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Ouch! That Hurts!
by Jon Schuller

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You've probably seen a movie or read a book in which the hero gets taken advantage of, especially if the one picking on them is bigger and stronger. Over time, we wind up rooting for the underdog and when he wins, when he defeats the bully, we all cheer; we cheer because we can all identify with the underdog. We ourselves may have gone through an experience like this in our lives. I was a scrawny kid and the big guys in grammar school picked on me – until I became taller and stronger. That stuff stopped in high school. Today's news sometimes features real-life stories about underdogs winning, defying the odds and helping themselves or others win a long struggle. I enjoy those stories; they're real and can lift my spirit. Of course, if I go to a film and that's the plot, I'm already enjoying it before it even begins. On Christmas Day, 1973, two of America's finest actors were re-united in a film that became an instant classic in which the underdogs defeat the rich and powerful bully. Every aspect of this film worked perfectly and audiences everywhere sat in the theatres and literally cheered at the final scene. I've lost count on how many times I've watched it, but amazingly, it never gets old or too familiar. Even the music is memorable. The Sting starred Robert Redford, as Johnny "Kelly" Hooker, Paul Newman, as Henry "Shaw" Gondorff and Robert Shaw as gangster, Doyle Lonnegan, plus a supporting cast that reads like a Hollywood "Who's Who" of marvelous, featured, character actors: Robert Earl Jones (yes, you're correct, it is James' father) as Luther Coleman
Charles Durning as Lt. William Snyder, of the Joliet, Ill. 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 and
Jack Kehoe as Joe Erie
It was directed by George Roy Hill who had worked with the two stars before in 1969's wonderful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – yet another instant classic. Marvin Hamlisch adapted the classic ragtime music of Scott Joplin (from the early 20th Century) for the movie which takes place in Chicago during the Great Depression. In 1968, prior to that, Stanley Kubrick used The Blue Danube Waltz and Also Sprach Zarathustra, from 19th Century Vienna, and placed them in the dark cold of outer space. The Sting was based on the actual lives of two brothers, Fred and Charley Gondorff, who were conmen.

In 1936 Johnny Hooker has just been part of a successful con with his two able partners, Luther Coleman and Joe Erie. Luther says he's finished grifting and wants to take his newfound wealth and retire to warmer climes. But the con turns out to be a big mistake when Luther is murdered as revenge for taking money from a numbers courier who worked for a major crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan. Lonnegan's reputation was built on fear and revenge if you looked at him funny, let alone crossed him. He decides to find Luther's partner.

A corrupt Joliet cop, Lieutenant William Snyder, wants a piece of Hooker's cut from the con. Hooker has already blown the money and takes Luther's parting advice: get away fast and find a famous conman named Henry Gondorff who's in Chicago. Gondorff has been hiding from the F.B.I. inside a combination merry-go-round and whore house. Hooker convinces him to play a con against Lonnegan because he killed Luther. Hooker is worried about how many men Gondorff can round up for the con. Hooker asks him: "Can you get a mob together?" Henry Gondorff replies: "After what happened to Luther, I don't think I can get
more than two, three hundred guys." Gondorff says they're going to bring back an old con game called The Wire, based on getting racing information and holding back the results for a while, pretending to broadcast the race after the race is actually finished. Lonnegan pulls together the best grifters he knows, meeting many of them as they arrive at Chicago's Union Station. They help construct a posh basement betting parlour, complete with a radio announcer and large blackboards covering races all over the country.

Henry has upset Lonnegan while playing an illegal, high stakes poker game on the 20th Century Limited train and out-cheating him for $15,000. He knows Lonnegan will want revenge. Hooker, posing as Gondorff's guy, Kelly, confides in Lonnegan that he knows how to break Gondorff, take all his money and become the head of Gondorff's mob. Lonnegan agrees and makes his way to the betting parlour.

The corrupt Lt. Snyder has tracked Hooker to Chicago but is suddenly picked up by the F.B.I. and taken to a run-down factory and told in no uncertain terms by Special Agent Polk that Snyder will work with him to bring in Hooker and Gondorff. Lonnegan has sent his own high-priced assassin, Salino, to kill Hooker.

Hooker, as Kelly, explains to Lonnegan how to beat Gondorff in his own betting parlour. A friend named Les Harmon at the Western Union office will give Hooker the results of the races, call them in to Lonnegan at a drug store phone booth and Lonnegan will bet on the winners before the results get to Gondorff's place. They try a few times, are successful and convince Lonnegan to make a large bet and break Gondorff permanently. Hooker gets pulled in by the F.B.I. too and is forced to become part of the plan to capture Gondorff. Lonnegan's bet will be $500,000 (about
$8 million today).

The day of the big bet arrives and Lonnegan has been given his secret race results by Harmon. But that turns out to be wrong and as Lonnegan tries to change his bet, Agent Polk and his men rush into the room to capture Gondorff. Polk tells Hooker he's free to go and thanks him for his co-operation. Gondorff, enraged, shoots Hooker and Polk then shoots Gondorff. Snyder hustles Lonnegan out into the street as he yells about his "money in there." Snyder reminds him there are also "two dead guys in there." The coast is clear and the "victims" get up from the floor. Everyone is cheering and smiling as Hickey/"Agent Polk", who was also part of the scheme – hired by Gondorff – leaves with his crew. Gondorff asks Hooker if it feels good to get revenge for Luther: "You're right, Henry. It's not enough. But it's close!"

The Sting was nominated for 10 Academy Awards winning 7:
Best Picture
Best Director — George Roy Hill
Best Writing, Original Screenplay — David S. Ward
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration — Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne
Best Costume Design — Edith Head
Film Editing — William H. Reynolds
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

The film cost $5.5 million and earned $159.6 million. It's on three of the A.F.I.'s 100 Years' lists: Movies, Laughs and Villains (Doyle Lonnegan). Robert Shaw actually injured his knee one week before shooting started and his rather obvious limp became a permanent part of his nasty character. Newman and Redford had proven how great they were together in 1969 and pairing them again made The Sting one of the best films ever. The good guys really win.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

When Is It Leaving? Where Is It Going?

I'd Forgotten About That Completely

He's a Spy? Yeah. Right.

May I Quote You On That?

A Penultimate Year For Movies

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.


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