Theatrical release poster by Richard Amsel
|Directed by||George Roy Hill|
|Written by||David S. Ward|
|Music by||Marvin Hamlisch|
|Edited by||William Reynolds|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$159.6 million|
The Sting is a 1973 American caper film set in September 1936, involving a complicated plot by two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw). The film was directed by George Roy Hill, who had directed Newman and Redford in the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Created by screenwriter David S. Ward, the story was inspired by real-life cons perpetrated by brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and documented by David Maurer in his book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man.
The title phrase refers to the moment when a con artist finishes the "play" and takes the mark's money. If a con is successful, the mark does not realize he has been cheated until the con men are long gone. The film is played out in distinct sections with old-fashioned title cards, the lettering and illustrations rendered in a style reminiscent of the Saturday Evening Post. The film is noted for its anachronistic use of ragtime, particularly the melody "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin, which was adapted (along with others by Joplin) for the film by Marvin Hamlisch (and a top-ten chart single for Hamlisch when released as a single from the film's soundtrack). The film's success created a resurgence of interest in Joplin's work.
The Sting was hugely successful at the 46th Academy Awards, being nominated for ten Oscars and winning seven, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing (Original Screenplay). In 2005, The Sting was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The film takes place in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. Johnny Hooker, a grifter in Joliet, Illinois, cons $11,000 in cash in a pigeon drop from an unsuspecting victim with the aid of his partners Luther Coleman and Joe Erie. Buoyed by the windfall, Luther announces his retirement and advises Hooker to seek out an old friend, Henry Gondorff, in Chicago to teach him "the big con". Unfortunately, their victim was a numbers racket courier for vicious crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. Corrupt Joliet police Lieutenant William Snyder confronts Hooker, revealing Lonnegan's involvement and demanding part of Hooker's cut. Having already blown his share on a single roulette spin, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills. Lonnegan's men murder both the courier and Luther, and Hooker flees for his life to Chicago.
Hooker finds Henry Gondorff, a once-great con-man now hiding from the FBI, and asks for his help in taking on the dangerous Lonnegan. Gondorff is initially reluctant, but he relents and recruits a core team of experienced con men to dupe Lonnegan. They decide to resurrect an elaborate obsolete scam known as "the wire", using a larger crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor. Aboard the opulent 20th Century Limited, Gondorff, posing as boorish Chicago bookie Shaw, buys into Lonnegan's private, high-stakes poker game. Shaw infuriates Lonnegan with his obnoxious behavior, then outcheats him to win $15,000. Hooker, posing as Shaw's disgruntled employee, Kelly, is sent to collect the winnings and instead convinces Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaw's operation. Kelly reveals that he has a partner named Les Harmon (actually con man Kid Twist) in the Chicago Western Union office, who will allow them to win bets on horse races by past-posting.
Meanwhile, Snyder has tracked Hooker to Chicago, but his pursuit is thwarted when he is summoned by undercover FBI agents led by Agent Polk, who orders him to assist in their plan to arrest Gondorff using Hooker. At the same time, Lonnegan has grown frustrated with the inability of his men to find and kill Hooker for the Joliet con. Unaware that Kelly is Hooker, he demands that Salino, his best assassin, be given the job. A mysterious figure with black leather gloves is then seen following and observing Hooker.
Kelly's connection appears effective, as Harmon provides Lonnegan with the winner of one horse race and the trifecta of another. Lonnegan agrees to finance a $500,000 bet at Shaw's parlor to break Shaw and gain revenge. Shortly thereafter, Snyder captures Hooker and brings him before FBI Agent Polk. Polk forces Hooker to betray Gondorff by threatening to incarcerate Luther Coleman's widow.
The night before the sting, Hooker sleeps with Loretta, a waitress from a local restaurant. As Hooker leaves the building the next morning, he sees Loretta walking toward him. The black-gloved man appears behind Hooker and shoots her dead – she was Lonnegan's hired killer, Loretta Salino, and the gunman was hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.
Armed with Harmon's tip to "place it on Lucky Dan", Lonnegan makes the $500,000 bet at Shaw's parlor on Lucky Dan to win. As the race begins, Harmon arrives and expresses shock at Lonnegan's bet, explaining that when he said "place it" he meant, literally, that Lucky Dan would "place" (i.e., finish second). In a panic, Lonnegan rushes the teller window and demands his money back. A moment later Polk, Lt. Snyder, and a half dozen FBI agents storm the parlor. Polk confronts Gondorff, then tells Hooker he is free to go. Gondorff, reacting to the betrayal, shoots Hooker in the back. Polk then shoots Gondorff and orders Snyder to get the ostensibly-respectable Lonnegan away from the crime scene. With Lonnegan and Snyder safely away, Hooker and Gondorff rise amid cheers and laughter. Agent Polk is actually Hickey, a con man, running a con atop Gondorff's con to divert Snyder and provide a solid "blow off". As the con men strip the room of its contents, Hooker refuses his share of the money, saying "I'd only blow it", and walks away with Gondorff.
Screenwriter David S. Ward has said in an interviews that he was inspired to write The Sting while doing research on pickpockets, saying, "Since I had never seen a film about a confidence man before, I said I gotta do this." Daniel Eagan explained: "One key to plots about con men is that film goers want to feel they are in on the trick. They don't have to know how a scheme works, and they don't mind a twist or two, but it's important for the story to feature clearly recognizable 'good' and 'bad' characters." It took a year for Ward to correctly adjust this aspect of the script and to figure out how much information he could hold back from the audience while still making the leads sympathetic. He also imagined an underground brotherhood of thieves who assemble for a big operation and then melt away after the "mark".
Rob Cohen (later director of action films such as The Fast and the Furious) years later told of how he found the script in the slush pile when working as a reader for Mike Medavoy, a future studio head, but then an agent. He wrote in his coverage that it was "the great American screenplay and … will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film." Medavoy said that he would try to sell it on that recommendation, promising to fire Cohen if he could not. Universal bought it that afternoon, and Cohen keeps the coverage framed on the wall of his office.
David Maurer sued for plagiarism, claiming the screenplay was based too heavily on his 1940 book The Big Con, about real-life tricksters Fred and Charley Gondorff. Universal quickly settled out of court for $300,000, irking David S. Ward, who had used many nonfiction books as research material and had not really plagiarized any of them.
Ward originally wrote Henry Gondorff as a minor character who was an overweight, past one's prime slob, but once Paul Newman became associated with the movie, Gondorff was rewritten as a slimmer character and his part was expanded in order to maximize the second partnership of Newman and Redford. Newman had been advised to avoid doing comedies because he didn't have the light touch, but accepted the part to prove that he could handle comedy just as well as drama.
He signed on the film after the producers agreed to give him top billing, $500,000 and a percentage of the profits. Newman needed a hit considering his last five films that he had made prior to The Sting had been box-office disappointments.
In her 1991 autobiography You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips stated that Hill wanted Richard Boone to play Doyle Lonnegan. Much to her relief, Newman had sent the script to Robert Shaw while shooting The Mackintosh Man in Ireland to ensure his participation in the film. Philips's book asserts that Shaw was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award because he demanded that his name follow those of Newman and Redford before the film's opening title.
Shaw's character's limping in the film was authentic. Shaw had slipped on a wet handball court at the Beverly Hills Hotel a week before filming began and had injured the ligaments in his knee. He wore a leg brace during production which was hidden under the wide 1930s style trousers.
Hill decided that the film would be reminiscent of movies from the 1930s and watched films from that decade for inspiration. While studying '30s gangster films, Hill noticed that most of them rarely had extras. "For instance," said Hill as quoted in Andrew Horton's 1984 book The Films of George Roy Hill, "no extras would be used in street scenes in those films: Jimmy Cagney would be shot down and die in an empty street. So I deliberately avoided using extras."
Along with art director Henry Bumstead and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, Hill devised a colour scheme of muted browns and maroons for the film and a lighting design that combined old-fashioned 1930s-style lighting with some modern tricks of the trade to get the visual look he wanted. Edith Head designed a wardrobe of snappy period costumes for the cast, and artist Jaroslav Gebr created inter-title cards to be used between each section of the film that were reminiscent of the golden glow of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations—a popular publication of the 1930s.
The movie was filmed on the Universal Studios backlot, with a few small scenes shot in Wheeling, West Virginia, some scenes filmed at the Santa Monica pier's carousel, in Pasadena, and in Chicago at Union Station and the former LaSalle Street Station prior to its demolition. Co-producer Tony Bill was an antique car buff who helped round up several period cars to use in The Sting. One of them was his own one-of-a-kind 1935 Pierce Arrow, which served as Lonnegan's private car.
The film received rave reviews and was a box office smash in 1973–74, taking in more than US$160 million ($800 million today). As of August 2018, it is the 20th highest-grossing film in the United States adjusted for ticket price inflation. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four out of four stars and called it "one of the most stylish movies of the year." Gene Siskel awarded three-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it "a movie movie that has obviously been made with loving care each and every step of the way." Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film was "so good-natured, so obviously aware of everything it's up to, even its own picturesque frauds, that I opt to go along with it. One forgives its unrelenting efforts to charm, if only because 'The Sting' itself is a kind of con game, devoid of the poetic aspirations that weighed down 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.'" Variety wrote, "George Roy Hill's outstanding direction of David S. Ward's finely-crafted story of multiple deception and surprise ending will delight both mass and class audiences. Extremely handsome production values and a great supporting cast round out the virtues." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "an unalloyed delight, the kind of pure entertainment film that's all the more welcome for having become such a rarity." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was less enthused, writing that the film "is meant to be roguishly charming entertainment, and that's how most of the audience takes it, but I found it visually claustrophobic, and totally mechanical. It creeps cranking on, section after section, and it doesn't have a good spirit." She also noted that "the absence of women really is felt as a lack in this movie." John Simon wrote The Sting as a comedy-thriller- "works endearingly without a hitch".
In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #39 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written.
The film won seven Academy Awards and received three other nominations. At the 46th Academy Awards, Julia Phillips became the first female producer to be nominated for and to win Best Picture.
The soundtrack album, executive produced by Gil Rodin, included several Scott Joplin ragtime compositions, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch. According to Joplin scholar Edward A. Berlin, ragtime had experienced a revival in the 1970s due to several separate, but coalescing events:
- Joshua Rifkin's recording of Joplin rags on Nonesuch Records, a classical label, became a "classical" best-seller.
- The New York Public Library issued a two-volume collection of Joplin's music, thereby giving the stamp of approval of one of the nation's great institutions of learning.
- Treemonisha received its first full staging, as part of a Afro-American Music Workshop at Morehouse College, in Georgia.
- Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music, led a student ensemble in a performance of period orchestrations of Joplin's music.
- Inspired by Schuller's recording, the producer of the movie The Sting had Marvin Hamlisch score Joplin's music for the film, thereby bringing Joplin to a mass, popular public.
There are some variances from the film soundtrack, as noted. Joplin's music was no longer popular by the 1930s, although its use in The Sting evokes the 1930s gangster movie, The Public Enemy, which featured Joplin's music. The two Jazz Age-style tunes written by Hamlisch are chronologically closer to the film's time period than are the Joplin rags:
The album sequence differs from the film sequence, a standard practice with vinyl LPs, often for aesthetic reasons. Some additional content differences:
|1974||US Billboard 200||1|
|Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart|
Chicago VII by Chicago
| Billboard 200 number-one album
May 4 – June 7, 1974
Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot
Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield
| Australian Kent Music Report number-one album
June 17 – July 28, 1974
August 5–11, 1974
Caribou by Elton John
Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (music and lyrics), writer Bob Martin, and director John Rando created a stage musical version of the movie. The musical premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey on March 29, 2018. The role of Henry Gondorff is played by Harry Connick Jr. with choreography by Warren Carlyle. The stage musical incorporates Scott Joplin's music, including "The Entertainer".
The movie was issued on DVD by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment in 2000. "If Paul Newman really does retire, he can spend his rocking chair years feeling smug about this," enthused OK!. "The story's not the important thing: what makes it are the quirky soundtrack, the card-sharp dialogue and two superduperstars at their superduperstarriest."
A deluxe DVD – The Sting: Special Edition (part of the Universal Legacy Series) – was released in September 2005. Its "making of" featurette, The Art of the Sting, included interviews with cast and crew.
The film was released on Blu-ray in 2012, as part of Universal's 100th anniversary releases.
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