***Special Guest Star*** Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sting

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “***Special Guest Star*** Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sting”

  1. It’s a great movie, no doubt.

    But since when is using music written two decades before the time the movie is set anachronistic?

    1. I thought it meant, “out of time sequence.” So Beatles music would have been anachronistic, but Bach wouldn’t have been.

    2. Ragtime’s popularity peaked in the early 20th Century. By the time of The Sting (1936), ragtime had mostly disappeared from the American popular music scene. The first ragtime revival lay a few years in the future, when some jazz bands began recording selected rags from the earlier era. It is true that there was substantial overlap between the late ragtime pianists and early jazz pianists. Most notable in this group were Jelly Roll Morton and Eubie Blake. Despite the overlap in time and performers and the clear influence of ragtime on the development of jazz styles, the genres are distinguishable. One clear factor in distinguishing the genres is the use of improvisation. Ragtime admits little if any improvisation while jazz is heavily based in improvisation.

      Although composers have written works justly identified as rags continually since the late 19th Century, as a widespread popular music form rags were long gone by 1936. Anyone who wanted to hear rags in that era would have to seek out performances — few recorded performances were available then. Record companies were focused on other performance genres at that time.

      So, the prominence of Joplin’s music in the soundtrack was definitely anachronistic. Anachronistic doesn’t mean ineffective: the score is highly effective. I’m hard pressed to think of a collection of Tin Pan Alley songs that could have set the mood better than Joplin’s rags.

  2. I saw this movie in the theater as an 8 year old, and *loved* it. Watched it again when I got a widescreen TV and as an adult it was even better….now it’s time to see it again.

  3. I love this movie so much. I’m a big fan of con game stories but I rarely see one that measures up.

    I wonder if I should be happy or sad that Redford and Newman never managed a last movie pairing before Paul died.

  4. Your adjective “jolly” makes me grit my teeth, however. The best of Scott Joplin is quite wistful, especially if you don’t speed it up, but let it unfold at its own measured pace. Also it’s better not to dress it up in woodwind arrangements; it’s elegantly spare on the keyboard.

    1. Joplin scored many of his rags for theater orchestra. Many were collected in The Red Back Book: Hamlisch’s scorings follow Joplin’s pretty closely.


    And the entire long con ends up turning on one word. One word (as to how Lonergan should place a bet).

  6. I will also say that it is MUCH better to have seen this movie after one has seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If you see them in the proper order, you are properly primed for the ending of The Sting.

  7. My favorite feature of this movie is that the whole thing is a con on the audience as mark, being allowed to think that we are the ones taking advantage of someone by having inside information that the other players don’t, and it works despite watching all the elements of the ruse laid out for us and labeled part by part.

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