THE STING (1973)

Robert Redford and Robert Earl Jones in a still from The Sting
  • Release Date: 26/12/1973
  • Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning
  • Director: George Roy Hill

One of the best heist-dramas ever made

Hooker (Robert Redford) is a small-time grifter who has no ambition of making it to the big league. His partner, Luther (Robert Earl Jones) is convinced of his grifting talent and believes that he needs to pit them against the biggest sharks in the highest league of grifting. Luther informs him about the existence of a man, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who is one of the best con-artists in the entire country and one who Hooker should go to, get trained, and then make it to the big league. Hooker is dismissive of his idea but all that changes soon enough.

Luther and Hooker hit a guy carrying 11000 thousand dollars of one of the most revered and dangerous men in the city, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). As they are splitting their shares and enjoying a drink, Lonnegan sends his muscle to murder the men who dared to rip him off and discourage anyone who might be planning to do something similar in the future. Luther is killed and Hooker narrowly escapes meeting a similar fate. He escapes from Lonnegan and connects with Gondorff who he believes is the only man that he could go to under the circumstances. Hooker goes to him also with the hope that he might help him to strike back against Lonnegan who he hates and wants to destroy for killing Luther.

Gondorff turns out to be nothing like what Hooker imagined him to be but after some disappointments, he starts realizing the man’s worth and genius. The two soon team up to pull off the perfect con to financially destroy or at least partially disrupt Lonnegan who takes a meager loss of 11000 dollars seriously enough to send in a hit on the man who might have pulled it. His vengeful act showed that he kills for pride and Hooker’s idea was to smash his pride which he believed would be the next best thing to killing him as he was not a killer.

Thus begins an elaborate planning and execution process that not only ends with the protagonists getting what they wanted but results in one of the most intense and gripping heist-dramas to have ever unfolded on the silver screen. The Sting was released in 1973 and it still inspires recreations and remakes. My most recent memory of a similar remake would be the Emraan Hashmi starer, Raja Natwarlal that was not half as bad as most Bollywood remakes of Hollywood films tend to be.

Paul Newman in a still from The Sting

The Sting plays out between three major characters. Hooker is a young and cocky grifter who thinks highly of himself and wants nothing less than getting his revenge on Lonnegan for killing Luther. Gondorff is a master con-artist and his old relationship with Luther makes him take up the project in addition to the obvious financial gains of ripping apart a shark like Lonnegan. Lonnegan, on the other hand, is lured into the scheme with a bait to make a quick buck and while he is at it, the opportunity to destroy Gondorff. Gondorff in an earlier scene had humiliated Lonnegan in a card game and Lonnegan wanted to get back at him with all his might. He foresees no threat to his money and hence decides to go with the plan as it looks like a win-win situation for him.

Robert Redford is the perfect match for the character of Hooker. He has both the intensity and the chirpy characteristics that go with it to make the character work. While Hooker is under the weight of what had happened to Luther and wants to destroy Lonnegan for his part in it, he is also someone who is incapable of killing and wants to get the better of him on financial terms. He is quick-witted and exudes a lot of comedy every time he runs into a cop on his trails, Snyder (Charles Durning) who he always gets the better off. Redford has the charisma, likeability, and duality in his performance to successfully execute every aspect of his character.

Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan is utterly believable as the ruthless and yet sometimes childishly greedy antagonist. He has the kind of persona that makes him fearful and believable as someone who might kill another human for looting 11000 dollars from him. As the story progresses, we see his character getting played like a violin and it gave me immense pleasure. Paul Newman is one of the Hollywood greats and I just enjoyed watching him exude his trademark charm effortlessly. He looks at home as much as a bum as he does wearing a 200 dollar suit. He is shown doing things that explain why Lonnegan hates him so much and it works perfectly. Newman elevates the character of Gondorff simply with his authoritative acting and devilish charm.

Apart from being highly intriguing and engrossing, The Sting is also one of the most plush and beautiful films that I have seen lately. The color scheme is such that it comes as a respite to the eyes and adds fire to the overall beauty of the film. The angles and the way the cinematographer approaches the various scenes and characters give us the best possible views of the action making the visuals alluring. The editing adds a lot to the already pretty picture by giving us the time to sink in all the beauty that is on display but also not stretching the sequences unnecessarily. One also has to take note of some of the action sequences that the film has on offer and how well they are envisioned and executed. The two major set pieces involve our protagonist, Hooker, being chased and both these sequences are perfect examples of how well the film was shot and edited. It is no wonder that the film won two Oscars for cinematography and editing in 1974.

Robert Shaw in a still from The Sting

The Sting has a lot of surprises as we move along. One of the biggest involved a hitman and I was thoroughly surprised to see the way this twist went. I was also very intrigued by the part the FBI is shown playing in this entire episode and it added a lot to the overall narrative. The way the director lays out the plans is well thought out and leaves room for almost no questions and renders the basis of the plot rock solid.

My only qualms were with the setup of the premise. While it is made clear time and again that Luther and Hooker have been partners for years and have a soft spot for each other, it still doesn’t explain fully why Hooker moves against Lonnegan with such ferocious intensity. It is even odder to see Gondorff joining in even though he doesn’t evidently have much of a connection with Luther and he seems to be living a comfortable life. The manner in which Hooker escapes both Snyder and the men Lonnegan sends after him feels somewhat far-fetched and conducive to forwarding the lot of the film. It also felt improbable that Lonnegan did not know the whereabouts and the true identity of Hooker when he is shown repeatedly conning the man without any fuss. These little things sometimes took me out of the experience which I must agree was quickly taken care of by the charisma of the actors and I stopped questioning and started enjoying what was on display.

The Sting is easily one of the best and most entertaining heist films ever made and is tailor-made for fans of the genre like me.  Anyone who is looking for entertainment will enjoy this film for its gripping plot, terrific performances, and beautiful visuals. Add to that the finesse of George Roy Hill in the direction department and you have a film that is essentially a must-watch.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars) 


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