mike Massie