ⓘ The Sting


ⓘ The Sting

The Sting is a 1973 American caper film set in September 1936, involving a complicated plot by two professional grifters to con a mob boss. 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 marks money. If a con is successful, the mark does not realize he has been cheated until the con men are long gone, if at all. 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 films soundtrack. The films success created a resurgence of interest in Joplins work.

Released on Christmas Day of 1973, The Sting received universal acclaim and 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."


1. Plot

The film takes place in 1936, in the waning years 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 Lonnegans involvement and demanding part of Hookers cut. Having already blown his share on a single roulette spin, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills. Lonnegans 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 Lonnegans private, high-stakes poker game. Shaw infuriates Lonnegan with his obnoxious behavior, then outcheats him to win $15.000. Hooker, posing as Shaws disgruntled employee, Kelly, is sent to collect the winnings and instead convinces Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaws 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.

Kellys 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 Shaws 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 Colemans 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 Lonnegans hired killer, Loretta Salino, and the gunman was hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.

Armed with Harmons tip to "place it on Lucky Dan", Lonnegan makes the $500.000 bet at Shaws parlor on Lucky Dan to win. As the race begins, Harmon arrives and expresses shock at Lonnegans 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 Gondorffs 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 "Id only blow it", and walks away with Gondorff.


2.1. Production Writing

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 dont have to know how a scheme works, and they dont mind a twist or two, but its 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.


2.2. Production Casting

Ward originally wrote Henry Gondorff as a minor character who was an overweight, past-his-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 didnt 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 Youll 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. Philipss 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 films opening title.

Shaws characters 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.


2.3. Production Principal photography

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 Hortons 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 piers carousel, in Santa Monica, California, 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 Lonnegans private car.


3. Reception

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 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 its 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 Hills outstanding direction of David S. Wards 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 thats 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 thats 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 doesnt 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.


3.1. Reception Wins

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.

  • Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation - Marvin Hamlisch
  • Academy Award for Best Costume Design - Edith Head
  • Academy Award for Best Director - George Roy Hill
  • Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne
  • Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - George Roy Hill
  • Academy Award for Best Picture
  • Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay - David S. Ward
  • Academy Award for Best Film Editing - William H. Reynolds


3.2. Reception Nominations

  • AFIs 100 Years.100 Movies
  • Academy Award for Best Cinematography - Robert Surtees
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay - Motion Picture - David S. Ward
  • Academy Award for Best Actor - Robert Redford
  • WGA Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen - David S. Ward
  • Academy Award for Best Sound - Ronald Pierce & Robert R. Bertrand
  • Doyle Lonnegan - Villain Robert Shaw
  • AFIs 100 Years.100 Heroes & Villains
  • AFIs 100 Years.100 Laughs
  • AFIs 100 Years.100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition

4. Soundtrack

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:

  • The New York Public Library issued a two-volume collection of Joplins music, thereby giving the stamp of approval of one of the nations great institutions of learning.
  • Treemonisha received its first full staging, as part of a Afro-American Music Workshop at Morehouse College, in Georgia.
  • Joshua Rifkins recording of Joplin rags on Nonesuch Records, a classical label, became a "classical" best-seller.
  • Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music, led a student ensemble in a performance of period orchestrations of Joplins music.
  • Inspired by Schullers recording, the producer of the movie The Sting had Marvin Hamlisch score Joplins music for the film, thereby bringing Joplin to a mass, popular public.

There are some variances from the film soundtrack, as noted. Joplins music was no longer popular by the 1930s, although its use in The Sting evokes the 1930s gangster movie, The Public Enemy, which featured Joplins music. The two Jazz Age-style tunes written by Hamlisch are chronologically closer to the films time period than are the Joplin rags:

  • "Solace" Joplin - orchestral version
  • "Luther" - same basic tune as "Solace", re-arranged by Hamlisch as a dirge
  • "Merry-Go-Round Music" medley; "Listen to the Mocking Bird", "Darling Nellie Gray", "Turkey in the Straw" traditional - "Listen to the Mocking Bird" was the only portion of this track that was actually used in the film, along with a segment of "King Cotton", a Sousa march, a segment of "The Diplomat", another Sousa march, a segment of Sousas Washington Post March, and a segment of "The Regimental Band", a Charles C. Sweeley march, all of which were not on the album. All six tunes were recorded from the Santa Monica Pier carousels band organ.
  • "Little Girl" Madeline Hyde, Francis Henry - heard only as a short instrumental segment over a car radio
  • "The Entertainer" / "The Ragtime Dance" medley Joplin
  • "Solace" Joplin - piano version
  • "Hookers Hooker" Hamlisch
  • "The Entertainer" Joplin - piano version
  • "The Easy Winners" Joplin
  • "Pine Apple Rag" Joplin
  • "Pine Apple Rag" / "Gladiolus Rag" medley Joplin
  • "The Glove" Hamlisch - a Jazz Age style number; only a short segment was used in the film
  • "The Entertainer" Joplin - orchestral version

The album sequence differs from the film sequence, a standard practice with vinyl LPs, often for aesthetic reasons. Some additional content differences:

  • The credits end with "The Rag-time Dance" Joplin medley which features a stop-time motif similar to a later work "Stop-Time Rag" Joplin.
  • A Joplin tune used in the film but not appearing in the soundtrack album was "Cascades". The middle fast portion of it was played when Hooker was running from Snyder along the L train platform.
  • Selected snippets of Joplins works, some appearing on the album and some not, provided linking music over the title cards that introduced major scenes.
  • Some tunes in the film are different takes than those on the album.


5. Stage adaptation

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 Joplins music, including "The Entertainer".


6. Home media

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 storys 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 Universals 100th anniversary releases.