The year is 1936. It is the height of the Great Depression and a man named Johnny Hooker is making ends meet as a con man in Joliet, Illinois. He successfully cons an impressive $11,000 out of an unsuspecting victim in a pigeon drop with his partners Luther Coleman and Joe Erie. Luther announces to Hooker his intentions to abandon the life of crime shortly thereafter, and advises him to seek out an old friend by the name of Henry Gondorff, who has knowledge of how to pull “the big con”. Unbeknownst to Hooker and his cohorts, their mark was a numbers racket courier working for nefarious crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. By grabbing the attention of such an influential figure in the criminal underworld, Hooker may have bitten off more than he could chew.
As soon as it begins, The Sting successfully evokes the spirit of its era. Not only is the Universal logo presented in a sepia tone, the audience is shown illustrations in an art style emulating that of Norman Rockwell’s pieces in the Saturday Evening Post – all set Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. The story itself is divided into chapters, which are introduced with title cards one would expect out of an old-fashioned film serial. These callbacks to a bygone era even extend to the editing, as transition effects mimic wipes directors from around that time employed in their films and it even ends with an iris closing in on an important character.
The plot is catalyzed when a corrupt policeman, Lieutenant William Snyder, confronts Hooker. Unfortunately for the con man, he has already spent his share of the profits. He pays off the officer with counterfeit bills, and Lonnegan’s men murder the courier for his failure and Luther in revenge. Realizing he is next on their hit list, Hooker flees to Chicago. From there, he meets up with Henry Gondorff. Once a great con man, he has been on the run from the FBI for a number of years. As any big job would doubtlessly grab the authorities’ attention, he is understandably reluctant to help Hooker. He eventually relents, determined to take down the dangerous Lonnegan as much as Hooker.
In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) established the Motion Picture Production Code. It was popularly called the Hays Code after the company’s first chairman, Will H. Hays. With the government threatening to censor their output as the result of a media frenzy, Hollywood decided to solve the problem themselves. As such, anything remotely suggestive or transgressive was disallowed. Among other restrictions, the life of a criminal could not be portrayed in a positive light, the law had to be respected, and filmmakers couldn’t use revenge as a central theme.
The Sting is thus a result of the newfound freedom afforded to directors such as George Roy Hill. In a previous era, opposing Lonnegan would be the righteous, indisputably good law enforcement officer. The Sting, being made in the age to arise after the expiration of the Hays Code that would be dubbed New Hollywood, pits one group of criminals against another. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, it is easy to get behind the protagonists. They may swindle people out of their hard-earned money for a living, but from the minute Lonnegan’s men murder Luther in retaliation, you know they are far, far worse. The simple fact he would have one of his own couriers killed demonstrate that he is not one to be crossed. This makes it all the more audacious when Hooker and Gondorff proceed to do just that.
Gondorff eventually meets Lonnegan by buying into the crime boss’s high-stakes poker game. The former proceeds to beat the latter at his own game, deftly fixing his hand every round with his mark none the wiser. It takes a quite a lot of talent to make a simple game of poker suspenseful, but Mr. Hill proved he was more than up for the task. Despite Gondorff effortlessly duping him, Lonnegan has firmly established himself as a credible threat. Gondorff’s first hand consists of four threes, which would be respectable except for the fact that Lonnegan has four nines. Every time they raise their bets, you’re dreading the moment when they reveal their hands because you know it won’t turn out well for Gondorff. The con man then shocks Lonnegan and the audience when it turns out he has four of a kind – all Jacks.
While The Sting is a solid film throughout, Mr. Hill uses the last fifteen minutes to twist the audience’s expectations in many creative ways. Frustrated over his men’s inability to locate and kill Hooker in retaliation for the Joliet con, Lonnegan sends his greatest assassin, Salino, to fulfill the task. Around this time Hooker meets a waitress named Loretta while evading Snyder’s pursuit. This entire time, a mysterious figure wearing black gloves observes him. Snyder eventually captures Hooker and brings him to FBI Agent Polk. The agent forces Hooker to betray Gondorff by threating to incarcerate Luther’s widow. He is to participate in a sting operation in a rigged off-track betting parlor where Lonnegan will place a bet.
Right before the sting, the black-gloved man walks up to Hooker and Loretta and fires a single round. Loretta collapses instantly. As it turns out, the waitress’s last name happens to be Salino, and she was moments away from killing Hooker. This development is especially brilliant because the waitress is such an ordinary-looking character that most people would assume she is of little importance to the plot. The best part about it is that the twist works from the characters’ perspective as well. Who better to be a deadly assassin than someone so unassuming? Meanwhile, the suspicious man whom the audience would have assumed to be the assassin was actually hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.
Shortly thereafter, Lonnegan arrives at the better parlor and bets $500,000 on a horse named Lucky Dan to win. Unfortunately for him, the man who gave him the tip reiterates he that wanted Lonnegan to “place the bet” – which is to say, the horse was to finish second. Realizing too late what he meant, Lonnegan demands his money back. At that moment, Polk barges into the parlor, along with six FBI against. Confronting Gondorff, he tells Hooker he is free to go. An enraged Gondorff, realizing his own pupil betrayed him, shoots Hooker in the back. Polk responds by shooting Gondorff down and orders Snyder to remove Lonnegan from the scene.
Almost everything I described in the previous paragraph is a lie. Agent Polk is actually Hickey, another con man running his own plan in order to divert Snyder’s attention. With the persistent officer gone, Hooker and Gondorff wipe away the fake blood and join their comrades, cheering over having scammed Lonnegan out of $500,000. As the group strips the room, Hooker refuses his share, reasoning “[he would] only blow it”.
What I particularly like about this twist is that it’s a con played on the audience. During the height of the New Hollywood era, audiences realized nothing was guaranteed. Villains could win, heroes were deeply flawed, and a film could end on a completely sour note. What The Sting does is effectively subvert New Hollywood’s own subversive predilections. Hooker betraying Gondorff followed up with the two of them killing each other sounds like the perfect way to end a film from this era. As such, historians looking back and discovering this film for the first time are also likely to be successfully conned. The Sting takes its time reaching this point, but I can safely say the last fifteen minutes form one of the greatest twist endings in cinematic history.
George Roy Hill was singlehandedly responsible for codifying the caper film when he made The Sting. Though some may assume that there have been better takes on the genre in the years since, in reality, it has held up extraordinarily well – both as a period piece and a character-driven narrative. It has a spectacular twist ending, but at the same time, the experience isn’t solely defined by it. In fact, the best part about the film is watching these disparate pieces come together to form something greater than their sum. Complemented with excellent, iconic acting performances from leading men Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and you have yourself a classic absolutely worth looking into.
Final Score: 8/10