The Sting is a 1973 American caper film set in September 1936, involving a complicated plot by two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw). 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.
Theatrical release poster by Richard Amsel
|Directed by||George Roy Hill|
|Written by||David S. Ward|
|Music by||Marvin Hamlisch|
|Edited by||William Reynolds|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$159.6 million|
The title phrase refers to the moment when a con artist finishes the "play" and takes the mark's money. If a con is successful, the mark does not realize he has been "taken" (cheated), at least not until the con men are long gone. 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 movie by Marvin Hamlisch (and a top-ten chart single for Hamlisch when released as a single from the film's soundtrack). The film's success created a resurgence of interest in Joplin's work.
The film takes place in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. Johnny Hooker, a grifter in Joliet, Illinois, cons $11,000 in cash ($194,000 today) 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 Lonnegan's involvement and demanding part of Hooker’s cut. Having already spent his share, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills. Lonnegan's 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 Lonnegan's private, high-stakes poker game. Shaw infuriates Lonnegan with his obnoxious behavior, then outcheats him to win $15,000. Hooker, posing as Shaw's disgruntled employee, Kelly, is sent to collect the winnings and instead convinces Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaw's 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.
Kelly's connection appears effective, as Harmon provides Lonnegan with the winner of one horse race and the trifecta of another race. Lonnegan agrees to finance a $500,000 ($8,818,000 today) bet at Shaw's 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 Coleman's 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 Lonnegan's hired killer, Loretta Salino, and the gunman was hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.
Armed with Harmon’s tip to "place it on Lucky Dan", Lonnegan makes the $500,000 bet at Shaw’s parlor on Lucky Dan to win. As the race begins, Harmon arrives and expresses shock at Lonnegan's 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, Agent Polk, Lt. Snyder, and a half dozen FBI officers 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 Gondorff's 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 "I'd only blow it", and walks away with Gondorff.
- Paul Newman as Henry "Shaw" Gondorff
- Robert Redford as Johnny "Kelly" Hooker
- Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan
- Robert Earl Jones as Luther Coleman
- Charles Durning as Lt. William Snyder, Joliet P.D.
- Ray Walston as J.J. Singleton
- Eileen Brennan as Billie
- Harold Gould as Kid Twist
- John Heffernan as Eddie Niles
- Dana Elcar as FBI Agent Polk, aka "Hickey"
- Jack Kehoe as Joe Erie
- Dimitra Arliss as Loretta Salino
- James J. Sloyan as Mottola
- Charles Dierkop as Floyd (Lonnegan's bodyguard)
- Lee Paul as Lonnegan's bodyguard
- Sally Kirkland as Crystal ("Hooker's hooker")
- Avon Long as Benny Garfield
- Arch Johnson as Combs
- Ed Bakey as Granger
- Brad Sullivan as Cole
- John Quade as Riley
- Larry D. Mann as Train Conductor
- Leonard Barr as Burlesque House Comedian
- Paulene Myers as Alva Coleman
- Joe Tornatore as Black Gloved Gunman
- Jack Collins as Duke Boudreau
- Tom Spratley as Curly Jackson
- Kenneth O'Brien as Greer
- Ken Sansom as Western Union Executive
- Ta-Tanisha as Louise Coleman
- William Benedict as Roulette Dealer
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 pier's carousel, in Pasadena, and in Chicago at Union Station and the former LaSalle Street Station prior to its demolition. Lonnegan's limp 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. This incident was revealed by Julia Phillips in her 1991 autobiography You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. She stated that Shaw saved The Sting, since no other actor would accept the part; Paul Newman hand-delivered the script to Shaw in London in order to ensure his participation. Philips's 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 film's opening title.
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.
Roy Huggins, creator and chief writer of the TV western-comedy "Maverick", noted during interview that the first half of "The Sting" bore resemblance to his script for the episode "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres".
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 November 2017, it is the 20th highest-grossing film in the United States adjusted for ticket price inflation. 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.
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 Picture
- Academy Award for Best Director—(George Roy Hill)
- Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay—(David S. Ward)
- Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration—(Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne)
- Academy Award for Best Costume Design—(Edith Head)
- Academy Award for Film Editing—(William H. Reynolds)
- Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation—(Marvin Hamlisch)
- Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures—(George Roy Hill)
- Academy Award for Best Actor—(Robert Redford)
- Academy Award for Best Cinematography—(Robert Surtees)
- Academy Award for Sound—(Ronald Pierce & Robert R. Bertrand)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay—Motion Picture—(David S. Ward)
- WGA Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen—(David S. Ward)
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Doyle Lonnegan—Villain (Robert Shaw)
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)
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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:
- Joshua Rifkin's recording of Joplin rags on Nonesuch Records, a classical label, became a "classical" best-seller.
- The New York Public Library issued a two-volume collection of Joplin's music, thereby giving the stamp of approval of one of the nation's great institutions of learning.
- Treemonisha received its first full staging, as part of a Afro-American Music Workshop at Morehouse College, in Georgia.
- Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music, led a student ensemble in a performance of period orchestrations of Joplin's music.
- Inspired by Schuller's recording, the producer of the movie The Sting had Marvin Hamlisch score Joplin's music for the film, thereby bringing Joplin to a mass, popular public.
There are some variances from the film soundtrack, as noted. Joplin's music was no longer popular by the 1930s, although its use in The Sting evokes the 1930s gangster movie, The Public Enemy, which featured Joplin's music. The two Jazz Age-style tunes written by Hamlisch are chronologically closer to the film's time period than are the Joplin rags:
- "Solace" (Joplin)—orchestral version
- "The Entertainer" (Joplin)—orchestral version
- "The Easy Winners" (Joplin)
- "Hooker's Hooker" (Hamlisch)
- "Luther"—same basic tune as "Solace", re-arranged by Hamlisch as a dirge
- "Pine Apple Rag" / "Gladiolus Rag" medley (Joplin)
- "The Entertainer" (Joplin)—piano version
- "The Glove" (Hamlisch)—a Jazz Age style number; only a short segment was used in the film
- "Little Girl" (Madeline Hyde, Francis Henry)—heard only as a short instrumental segment over a car radio
- "Pine Apple Rag" (Joplin)
- "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 Sousa's 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 carousel's band organ.
- "Solace" (Joplin)—piano version
- "The Entertainer" / "The Ragtime Dance" medley (Joplin)
The album sequence differs from the film sequence, a standard practice with vinyl LPs, often for aesthetic reasons. Some additional content differences:
- Selected snippets of Joplin's works, some appearing on the album and some not, provided linking music over the title cards that introduced major scenes. (The final card, "The Sting", introducing the film's dramatic conclusion, had no music.)
- Some tunes in the film are different takes than those on the album.
- 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.
- 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).
|1974||US Billboard 200||1|
|Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart|
Chicago VII by Chicago
|Billboard 200 number-one album
May 4 – June 7, 1974
Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot
Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield
|Australian Kent Music Report number-one album
June 17 – July 28, 1974
August 5–11, 1974
Caribou by Elton John
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A sequel with different players, The Sting II, appeared in 1983. In the same year a prequel was planned, exploring the earlier career of Henry Gondorff. Famous confidence man Soapy Smith was scripted to be Gondorff's mentor. When the sequel failed, the prequel was scrapped.
The Tony Award-winning creative team duo Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, writer Bob Martin, and director John Rando created an on-stage version of the movie. They premiered the show in 2017 at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey.
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 story's 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 Universal's 100th anniversary releases.
- "The Sting, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
- Variety film review; December 12, 1973, page 16.
- "The Sting". TCM database. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- Edward A. Berlin (1996). "Basic Repertoire List - Joplin". Classical Net. Retrieved September 8, 2012.
- Blake, Lindsay (January 16, 2014). "Scene It Before: The Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome from 'The Sting'". Los Angeles Magazine. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
- "LaSalle Street Station". Metra. Archived from the original on September 24, 2014. Retrieved July 10, 2014.
- "Movies Filmed in Chicago". City of Chicago. Retrieved July 10, 2014.
- Lussier, Germaine (November 21, 2008). "Screenings: 'The Sting' as part of Paul Newman Retrospective". Times-Herald Record. News Corporation. Retrieved November 21, 2008.
- "Roy Huggins on the Maverick episode "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" (video interview, part 6 of 10, 23:05)". EmmyTVLegends. Retrieved 6 June 2017.
When I walked into Universal on the morning "Sting" came out, Max Baer Jr. was...outside my office, and he says, "Roy, are you going to sue?" I didn't know what he was talking about. "What do you mean?" He says, "You didn't see 'Sting'?" I say no; he says, "Well see it, because the first half of it is 'Shady Deal at Sunny Acres'!"
- "All Time Box Office Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved May 19, 2011.
- Savage, Sophia (February 27, 2013). "WGA Lists Greatest Screenplays, From 'Casablanca' and 'Godfather' to 'Memento' and 'Notorious'". Archived from the original on August 13, 2006. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
- "The 46th Academy Awards (1974) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
- "NY Times: The Sting". NY Times. Retrieved December 29, 2008.
- MacDonald, Bruno (May 19, 2000). "Film & Video: DVD sales releases". OK! #213.
- "Rajat Prasad Vs. Respondent: C.B.I" (PDF). National Judicial Academy. Point 10.