There was a time when I made the mistake that many before have made when watching The Sting (1973): I thought the familiar piano tune “The Entertainer” was written for the film. Actually, it was penned by Scott Joplin a little over seventy years before the movie, and a full generation before the 1930s when it is set. Despite all this, it is the perfect tune for a clever little heist movie that set the standard for the Oceans’ trilogy, even though that too was technically stealing from another earlier picture. There truly is nothing original in Hollywood, but we can at least appreciate the good copycats.
The Sting does a wonderful job of giving you a sense of the Great Depression Era, from its old-timey opening credits to the bread lines and general despair you see as it takes you into the run down streets of 1930s Chicago. As a local numbers runner for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) is leaving to make his run, he hears a shot, a call for help, and a man running down the alley. As a potential thief is about to get away, another man steps out and trips the assumed assailant, causing the fleeing man to drop an envelope. When the envelope is recovered, the passer-by returns it to the fallen man, who then asks the numbers runner to complete the drop of over $10,000 for him since he has been shot in the leg. The numbers runner agrees to do so, and as he gets into a cab without any intention of delivering this money he realizes that there is nothing in the wallet and that his own wallet with the cash he is supposed to courier has been stolen. The whole thing had been an elaborate set-up by the three men: Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) as the victim, Joe Erie (Jack Kehoe) as the would-be thief, and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) as the rescuer. When Lonnegan hears of the con, he coldly orders the perpetrators to be found. The first they catch up with is Luther, who mere hours before had informed Johnny that he was giving up the life of a grifter. Johnny was particularly close to Luther, but the older con artist was also well-known and beloved among Chicago’s criminal underworld. Before he died, Luther had told Johnny to go see an old acquaintance of his, the semi-retired professional swindler Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). When Johnny meets Henry, he immediately discusses his desire to get even with Lonnegan. Henry agrees to get together a crew for this purpose, but he can tell there is something else going on with Johnny. It is more than solely the desire for revenge. Johnny is not only helping to plot the act they are going to pull on Lonnegan, but also dodging henchmen sent to kill him for the part he played in stealing from the crime boss. He is not telling Henry about this last part, or the fact that Joliet police detective Lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning) is after Johnny for part of the original score. Hence, with a wary eye towards his new partner, they create an elaborate ruse involving horse race betting to take down Lonnegan. After making an initial meeting on a train ride, Johnny ingratiates himself with Lonnegan and begins feeding the crime boss a story about a fake fix he has on the race results. All Lonnegan has to do is wait for a phone call at a drug store near the bogus book created by Henry and Johnny. When there is a ring, he takes the information as to the winner of a particular race to the book, places the bet, and collects the winnings. After a few preliminary tests of the system, and because he believes he is going to ruin Henry who had cheated him at cards on the train, Lonnegan decides to bet a half a million dollars. However, he had been purposely fed the wrong information, and loses everything. Lonnegan explodes in anger demanding his money back, but that is when everything Johnny had supposedly not been telling Henry crashes the party. Snyder, along with specious Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Agent Polk (Dana Elcar), burst into the room and demand Henry’s arrest. Henry, believing Johnny had betrayed him, pulls out a gun and shoots his one time partner, but then is killed when Agent Polk returns fire. Lonnegan is removed by Snyder, and then it is all revealed to be a dog and pony show designed to get the heat off Johnny, and to make Lonnegan believe that those who had cheated him were dead.
There is an interesting exchange as The Sting concludes between Henry and Johnny. We had spent all this time watching Johnny play his part in trying to get even with Lonnegan, only to watch him walk away from his share of the small fortune they had taken from the crime boss. When Henry asks Johnny why his younger associate does not take the money, Johnny brushes it aside by saying that he would only blow it all right away. This is a call back to a previous moment when, after he and Luther scored their first haul, he had risked it all on one spin of the wheel at a fixed roulette table. Still, call me Catholic as usual, but I like to think there is a higher lesson learned at this moment. I would prefer such revelations not come while pulling off a heist, but this is Hollywood. At any rate, Henry warns Johnny about letting emotions get the best of him, the primary one here being the desire for revenge. Not that Johnny does much to make the situation easier. One might hope that Johnny would be completely honest with Henry, but the latter is too wise to be fooled for long. Now, much of the mess Johnny gets into is self-inflicted, particularly with the diner waitress with which he gets involved, Loretta (Dimitra Arliss). She turns out to be an assassin hired by Lonnegan to kill Johnny. And though it all is rigged from the beginning, there is enough of a sense of relief for Johnny to know when to walk away. This is driven home when proceeding Lonnegan’s departure at the end, Johnny turns to Henry and says that the older man was right, that this is not enough, but it is good enough. There is much to be taken from this in terms of Faith. We can never have enough of God. Yet, at times getting fixated on the concept of never being full can lead to a sort of mania and further problems. I have seen people undergo miracles, stuff as amazing as conning a sharp criminal like Lonnegan. In the aftermath, though, their continued grasping for the feeling of that moment exactly as it was can sour their relationship with God. He is always enough, whether it is while saying an “Our Father” upon rising, or witnessing someone presumed dead in the hospital and coming back to life. It is good to always want more, but the more you grasp and what you experience does not meet your expectations, the harder it will be. If you can let go of those expectations and be content with whatever God brings you, seeing the miraculous in the great and small, you will be satisfied. I just hope that Johnny turned his satisfaction to more legal pursuits down the road. This is what Luther was going to do, so maybe there was some inspiration.
I commend The Sting in a lot of ways, if not for its focus on criminal behavior. It holds up, too, in our era of slick heist films and modern computer generated images (CGI). There is one shot where you see the expanse of downtown 1930s Chicago, and the special effects to recreate it are well done considering that it was made in the early 1970s. If you know me, too, you might say that I like this movie just because it is set in Chicago. I mean, that helps. At the same time, it has great performances and a good story where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. What else could you ask for from a film?