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Drama section? No. Classic Drama? No. Could it be in the comedy section? It was a last-ditch attempt to find it myself before asking the surly teen behind the counter. She strode directly to where The Sting sat on its shelf-in the Academy Award Winner section. Silly of me to have forgotten that this was a winner in 1973; but then I was a lad at the time, and the first time I saw the movie, I spent the better part of it asking my mother what in the heck was going on! I couldn't follow the complicated tapestry of disguise, double-cross, and duplicity.
From whence came this jones to see the classic crime tale starring the dynamic duo of 70's heartthrobbery? Well, it all started with a fascinating book called The Big Con, by David Maurer. Dr. Maurer was a linguist whose specialty was the argot of the grift. He interviewed many con men and assembled a compendium of their slang which expanded into a detailed look at the confidence rackets from the short and long cons to the people that run them to corrupt government officials to the marks that get fleeced. This fascinating read originally published in the early 40's has been newly reprinted, and its preface says that it was a primary source for the screenplay in question.
As a side review, I give The Big Con 9-7/8 stars. Dry in only a few places, it mainly holds a friendly, interested tone; and it's brimming with true tales and quotes from the international confidence rackets.
So, I needed to rent The Sting, and boy, did it deliver! I was astonished at how much of the movie stayed with me over the decades-the card playing scene, the "shut-out," and, of course, the surprise ending (referred to by grifters as "the cacklebladder"). My memory amplified by the engaging research into the world of early-century confidence games helped me get through this viewing with a clear head-but I was still flabbergasted at the end. The story is played with such subtlety that if I wait another decade to see this film again, I would not be surprised to be taken again by its plot-twistiness.
Briefly, it's the story of Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), a small-time grifter whose partner is killed by a powerful mob-boss--with a legitimate front--named Doyle Lonnegan. For vengeance, Hooker pulls con man Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman) out of retirement. (Incidentally, Henry Gondorf was a real con man's monicker, pulled right out of The Big Con, along with references to "The Big Alabama Kid," "Limehouse Chappie," etc.) Gondorf, as Mr. Shaw, baits Lonnegan to fall into a scheme with Hooker, posing as a lackey of Shaw's named Kelly. Lonnegan takes the bait and teams up with Kelly to put the kibosh on Shaw's betting parlor. Meanwhile, police agent Snyder is after Hooker for a trumped up counterfeiting charge. Lonnegan is a tough mark, but Hooker manages to evade Lonnegan's goons (trying to kill him over a $10,000 score he made off them-without realizing that he's also Kelly) long enough to pull Lonnegan into Shaw/Gondorf's "Big Store." They tell Lonnegan the tale, send him the wire, play the stick for him, flash him the boodle, tighten him up, pull the shut-out, put him on the send, tip him off, and-wham!-give him the sting. Meanwhile number two, Federal agents, with Snyder's help, set up Hooker/Kelly to play the stoolie, ratting out Gondorf before the store can fold. Look out below! This story is backed up by a strong supporting cast of well-played grifters, gun-molls, assassins, and even one or two legits. I thought The Erie Kid might have been played by Bob Denver, but no.
With a fine score by the amazing American original, Scott
Joplin, arranged by the not-so-amazing Marvin Hamlisch,
this video is great for an evening of escape with family, friends,
or alone. Without the manic pace and rapid-fire cutting of many
contemporary movies, this film relies on a solid script and expert
story-telling to create an engrossing, endearing tale. Like Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, these characters come to represent
all that's true and good. Though they are outlaws, their victims
represent the greater evil, and the ending doesn't just leave
the viewer feeling satisfied and vindicated-but intelligent as
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.