Revisiting The Sting

I rented The Sting on VHS ages ago because family said they liked it, and other than Robert Shaw’s excellent performance, it didn’t really grab me. I remember finding the cons too well explained for the rubes. Oh, I was so superior. So when it appeared in HD on Cinemax, I decided to give it another go, because I’ve come to love ’70s period pieces like Paper Moon, and this is one of the big ones.
The script came to be when David S. Ward, then working on the forgotten oddball comedy Steelyard Blues, researching a pickpocketing scene. This led him to the bible of con games, David W. Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. It’s an intriguing but dry treatise on the big, or long con that takes part in the second and third acts of the film. A short con, we see in the film’s first scene- the parting of a fool and his money, by appealing to his greed. That’s the heart of all con games, and the heart of The Sting.

We like to think of con games as being a relic of the ’30s and ’40s with bunco squads hunting clever, dapper grifters; but it still goes on today, and it’s much more complex than Bernie Madoff’s rookie scheme. A good con ends with the mark not even knowing he’s been conned, or by the time he does the grifters have evaporated like mist off a lake on a spring morning. The story starts at a bookie joint running late on their money drop; they send a runner with an envelope of cash, who walks outside just as Robert Redford seems to be helping a mugged man get his wallet from a fleeing crook. The best cons make you think you’re the tricky one until you realize you’ve run off with a pig in a poke, and that’s what happens here.
But Luther, an older black man played by Robert Earl Jones, who appeared in Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter, and Redford playing Johnny Hooker- don’t realize they’ve just ripped off an important mobster. When they count the loot they say “we’re millionaires!” and Hooker is soon parted from his share of the take, gambling roulette after picking up his burlesque dancer moll. Luther is the mentor, and chides him for acting like a no class grifter, or a pimp; he’s retiring, but he won’t have a chance to. They robbed Doyle Lonnegan, a shrewd, ruthless mob kingpin played by Robert Shaw, who wants an example made of them. Hooker gets crooked cop Charles Durning, Lt. Snyder, on his back as well. When he goes to warn Luther, it’s too late, but his mentor manages to tell him to find grifter Henry Gondorff before he goes to the big con in the sky.
And that’s just the first 24 minutes. The movie uses title cards and musical interludes for the parts of the big con- the Set-Up, the Hook, the Tale, the Wire, the Shut-out and the Sting. This, along with the fine mix of backlot sets and Chicago locations, saucy burlesque and salty dialogue, gives us both a period feel but reminds us that it’s a pastiche. For the Set-Up, we meet Henry Gondorff– Paul Newman’s character, named after a real con man who invented the “big store” con used in this film- who also has a grudge against Lonnegan. He’s washed up, working the carousel at a carnival. When we meet him, he’s hung over and Hooker throws him into a cold shower. He wants to be taught the long con, because he “don’t know enough about killin‘ to kill him.”

Newman is cool, with his famous knowing grin; Redford plays the young hothead, which I will begrudgingly say he does to perfection. He’s not my favorite of actors, but with his big smile he’s perfect for this role. Newman is frazzled and gray, 10 years after Hud, 7 since Cool Hand Luke, and eases into the older man’s shoes comfortably. They’d played together in another period piece, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and are comfortable together. Newman’s ice blue eyes compliment Redford’s set of sapphires. They put together a huge team of con men to figure an angle on Doyle Lonnegan, an Irishman who doesn’t drink, smoke or chase dames. They settle on an out of date con called “the wire.” It’s still in use today, and was also featured in The Grifters (full review); the trick is that “we” will know the race results, or the stock market prices, a little bit before “everyone else,” and can profit off of it. A sure thing.
But there are no sure things. They find out Lonnegan likes to cheat at poker and plays a big stakes game on a train; time to set the hook, with the whole gang involved. They’ve got Kid Twist, played by the dapper character actor Henry Gould; Ray Walston in the wise but still sly old man role, and Eileen Brennan of Clue and Private Benjamin as Billie, pickpocket supreme. And they hire dozens more. They’ll need them; Shaw plays Lonnegan with shark’s eyes, “like a doll’s eyes,” as he’d famously say a few years later. He’s as cold and merciless as they come, oozing masculine power that would make Tony Soprano piss his boxers. When he means something, he makes sure you understand, ending with “ya follow?”
The script makes him especially brutal just by adding little details to his speech. He made his way up the ladder when his boss was found with “an icepick in his eye.” And when someone gets his ire, he tells his thug Floyd “to take him out back and put one in his ear.” See, that makes it personal. We like our eyes and ears the way they are. His foil is his bodyguard Floyd, the hammer-nosed character actor Charles Dierkop, probably best known as killer Santa from Silent Night, Deadly Night but who’s always been in minor roles in the best gambling films like The Hustler and even Maverick. He’s the cool one who keeps Lonnegan’s temper from exploding, and he brings a naturalism to the role.

I won’t explain the machinations of the many layers of the con they play, it’s too entertaining to watch it unfold, and too boring to explain. But needless to say, at one hour in we’re still riveted, and the game has only just begun. Directed by George Roy Hill, famous for collaborating with Redford and Newman previously as Butch & Sundance, he brings life to the picture with short static shots, jump cuts in the action sequences, and silent montages set to music. For example, we see Hooker flinch from a manicure when he’s being preened to play his role; he’s never gotten one before, he’s small time. And the great chase under and over the Chicago El, and through a Hooverville of shanties. Both are set to Marvin Hamlisch’s unforgettable performance of Scott Joplin ragtime tunes, that oddly enough, would have been about 15 years out of style for the time; Hamlisch composed two Jazz age pieces that fit the period, but it was Joplin’s “The Entertainer” that became a hit we still hear today. My mother had the soundtrack LP, and we loved how it built up in in energy from that playful clarinet to a rollicking piano tune.
The plot gets more complicated and the film plays its own grifts on us, befitting the theme. The FBI comes in, represented by Dana Elcar (the boss in “MacGuyver“) as Agent Polk. Hooker’s loyalty to his dead mentor gets tested against his new bond with Gondorff; he romances a lunch counter girl named Loretta, while dodging a hit man named Salino, still following orders from Lonnegan to wipe out the con man who stole from the runner in the first scene! The colors are bright but not garish; the old times look fresh and new. Bright greenbacks, flashy suits, grungy greasy spoons with blue plate specials. The specter of the Depression haunts the background, as we move from the garish world of top class mobsters to the boarding room flops of the grifters gunning for that big score.
The Sting would go on to win 7 of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for, including Costume Design, Art Direction, Original Score, Film Editing, Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director for Hill. Producer Julia Philips would be the first female producer to win a shared Best Picture, and would note in her biography You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again that she felt Robert Shaw saved the picture by accepting the part when Paul Newman flew to London to hand him the script; no one else offered would take the part under Redford and Newman. However, he fought for third billing and a high paycheck, which may have led the producers not to campaign hard enough for him to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Shaw is best remembered for this and Quint the grizzled seaman in Jaws, but he never won an Oscar and was only nominated for A Man for All Seasons as hot-tempered King Henry VIII. And his limp was real; he’d injured his knee playing handball and wore a brace throughout filming.

George Roy Hill is best remembered for his work in the ’60s and ’70s, like the sentimental and cute The World of Henry Orient, where two young girls get a crush on Peter Sellers; the brave failure Slaughterhouse-Five, adapted from Vonnegut’s novel; an epic adaptation of Michener’s Hawaii. Later, he’d direct Slap Shot (full review), one of Newman’s better middle-age period films, and he manages great masses of characters well. The smart casting of grotesques to counteract the pretty faces of Paul and Robert brings a much-needed taste of reality. He’d go on to adapt John Irving’s The World According to Garp that would finally free Robin Williams from “Mork & Mindy,” and finish with the underrated Chevy Chase dark comedy Funny Farm. Not too shabby a run, George.
On second viewing, The Sting‘s greatness is much more evident to me. The film hasn’t changed, but I have. I’m glad to read that David Maurer sued for $10 million, alleging that his meticulously researched book on confidence games, The Big Con, was the basis of the screenplay. He settled out of court. I feel that despite it’s upbeat ending and glamorization of Hooker, Gondorff and their con man kind, it is definitely the equal if not the better of Stephen Frears‘ gritty neonoir The Grifters, based on Jim Thompson’s brutal novel. A prequel was planned, but never came about; The Sting II came out in 1983 with a completely different cast but the same screenwriter, and is best forgotten. But the original is deserving of its classic status, and if you haven’t seen it, you ought to. Its setting makes it timeless and the beautiful Technicolor prints make it look better than a new film. No excuses. In your queue, right now.

The Grifters

Everyone likes a good con, but like everything else in Hollywood, the con man is glamorized. Take The Sting for example; they’re nice folks, and they’re scamming a violent mob boss. In Matchstick Men, anxiety-ridden Nicholas Cage is teaching a young girl the ropes, only to get schooled himself. Even George C. Scott as The Flim-Flam Man is likeable in his irascible way. David Mamet’s con game movies are a bit more true to life, with House of Games being the paragon and The Spanish Prisoner being an enjoyable diversion. But if you want the dark gritty world of the con, to see what sociopaths they really are, you’ve got to watch Stephen Frears’s The Grifters.

Three excellent actors circle each other like a trio of sharks looking for weakness: John Cusack as the kid over his head; Anjelica Huston as his mother, a mob moll who knows the score; and Annette Bening, a vamp and veteran of the long con who lost her has partner and is hungry for more. Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, author of such pulp classics as Pop. 1280, The Getaway and After Dark, My Sweet, the story is down and dirty, pulls no punches, and harbors no pretensions about what kind of people they are.

Roy is purely small time, but the women in his life are ruthless professionals. His estranged mother Lilly works for a big mobster, evening out the odds at the track. She handles a lot of cash, and is skimming for her retirement fund. It’s expected; you can’t trust someone who doesn’t steal. Myra is between sugar daddies; her last one went off his rocker, and she needs a man to do the long con with. She sleeps with the mark, and leads him into the classic investment scam. We get to see it in flashback, so we do get a dose of The Sting with our dark noir tale. We meet Roy doing parlor-trick scams in a race track bar, switching a $20 for a $10 when he buys a drink; the bartender doesn’t fall for it, and punches him so hard in the gut he winds up in the hospital.

Pat Hingle’s most memorable role.

Lilly has been trying to steer him away from the life, and he resents it; he refuses to call her ‘mother,’ and treats her like shit. Through flashback we see how he left home and got mentored by your typical white suit gambling con man, a short con guy, and he thinks he’s ready for the life. But he’s soft. Myra on the other hand, knows how to play smarter men than Roy, and smells money once Lilly comes around. The two women circle him like a pair of jungle cats sizing each other up; they know each other’s motives, but they also know Roy won’t admit that mother knows best.

It all goes pear-shaped once Roy’s injured; Lilly misses her bets at the track that day to drag him to the hospital and save his life. Nothing stings more than a thankless child, and when he still sides with Myra, the story moves into higher gear. We get to see what a vamp Myra is, played with psychopathic delight by Bening, when she needs to cover the rent on her townhouse. The landlord is a fat, sweaty guy who knows she’s going to manipulate him into letting it go; we know immediately that she’s traded sex for favors with him before, and even after his stern denials, she gets her way again. And she’s so cynical about it, that she’s laughing while he’s pumping away, because she remembers the daily special at the cafe this morning: “Royal hothouse tomato, topped with a generous slice of ripe cheese!”

And she is quite the hot tomato; she’s naked more often than not in this film, and Frears manages to make every shot of her lithe body framed as the weapon it is. As much as I found the mid-90s date-rape defense of “women using sex as a weapon” ludicrous, a vamp like Myra is what the phrase was made for. Cut of the same cloth as Linda Fiorentino’s iconic portrayal in The Last Seduction, and Kathleen Turner’s career-building character in Body Heat, Bening plays it as her own; instead of a husky-voiced femme fatale, she’s a giggling, slinking minx and slides through every scene know exactly what she wants and how to get it.

Lilly gets taken to task for mucking her job up that day to save Roy; her big boss Bobo Justus, played with oily menace to perfection by Pat Hingle, shows up to wonder where the bet money went, since it surely wasn’t put on bets that day. We see Lilly nervously digging through trash cans at the track for other people’s receipts, knowing this day will come. When Bobo shows up in his Cadillac, we get one of the most memorable scenes of the film- where we see the short con roots that both he and Lilly came out of, and how someone like Bobo Justus keeps his grifters in line. Unfortunately the scene is not embeddable on youtube, but you can watch it by clicking here.

She won’t drink O.J. for a good while.

Marty Scorsese narrates the opening to the picture, and while Frears is quite talented in his own right- Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Queen– he’s not the auteur that Scorsese is. The movie is set in present day 1990, but still has the old-timey feel of a ’40s noir, in their manner of dress and how they handle themselves; it gives the film a distinctive look, but also makes it feel like a pastiche, and less realistic. The excellent dialogue and script by Donald Westlake is enough to recall the sharp repartee of classic noir, and the cinematography alongside it. Frears makes sure to update Myra’s scam for the information age, but in a way that shields it from anachronisms. Even today, not all the life-ruining cons come from a Nigerian email address; usually buried in the back of the newspaper, you still read of people being swindled of their nest eggs by the lure of a “sure thing,” and the bunco squad at the local precinct is just as busy as ever.

The end of the novel and the end of the book are at odds. As Myra and Lilly try to take each other down, Roy is making the one smart decision in his life- to leave the life. But it’s too late. Myra wants the cash Lilly’s been skimming, and when she strikes, Roy is caught in the crossfire when Mom hits back. In the movie, there is deep guilt, and Lilly has to deal with what she did to survive. In the book, it is an act of pure vengeance, a ruthless predator dispatching her weak offspring. The movie is more powerful, but lacks the complete amorality that infused Jim Thompson’s novel. Like the original ending to Double Indemnity, I guess the audience couldn’t take it. Bunch of sentimental marks. As it stands, The Grifters is still one of the best and darkest movies about confidence men, and any fan of film noir should add it to their list of must-sees.