I have long been fascinated by movies about con games and heists. The first heist movie I saw was probably Topkapi, in 1964, but another biggie was The Hot Rock, 1972, from a great book by Donald E. Westlake. Then comes this one about the Big Con, within a year, and both of them starred Robert Redford.
SPOILER WARNING. This has to be the best movie about cons ever made. It plays fair with you, though you will know you have been conned by the final scene. I had a moment of pure clarity there at the end. Paul Newman shot Redford, and then the FBI agent shot Newman. As the two leads lay there on the floor, dead and bleeding, it all came to me, and I laughed out loud, startling everyone else in the crowded theater, who were shocked out of their drawers. This was precisely the outcome Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker needed if they were not to be pursued by Robert Shaw for the rest of their short lives. He had to believe they were dead, beyond his reach. I will always cherish the sight of the big bad gangster looking down the steps to the cellar in sheer frustration: “But my money’s in there!” If he had come back an hour later the “betting parlor,” AKA the Big Store, in con-man parlance, would have been gone.
I know these are fantasies, heists and cons. In real life con men would happily steal your granny’s Social Security check and the gold out of her back teeth, and never think a thing about it. But it is largely true that you can’t cheat an honest man. There are some cons that take advantage of someone’s goodwill, but the biggest and best of them usually involve playing on someone’s cupidity. But I don’t care. It’s the movies, okay?
I can’t review The Sting without mentioning the music. Scott Joplin piano rags are not really the soundtrack of 1936, when the movie takes place. That music was popular much earlier. But it was a stroke of genius to use them here. From the jaunty syncopation of numbers like “Easy Winners” and “The Entertainer,” to the sweet and contemplative “Solace,” it somehow just all fit with what was up on the screen. Marvin Hamlisch orchestrated many of them for big jazz ensembles, and it was totally irresistible. Like many others, I bought the soundtrack. My wife at the time played ragtime on the piano. It led to a revival of Joplin’s music that was long overdue.