Few, if any, onscreen cinematic partnerships attain the same level of charisma, nudge-and-a-wink understanding and all-round roguishness as Paul Newman and Robert Redford – Butch and Sundance, Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker.
Best known for blowing up trains, making off with the loot and fleeing the law to Bolivia in George Roy Hill’s 1969 semi-Western masterpiece, the dynamic duo paired up with the director again in 1973 to teach ruthless racketeering boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) a well deserved lesson in Prohibition era Illinois. The film opens with Scott Joplins’ twinkling ragtime piano theme ‘The Entertainer’ and bobs along to several of his lively compositions thereafter. The credits see pages of a book turned. The image of two masquerade masks theatrically introduces us to ‘The Players’ and the first of our chapters begins. We therefore know who everybody is, or do we? The stage is set for a deceptive con-within-a-play-within-a-film. What ensues has more twists and turns than a snakes and ladders board and will keep you guessing until the final curtain.
The team recruited (à-la-Danny Ocean) by Gondorff provides worthy support, and Shaw is suitably dastardly as the Irish-American baddie-turned-‘mark’ but it is our two leading men that steal the show. Hooker demonstrates his streetwise tricks in the opening moments but is reckless in gambling away his earnings. The reputedly legendary Gondorff is first seen dead drunk sleeping against a wall. How will these two clowns ever pull off the big con? A good refreshing shower, staying one step ahead and if you throw in a bit of good fortune along the way, that won’t hurt either…
The film, however, is in no way farcical. It exudes warmth and humour but these sentiments are tinged with hardship, loss and injustice. Hooker says: “There’s always a depression on.” They use their rather unorthodox skill sets to make ends meet as well as righting a very serious wrong. They don’t pray on the weak or the needy, quite the opposite in fact. There is a moral honesty to their dishonesty which sets them apart from the croupiers who fix roulette tables, the corrupt policeman that extorts money. They are grifters that go to church to ask God for a little extra helping hand, they are a brotherhood that stands together when one of them is wronged. And they do so for the right reasons. Monetary gain is a by-product of the satisfaction that comes from pulling the wool over the wolf’s eyes and beating him at his own game.
I like to remain fairly even-handed and neutral when reviewing films, but if The Sting – as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for that matter – does not fill you with joy, there is something wrong with you and you should probably seek help. It also won seven Oscars – including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Redford). Now, if you don’t believe me, or the good folks that hand out those gold statues, please just go and see it and see for yourselves. It’s a real gem and you won’t be disappointed. I promise.