Johann Koehler of Cambridge University is a criminologist, an innovative thinker and a lover of movies. His blog, The Phronetics, is a regular visiting ground for me. Knowing him as a film buff, I asked him to contribute a review of one of his favourites, The Sting. Over to Johann:
Fans of Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s pairing in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would have been raring for a cinema ticket in 1973 to see Hollywood’s most bankable leading duo in George Roy Hill’s multiple Academy Award-winning The Sting.
The plot revolves around a desperate revenge story shrouded in fanciful con artist scheme-ery. After the murder of his mentor, Redford’s Johnny Hooker, an impulsive neophyte in the world of confidence schemes, looks to Newman’s Henry Gondorff for instruction and assistance in bringing about the demise of the villainous Doyle Lonnegan (impeccably played by Robert Shaw). Shaw projects the same unpredictable brutality he mastered as Henry VIII in Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 classic A Man for All Seasons and the Newman/Redford team deliver a characteristically heart-warming performance redolent of Butch and Sundance.
While the film has been rebuked for a plot that drags at times, one can’t help feeling eager to find out how the final scene’s con plays out. In truth, the “long con” provides a deeply satisfying ending. In contrast to the “short con”, in which the con artist fleeces the mark for all that he has on his person, the “long con” is a much more deliberate and vicious scheme. It requires that the mark be seduced into the con artist’s deception and to participate in the construction of his own demise. In so doing, he ultimately becomes both the perpetrator as well as the victim. Lonnegan thus becomes either the most unsympathetic villain, or the least, depending on your mood while watching the film.
Scott Joplin’s jolly ragtime music, anachronistically written two decades before The Sting is actually set, imbues the film with enough whimsy to conceal the bitterness of the underlying storyline. And for a master-class in comic acting, be sure to look out for Newman’s show-stealing drunken poker scene on the train.
Closing trivia note from Keith: The money that Rick Blaine gives up to a needy couple using number 22 on a rigged roulette wheel finally gets paid back by Johnny Hooker in this movie.