The shine of 1973's THE STING has happily not been tarnished by decades of cinema similarly featuring confidence games. Elaborate plots by grifters to swindle and cheat their rivals, usually out of a large sum of money. Films such as THE SPANISH PRISONER and NINE QUEENS delight in keeping audiences guessing as to who is conning whom, and subsequently pulling out the rug when all indications prove entirely wrong. Some of these films allow us certain knowledge, to be "in on it", but usually there is at least one hoodwink which we didn't see coming.
The finale of THE STING has such a moment, and it's a doozie. My saying that alone may be a spoiler, so beware. What is the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway? Hasn't everyone of a certain age who seeks out film already seen this box office smash? Or at least that its outcome is widely known? Something akin to Darth Vader's revelation to Luke Skywalker? I did read that co-star Robert Redford, who plays the wonderfully named Johnny Hooker, didn't watch his own movie until 2004, over thirty years after its initial release. I had forever caught individual scenes but did not see the entire thing until 2016. So shhhhh, already!
It's 1936; Illinois con man Hooker participates in small time hustles until one day he nets a windfall - a cool 11 K from a mark who quite unfortunately turns out to be a courier for the hissably mean crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Hooker gets this information a bit too late from dirty cop William Snyder (Charles Durning) - who is looking for a piece - as he's already blown his entire share at the roulette wheel. When Hooker's friend and colleague ends up dead, he scrambles to Chicago, where he hooks up with legendary con artist Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), now a face down drunk who operates a merry-go-round. But legends don't die easily.
Hooker is thirsty for revenge. Gondorff is wise enough to know such a driver is bad for the business of grifting, but he sees potential in the kid. A plan is hatched to hit back at the vicious Snyder, one that will involve poker and horse racing and lots of faked locations: offices and parlors and the like, and even Federal agents. Oops, I did it again. It's difficult to talk about THE STING without giving things away. And while we're privy to the boys' and their accomplices' trickery, David S. Ward's exemplary screenplay still provides a few gotchas in the later going. We don't share every conversation with these guys.
There is pleasure as well in watching this great cast work. Newman and Redford re-team with their BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID director George Roy Hill and turn in some natural, charismatic performances. Star performances, with merely a wink or even a belch. The supporting cast is comprised of actors like Eileen Brennan and Ray Walston, all turning in perfectly whimsical yet sorta gritty turns in a Depression era landscape where everyone is hungry. If you have not viewed this classic you owe yourself. Even if you've heard Marvin Hamlisch's adaption of Scott Joplin ragtime music a million times. And it's still just wonderful.