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The Sting (1973)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

Robert Redford and Paul Newman re-team (after the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) to produce another crime-comedy, this time set in the Depression years. Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a small-time grifter, making a living from rolling drunks and pulling scams with his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones). When they net $11000 with a favourite set-piece Hooker and Coleman feel like they've won the lottery - Hooker blows his slice on gambling while Coleman decides to retire, now that he's made "The Big One". What neither of them realise is that their 'mark' was a numbers-runner for some big-time gangsters; possibly a fatal mistake. Pretty soon the vindictive head of the racketeers, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), has put out a contract on the pair. When Police lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning) traps and shakes-down Hooker it's pretty clear that they're stuck somewhere between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea! At the same time, Doyle's thugs throw Luther from his first-floor window; a convincing reason for Hooker to flee town.

Swearing to revenge his partner's death, Hooker contacts Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), an old friend of Luther's and possibly the greatest con-artist ever. However, Henry has turned into possibly the greatest drunk ever and doesn't feel particularly inclined to join the inexperienced Hooker in a dangerous 'sting'. The lure of the challenge wins out though and their plan swings into action, with Henry contacting the numerous friends of Luther for help. It turns out that Lonnegan is almost invulnerable; he doesn't drink, chase women or recklessly gamble. His only vice is playing high-stakes poker, at which he cheats anyway! Buying themselves into a game on the New York - Chicago express, Hooker and Henry work to lay the foundations for their 'sting'. Henry plays a gin-soaked, mouthy gambler who just happens to get very lucky. To Lonnegan's amazement he ends up getting cleaned out by this nobody, despite his best efforts at rigging the deck.

Lonnegan is literally frothing at the mouth now (only just being restrained from shooting Henry on the spot) and he jumps at the chance, offered by Hooker, of getting his own back. The lie, which is that Hooker wants to take over Henry's operation, is eagerly lapped-up by Lonnegan (additional satisfaction comes from the fact that Hooker is precisely the man whom Lonnegan's thugs are after and the reason for his trip to Chicago). Using a gambling den (set up purely for the sting) Hooker explains that he has a system for winning on the horses, simply by getting the race information before the bookmakers. Lonnegan is drawn deeper into the deception, purely by virtue of his own greed and thirst for revenge, and ends up offering his own money in the cause of destroying Henry. Of course, there are still many pitfalls to avoid; assassins are after Hooker, Snyder is still nosing about and Lonnegan isn't stupid (he wants lots of reassurance that he won't lose out).

Viewing The Sting is cinematic enjoyment at its purest -- the empathy that Newman and Redford have for each other, and the way in which this spreads to the entire cast, energises the entire film. Evoking the classic Hollywood gangster movies, each character displays certain mannerisms and methods of speech which whisk us right into the middle of the Depression. Times are unimaginably tough, yet these disparate grifters have enough human spirit to come together in battle against the dastardly Lonnegan. Enhancing this period mood are the superb sets, photography, costumes and soundtrack. The integration and synthesis of these elements bestows great credit on the director George Hill (who worked with the duo on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). So, sit down, turn off the lights and prepare for 2 hours of joyous escapism and unbounded charisma.

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