Cinematic Century

1973 – The Sting

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I’m going to try and not bring this up every week, but it’s frankly amazing to look through these years and find the sheer number of classic films that were released in the same year. For a long time my weekly choices basically boiled down to a competition between two fairly equally matched films, but lately it’s become a veritable battle royale. And 1973 is one of the more intense of those battles I’ve had to discuss before. I mean, just go check out the list of films released this year. We could have talked about the incredibly eerie and unnerving suspense masterpiece the Wicker Man, before cheekily bringing up the Nicholas Cage remake. We got the rare non-sci-fi George Lucas film in American Graffiti, one of the best examinations of that cognitively dissonant time period in a person’s life after finishing high-school. We could have done a lot of drugs and talked about the absolute madness of the French animated classic Fantastic Planet. Or, turned on every single light in the house and talked about the pants-soiling terror of the Exorcist, a movie I still struggle to watch. Or hey, we could have gotten real pulpy and talked about things like Westworld or Enter the Dragon, just diving into some schlocky joy. Hell, we even could have discussed famous cannibal story Soylent Green, which is really worth a watch even if you know the famous twist. But, there were really three movies that stood highest, and made this whole week one of the harder I’ve ever had to choose. Obviously, as you can tell from the name of this article, I went with the con-man classic the Sting, a film that causes me to instantaneously break into a grin whenever I think of it. But, weirdly enough, there was another, equally wonderful, con-man movie that was released in 1973 in the delightful father-daughter caper Paper Moon, which I highly recommend checking out if your need for Great Depression-era scam artist stories isn’t fully scratched by the Sting. But, the film that came closest to over-throwing the Sting, and the film that has given me a shocking amount of consternation and legitimate stress, is the Robert Altman classic the Long Goodbye. I love Philip Marlowe, and while this adaptation isn’t really the most faithful, it’s still one of the best films to ever bring Marlowe to life, while basically going on to create the phenomenon of the Big Lebowski. It’s an amazing film, and I may start kicking myself in a few weeks for making this decision, but as of right now I feel confident that the Sting is my favorite film of 1973. Because who doesn’t love a good story about people screwing over the rich?

This film began life in the mind of screenwriter David S Ward, who found himself absolutely transfixed with the idea of pickpockets, con men, and all manner of scam-artists. The idea of exploring their criminal world, complete with their own language, fascinated Ward, along with the challenge of creating a script that let the viewer in on the scam, while still having enough twists and turns to shock them. And, in the process he ended up coming across a book called the Big Con written by David Maurer, among many other books, which laid out the various scams and tricks that con artists of the Great Depression era used, including some specific tales of prolific con men. And, that ended up getting Ward in a bit of trouble after Maurer sued over the idea that Ward plagiarized his book, specifically because it told the story of two con men brothers named Gondorff. But, none of those legal woes kept the film from going into production, and after being picked up by director George Roy Hill a bit of a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reunion took form, placing Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the starring roles. The film then took full advantage of it’s 1930’s setting, but specifically by recreating the feeling of films of the 1930’s, putting everything in a slightly heightened aesthetic, swimming with costumes, scenery, and time-appropriate cars, all while being scored by some authentic ragtime courtesy of Scott Joplin. And, it worked. The Sting became a hugely popular film, both critically and commercially, to the point that it is still one of the highest grossing films in American history, adjusted for inflation. It was a run-away success, going on to dominate the Academy Awards, including a win for Best Picture. And, as time has gone on, that reputation hasn’t really waned. It was never really forgotten, and hasn’t been reappraised. It’s still thought of as a hell of a good time, and remains one of the most satisfying con artist movies ever made.

 

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The Sting follows the exploits of a young grifter named Johnny Hooker who is operating in Joilet, Illinois in 1936. He and his mentor Luther Coleman are barely squeaking by, pulling small cons on people to survive during the Depression, until one day they hit the jackpot. They scam a random guy on the street, and find that he was carrying $11,000. Unfortunately, that money turns out to belong to a powerful Chicago crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan through an illegal bookie office he was running in Joilet. Johnny and Luther initially take their windfall as a miracle, and the two start making big plans. Luther wants to retire from being a grifter, and tells Johnny that he should go to Chicago and start working with a bigger con man named Henry Gondorff where he can enhance his skills. Johnny isn’t really interested in leaving Luther behind, but that becomes a mute point when some of Lonnegan’s men kill Luther, and make it clear they’re coming for him next. So, Johnny finds himself with only one goal in life. He wants to take down Lonnegan, preferably with a con. And, taking Luther at his word, Johnny decides that the only way to accomplish this will be by travelling to Chicago and teaming up with Gondorff.

Unfortunately, when Johnny gets to Chicago he finds that Gondorff has fallen on rough times. He’s washed up and has basically given up on the con game. But, a combination of Johnny’s enthusiasm and Gondorff’s affections for Luther make him agree to help Johnny out. So, the two get hard at work, deciding to pull a classic con on Lonnegan, which will take a whole lot of planning, a score of fellow con artists helping them, and a fake gambling den of their own. And, while their new employees start getting everything set up in Chicago, Gondorff and Johnny head out to get Lonnegan on the line. Since Lonnegan is still looking for Johnny Hooker, even sending an elusive assassin named Salino his way, so the two create new identities for themselves. Gondorff becomes a rich drunk named Shaw who runs a gambling den in Chicago, and Johnny becomes his malcontent partner Kelly. Gondorff then bribes his way into a high-stakes poker game aboard a train, which Lonnegan is attending. Gondorff generally acts like a drunken lout, irritating Lonnegan to no end, and eventually is able to cheat enough to $15,000 off of Lonnegan, earning the crime boss’ ire. At which point Johnny approaches Lonnegan with a plan. He explains to the crime boss that he’s grown sick of his “boss” as well, and as devised a plan to ruin his business, he just needs Lonnegan’s help.Johnny explains that he has an in at the Western Union office, making it so that he knows the winners of all horse races before they get passed on to Shaw’s gambling den, meaning he can always win. But, since it would get suspicious is Johnny himself did it, he needs Lonnegan to make the bets for him, thus getting them both a lot of money and destroying “Shaw.” Which Lonnegan loves.

Everything seems to be going fantastically at the point, which is when a Joilet detective named Snyder arrives in Chicago, having tracked Johnny down. Snyder ends up meeting a group of FBI agents who are looking for Gondorff, and together they bring in Johnny to make him a deal. If he can give them Gondorff, he’ll get off scot free. And he accepts. This decision seems to really weigh on Johnny, and combined with the stress of the upcoming con and the fact that Lonnegan is still technically trying to kill him for the whole Joilet job, he ends up seeking some human compassion in the form of a waitress at a local diner he’s been flirting with named Loretta. The two end up sleeping together the night before the big con is supposed to go down, which ends up becoming awkward the next day when it turns out that Loretta is actually Lonnega’s assassin named Sollino, but Johnny is saved by an acquaintance of Gondorff’s. Johnny then heads out to “Shaw’s” so their con can commence. Lonnegan gets a call telling him which horse to bet on, and he proceeds to march into “Shaw’s” with $500,000. Lonnegan makes a big show of it, and as soon as it’s too late to take his bet back the fake contact from the Western Union shows up to tell him he got it wrong, and bet the wrong horse. Lonnegan freaks out, and demands his $500,000 back from Shaw, which is when the FBI arrives to wreck the whole place. And, when it becomes clear that Johnny sold Gondorff out, Gondorff shoots him in the back, causing the FBI to gun Gondorff down in front of everyone. Lonnegan panics and flees from the gambling den with Snyder, the cop who followed Johnny from Joilet, not wanting to get drawn into the double murder that just happened. And, as soon as they’re gone, the act is dropped. These men weren’t with the FBI, they were fellow con-men working on the job, and they’ve now convinced both Lonnegan and Snyder that Johnny and Gondorff are dead, leaving everyone to split up their take and destroy their fake gambling den, having successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of the most powerful crime boss in America.

 

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A few weeks back I talked about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film that has continued to grow on me each time I’ve seen it, primarily because of the remarkable chemistry between the two leads, bringing these two characters to vivid life in a way that makes them feel like real friends. And, as luck would have it, the same magic was brought together just a few years later to create a movie that I loved from the first moment I saw it. This movie is extremely my jam. The idea to tell a story about a charismatic pair of con-men in the Great Depression certainly seems like a no-brianer. The kind of idea that is almost guaranteed to become a successful movie, especially if you mange to get two stars like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But, the decision to then push this film into a heightened movie-reality version of the Great Depression is what takes it from a great idea to a perfect one. This film is dripping in production design, giving us a tale that practically becomes a fable. The sets, costumes, and props are all larger than life, matching up with the ridiculous personalities we get to see, giving us a story of what we’d want con-men in the Great Depression to be more than what it probably would be. It’s rare you find a film that’s actually kind of nostalgic from the Great Depression, but this film is as close to that as you can get, giving us a fun little caper that at times walks the line between farce and homage, and never wavers too far in either direction. The idea that screenwriter David S Ward took this project as a personal challenge to build a script in a way that lets the viewer in on the con enough to follow along, but also so that some surprises and twists can occur is immediately evident, creating a movie that makes you delighted to be tricked.

I find it very fascinating that this film and Paper Moon came out in the same year. The idea of “grifters in the Great Depression” must have been percolating a few years before 1973 for whatever reason, but both films managed to come out within the same year, telling two very different stories that still end up propping up the same concept. Con men are cool. America has always had a strange fascination with the concept of outlaws, and it’s probably done a fair amount of damage to our national psyche, while giving us all an almost innate affection for scoundrels. We love stories about crime, but tales of heists and cons really seem to draw people in. America loves a huckster. It’s one of the reasons why I feel like P.T. Barnum is a far greater embodiment of what America really and truly is that some elder statesman or distinguished author could ever be. We’re all always on the lookout to get ahead, to get rich quick, and to succeed in our own individualistic ways. It’s just the way people in this country seem to have been wired, predominately from the fables and history we’re taught. Which, gives rise to a lot of con-artists, people like Johnny and Gondorff who wouldn’t think twice about taking you for all you’re worth. But, the thing that this film does so well, where I feel other con-man movies can often fail, is that you still find them incredibly likable. And, I feel like that’s because this movie taps into a very similar mentality of outlaw and bank-robber movies. Because, Johnny and Gondorff aren’t trying to screw over average people. They aren’t threatening someone like the viewer. They’re screwing over an even bigger criminal, some rich guy who wouldn’t think twice about an average person. Which makes them heroes, not criminals. Even though they have no intention of stealing form the rich and giving to the poor, they still fulfill some sort of Robin Hood impulse. They give us someone to root for, even though they’re committing crimes that would normally shock and appall the average person. No one likes it when their grandma gets conned by a phishing email. But, when you have someone tricking a rich asshole? We eat it up. Because we all wish we could be that outlaw.

 

The Sting was written by David S Ward, directed by George Roy Hill, and released by Universal Pictures, 1973.

 

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