Remembering the great actor and writer Robert Shaw.
The Sting is a 1973 American caper film set in September 1936, involving a complicated plot by two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw).
The film was directed by George Roy Hill, who had directed Newman and Redford in the western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.
Created by screenwriter David S. Ward, the story was inspired by real-life cons perpetrated by brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and documented by David Maurer in his book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man.
The title phrase refers to the moment when a con artist finishes the “play” and takes the mark’s money. If a con 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 played out in 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 anachronistic use of ragtime, particularly the melody “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, which was adapted for the movie by Marvin Hamlisch (and a top-ten chart single for Hamlisch when released as a single from the film’s soundtrack).
The film’s success encouraged a surge of popular and critical acclaim for Joplin’s work.
The Sting was hugely successful at the 46th Academy Awards, being nominated for 10 Oscars and winning seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
When Hooker asks Gondorff, a once-great con-man now hiding from the FBI, to take on the dangerous Lonnegan, he is initially reluctant. He relents, however, and decides to resurrect an elaborate and supposedly obsolete scam known as “the wire”, using a crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor.
Aboard the opulent 20th Century Limited, Gondorff, posing as boorish Chicago bookie Shaw, buys into Lonnegan’s private, high-stakes poker game. Shaw makes Lonnegan furious with his behavior, then out-cheats him to win $15,000. Hooker, posing as Shaw’s disgruntled employee, Kelly, is sent to collect the winnings and instead convinces Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaw’s operation. Kelly reveals that he has a partner named Les Harmon (actually con man Kid Twist) in the Chicago Western Union office, who will allow them to win bets on horse races by past-posting.
Meanwhile, Snyder has tracked Hooker to Chicago, but his pursuit is thwarted when he is summoned by undercover FBI agents led by Agent Polk, who orders him to assist in their plan to arrest Gondorff using Hooker. Additionally, Lonnegan has grown frustrated with his men’s inability to find and kill Hooker. Unaware that Kelly is Hooker, he demands that Salino, his best assassin, kill Hooker. A mysterious figure with black leather gloves is then seen following and observing Hooker.
Kelly’s connection appears effective, as Harmon provides Lonnegan with the winner of one horse race and the trifecta of another race. Lonnegan agrees to finance a $500,000 bet at Shaw’s parlor to break Shaw and gain revenge. Shortly thereafter, Snyder captures Hooker and brings him before FBI Agent Polk. Polk forces Hooker to betray Gondorff by threatening to incarcerate Luther Coleman’s widow.
The night before the sting, Hooker sleeps with Loretta, a waitress from a local restaurant. As Hooker leaves the building the next morning, he sees Loretta walking toward him. The black-gloved man appears behind Hooker and shoots her dead – she was Lonnegan’s hired killer, Loretta Salino, and the shooter was hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.
Armed with Harmon’s tip to “place it on Lucky Dan”, Lonnegan makes the $500,000 bet at Shaw’s parlor on Lucky Dan to win. As the race begins, Harmon arrives and expresses shock at Lonnegan’s bet, explaining that when he said “place it” he meant, literally, that Lucky Dan would “place” (i.e., finish second). In a panic, Lonnegan rushes the teller window and demands his money back. As this happens, Agent Polk, Lt. Snyder, and a half dozen FBI officers storm the parlor. Polk confronts Gondorff, then tells Hooker he is free to go. Gondorff, reacting to the betrayal, shoots Hooker in the back. Polk then shoots Gondorff and orders Snyder to get the ostensibly respectable Lonnegan away from the crime scene. With Lonnegan and Snyder safely away, Hooker and Gondorff rise amid cheers and laughter. Agent Polk is actually Hickey, a con man, running a con atop Gondorff’s con to divert Snyder and provide a solid “blow off”. As the con men strip the room of its contents, Hooker refuses his share of the money, saying “I’d only blow it”, and walks away with Gondorff.
The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #39 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written.
Academy Award for Best Picture
Academy Award for Directing – (George Roy Hill)
Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay – (David S. Ward)
Academy Award for Best Art Direction – (Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne)
Academy Award for Best Costume Design – (Edith Head)
Academy Award for Film Editing – (William H. Reynolds)
Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation – (Marvin Hamlisch)
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures – (George Roy Hill)
Doyle Lonnegan – Villain (Robert Shaw)
Once again, Robert Shaw gave an excellent performance as the film’s villain Doyle Lonnegan. He steals every scene in “The Sting”.