Newman and Redford play two more guys who absolutely, under no circumstances would ever consider getting a real job. Has anyone ever played as many likable losers with as little career ambition as Paul Newman? Fast Eddie Felson, Cool Hand Lucas Jackson, Butch Cassidy, Slapshot’s Reggie Dunlop, Earl Long? Not an honest day’s work among them.
I always figured that if I ever released an album I’d call it “the confidence game.” It seemed greatly fraught with double-meanings and shady implications. “The Sting” is a great place to start down the road of con men that culminates with David Mamet’s “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner”.
“The Sting” takes place in Depression-era Chicago. The economy isn’t doing so great, but the mobsters sure are. The Scott Joplin ragtime score, which caused a temporary rebirth for the music in the mid ’70s, doesn’t really fit here chronologically, but it sure feels like the right music. Small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and his mentor, Luthor, con some money from the wrong place, one of Gangster Doyle Lonnegan’s runners. As a result, Luthor is soon an ex-con-artist and spendthrift Redford barely makes it out of town in one piece.
Newman is former big time inside man, Henry Gondorff, who sort-of accidentally conned a Senator and now seems to be in the penalty box of life. He hangs out at sort of a combination Merry Go Round and cathouse. Redford wants to avenge Luthor’s death by setting up Lonnegan “because I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” The rest of the movie is the appreciation of well-told yarn as Newman and Redford pull of this scientifically complex number called “The Wire.” The goal being to take all of Lonnegan’s money so well that he would never even realize that he had been conned.
These con men are fascinating guys. There seems to be this huge underground society of hustlers here. They have their own bars and they all support each other, sort of like a union. These guys all seem to be brilliant, well-trained men. If any of them ever decided to work half this hard at something legitimate he would have been richer than Howard Hughes, but I suppose that wouldn’t be nearly as cool of a lifestyle. No wonder there was a Depression. The only character who seems to have a legitimate job in this movie is the wildly corrupt police detective played by Charles Durning.
Newman pulls off what is probably the most enjoyable poker scene ever filmed as he manages to out cheat Lonnegan and faux drunkenly enrage the man’s huge capacity for greed and anger. In their previous outing, Newman’s Butch Cassidy sort of seemed like an older brother to Redford’s Sundance Kid. Here, Newman is more like a proud parent training his son for battle. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made over 15 movies together. Sadly Newman and Redford have thus far made only two.