Friday, November 24, 2017

The Movie Project: The Sting

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
Johnny Hooker, a small-time Chicago grifter, gets a price on his head after ripping off a numbers runner for Doyle Lonnegan, a big-time New York mobster. After Lonnegan's men kill Hooker's partner, Hooker turns to Henry Gondorff, a legendary con man, for help in taking down Lonnegan. They set up an elaborate sting operation to take Lonnegan's money without Lonnegan ever knowing that he got conned.

Memorable Quote:
Four Nines.  ~Lonnegan
Four Jacks.  ~Gondorff

I'm not a poker player, but I appreciate a good poker scene, and the showdown on the train between Gondorff and Lonnegan is spectacular. The dialogue is tremendous (I love how Gondorff intentionally butchers Lonnegan's name), and the acting is superb (e.g. the change of expression on Lonnegan's assistant's face when Gondorff drops the Jacks). It's just a fun and satisfying scene to watch.

I have to take "Linnaman" to task, though, for not being a very good cheat. Before the game, JJ (one of Gondorff's men) tells him that Lonnegan "likes to call deck low, 8's or 9's," which presumably means those are the cards he typically gives himself when he cheats. But if Doyle varied his methods and gave himself 4 Queens or a straight flush, then Gondorff would have lost with his 4 Jacks. As the great Henry Gondorff said, "Tough luck, Lonahan, but that's what you get for playing with your head up your ass."

This isn't really a lowlight per se, but like the sting episodes of MacGyver, suspension of disbelief is required to imagine the caper getting pulled off in the way it does. If I didn't suspend disbelief, I'd have a few questions, such as:
  • The idea of Lonnegan never knowing he was conned and accepting his loss is unfathomable. This guy is one of the top crime bosses in the country, he has a boatload of cops on his payroll, and he knows everything that goes on in the Chicago and New York underworld. After he gets wiped out, wouldn't he send some of his people out to investigate and figure out what happened?
  • And what about the 40 or so people who were in on the con, are they all going to be tight-lipped and never reveal anything about the con to anyone?
  • Isn't Snyder (the nasty cop) or one of his fellow officers going to run into Gondorff or Hooker at some point in Chicago? As it is, everyone just walks out the door the minute after Snyder and Lonnegan leave.
  • And shouldn't Lonnegan have been surprised that there'e this guy (Mr. Shaw) that he's never heard of who's running a large betting operation?
  • And if Lonnegan is as ruthless as he's described to be, there's no way that Gondorff/Shaw would have left that train alive.
Good thing I'm a champion disbelief suspender.

Most interesting piece of IMDB trivia:
Just prior to Elizabeth Taylor's presentation of the Best Picture Oscar for this film, the streaker Robert Opel darted across the stage as David Niven was introducing her. It was this incident (among others) that inspired singer Ray Stevens to write the song "The Streak" that went to the top of the US charts the month after the awards. Incidentally, Opel was found murdered in his San Francisco gallery in 1979.

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • I've mentioned this on the blog before, but I watched this movie as a 10 year-old with my parents, and I paused it so many times to ask questions that our VCR broke. Fortunately, the movie makes much more sense this time around.
  • What can I say about the soundtrack to not understate how great it is? I took piano lessons growing up, and by a certain age pretty much all I wanted to play was ragtime by Scott Joplin, which I first heard in this movie. My parents' friends gave me a Joplin record (i.e. an actual vinyl record) that I played frequently, and I got a Joplin CD and Joplin sheet music. Maple Leaf Rag was (and still is) my go-to Joplin rag when I sit down at the piano, but it's not in the movie. My other favorite is Pineapple Rag, which plays when Redford is getting a new suit and a fingernail clipping. Other familiar rags from the movie include Easy Winners, Solace, and The Entertainer. It was an inspired decision to use Joplin's music in this movie, and Marvin Hamlisch did a great job with the arrangements.
  • The actor playing the numbers runner who gets ripped off by Hooker in the beginning of the movie? None other than James Sloyan of MacGyver's The Invisible Killer and Live and Learn. Other familiar supporting actors include Robert Earl Jones (father of James) as Luther and Charles Durning as Snyder. When I was a kid, we often went to the Memorial Day concert on the square in Washington D.C. where Durning (a veteran who was at D-Day) was a featured speaker, and he always seemed to get the tear-jerker assignment (e.g. reading a letter from a dead soldier). 
  • "Can you get a mob together?" ~Hooker. " After what happened to Luther, I don't think I can get more than two or three hundred guys."  ~Gondorff.
  • "You follar?" was a line that my Dad made his own and often included in his everyday conversation. And the "finger on the nose" signal was something that my Mom and I adopted.
  • Speaking of the "finger on the nose" signals, that's one of the coolest scenes in the movie, and the shot of Newman at the bank (pictured above) is as classic as it gets.
  • According to IMDB trivia, the diner where Lonnegan gets the phone calls is the Back to the Future diner (and also featured in a few Quantum Leap episodes). I actually thought of that while I was watching those scenes and wondered if it was the same. 
  • Fun scene where Kid Twist (great name, btw) and JJ take over an office by pretending to be painters, and then Twist pages the confused secretary at the front desk to tell her that he's leaving for the day.
  • It's a Dana Elcar sighting! Other than this movie, I don't recall ever seeing him in anything other than MacGyver. He's excellent in his role as Polk, the hard-nosed FBI agent who is in on the con.

  • The Loretta Salino plot line is a clever twist, but she goes through a lot of trouble over what could have been an easy kill. We're supposed to think she didn't knock Hooker off in her apartment because her elderly neighbor saw him, as if the infamous and talented Salino couldn't have kept it quiet or knocked off the old lady. 

Final Analysis:
Best Picture winners aren't normally my cup of tea, but the Academy got one right in 1974. What a masterpiece -- a true classic in every sense of the word and firmly in my Phenomenally Stupendous Fantastic tier 2. Such a fun ride into 1930s Americana, and I haven't even mentioned the names Paul Newman, Robert Redford, or Robert Shaw yet, all of whom are among the best actors ever. As Henry Gondorrf says, "It's a hard act to follow."

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this movie since I was a teenager in the 90s so while I don't remember specific plot details, I do remember really enjoying the movie and could see myself revisiting it at some point.

    As for Dana Elcar, he was quite prolific as a character actor particularly in the 70s and 80s. The 1981 Disney movie "Condorman" was the first movie I saw during the "MacGyver" era where I saw Elcar, although watching reruns of "The A-Team" I had a sighting from a 1984 episode. But Elcar's other big role was a regular supporting actor in the 1976-1978 series entitled either "Baa, Baa Black Sheep" or "Black Sheep Squadron", a Stephen J. Cannell adventure series starring Robert Conrad that was set in World War II featuring an elite corps of Marine fighters. One of my older friends thought it was a great show but another TV aficionado from that era said he thought the show was "too slick" and personally prefers grittier war dramas. Dirk Blocker (from the "MacGyver" episode "Blood Brothers") was also in the cast along with a young John Larroquette. It only lasted 36 episodes but has an outsized footprint on the TV landscape 40 years later because of its production values.