The Sting: The great con show


‘The Sting’, the 1973 American caper film brought together actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and director, George Roy Hill, following their 1969 successful venture, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Created by screenwriter David Ward, the story was inspired by real-life cons perpetrated by brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and documented by David Maurer in his popular book, ‘The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man’ (1940). In fact, Ward got the idea for ‘The Sting’ when he was working on the script for ‘Steelyard Blues’ (1973) which included a pick-pocketing scene. Researching for this scene, Ward found himself reading about con artists, including those in the book by Maurer. Ward had already shown his ‘Steelyard Blues’ screenplay to producer, Tony Bill and therefore, also gave Bill an outline of this story. Bill liked it immediately and brought producers, Michael Phillips and his wife Julia Phillips onboard. Eventually the team of three producers made both these films.

Ward wrote the script with Redford in mind as Johnny ‘Kelly’ Hooker; however Redford initially turned the part down. Jack Nicholson then turned down the role, after which Redford changed his mind and decided to play it. Even after changing his mind, he didn’t expect the movie to be a hit. Robert Shaw got the part of Doyle Lonnegan only after Richard Boone and another actor declined it. Boone, in fact, signed on for ‘The Sting’ but dropped out without explanation, refusing to even return producers’ and agents’ phone calls.

When the producers first optioned Ward’s screenplay, the deal had been for him to direct it too. That was nixed when Redford, sniffing around the project, said he wouldn’t do such a complicated movie with a first-timer at the helm, no offense. Once Ward saw the calibre of talent his screenplay was attracting, he came to agree with the producers that it deserved a more experienced director. Around the same time, Hill saw the screenplay by accident and asked for the director’s job. Once hired, Hill routinely showed his projects to Newman, who liked the screenplay of ‘The Sting’ and was pleased to join the film.

Redford and Newman were each paid $500,000 for their part in the film, the top-rate for an actor working at that time.

Incidentally, Maurer, an academician, who had spent much of his academic career studying the language of criminals, drug addicts and other marginal subcultures had written ‘The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man’, with the source material coming from his correspondence, interviews, and informal chats with hundreds of underworld denizens during the 1930s. In 1974, he filed a $10 million plagiarism lawsuit charging that ‘The Sting’ and the book of the same name had been copied from his book. The lawsuit was settled out of court by Universal Pictures in 1976, for $300,000, irking Ward, who had used many non-fiction books as research material and hadn’t really plagiarised any of them.

Hill wanted to film the picture on location, but art director, Henry Bumstead was adamant that it would be much too hard to get the period appearance right; for example, things like lane markings on the streets. In the end, the only location shooting was a few days’ worth in Chicago and Los Angeles, with most of the exteriors being filmed on Universal Picture’s back lot.

Production got off to a rather rocky start, with Ward stating that the only time he felt any doubt about the film’s potential was when shooting began. He said that Hill “didn’t like what he did the first week of shooting, and thought it could be better, so he reshot it.” The reshot part was the first sequence in the movie, the one where Johnny ‘Kelly’ Hooker and Luther Coleman fleece a mobster in the alley. Things went smoothly after that, and people praised Hill for running an efficient, happy, and well-organised set.

The soundtrack album of ‘The Sting’ included several ragtime – a musical style that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1895 and 1918 – compositions of African-American composer and pianist Scott Joplin adapted by Marvin Hamlisch. Ironically, ragtime music, which sets the mood of the film, was no longer popular by the time of the setting of the film, which was1930s. The real surprise came when ‘The Sting’ soundtrack topped the Billboard chart for five weeks in May and June of 1974.

The film received rave reviews and produced at a budget of $5.5 million, was a Box Office smash taking in more than $160 million. It also received three Academy Award nominations and won seven Oscars, including in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, with Julia Phillips becoming the first female producer to be nominated for and to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Eventually, Ward wrote ‘The Sting II’ for Redford and Newman again, and said that Hill wanted to come back as director of this sequel. Redford was willing to consider the project, but Newman wanted to leave well enough alone. Universal Pictures made the sequel anyway, with Mac Davis and Jackie Gleason in the Redford and Newman roles, respectively. However, the names of the characters were altered, and some story details were retroactively changed. Actor Oliver Reed enacted the role of Doyle Lonnegan in the sequel as Robert Shaw passed away in August 1978. Ward wanted to take his name off as writer to no avail. ‘The Sting II’ was released in 1983, made $6 million, and was never heard from again.

Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis – music and lyrics – writer Bob Martin, and director John Rando created a stage musical version of ‘The Sting’. The musical premiered at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey on March 29, 2018.


It’s September, 1936, in Joliet, Illinois, the US being at the height of the Great Depression. A conman called Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), his apprentice Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and their underling Joe Erie (Jack Kehoe) have netted $11,000 from their latest swindle, enough for the aged Luther to contemplate retiring from grifting. They are however unaware that the money involved belongs to a ruthless crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), whose thugs subsequently kill Luther in retaliation. Before Luther’s death, he suggests that Hooker contact Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), his old friend in Chicago to learn the art of the big con.

Hooker finds Gondorff, a once-great conman now hiding from the FBI, and asks for his help in taking on the dangerous Lonnegan. Gondorff is initially reluctant, but soon relents and devises a complicated scheme, which includes recruitment of a core team comprising his old associates as well as a number of small time grifters to dupe Lonnegan. The group also includes Erie, who wants to do his small part in avenging Luther’s death.

Setting up the opulent 20th Century Limited, Gondorff, posing as boorish Chicago bookie ‘Shaw’, buys into Lonnegan’s private, high-stakes poker game. Gondorff/‘Shaw’ infuriates Lonnegan with his obnoxious behaviour and then out-cheats him to win $15,000. Later, Hooker, posing as Gondorff/Shaw’s disgruntled employee ‘Kelly’, is sent to collect the winnings and instead convinces Lonnegan that he wants to take over Gondorff/Shaw’s operation. Hooker/‘Kelly’ also reveals to Lonnegan  that he has a partner named Les Harmon – actually con man Kid Twist (Harold Gould) – in the Chicago Western Union office, who will allow them to win bets on horse races by past-posting.

However, there are many potential obstacles in pulling off the sting, such as a controlling and overly cautious Lonnegan wanting to do things his own way, and a number of people chasing Hooker/‘Kelly’, including a corrupt Joliet police, Lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning), Lonnegan’s lower level thugs and hit lady hired by Lonnegan – Loretta Salino (Dimitra Arliss).

Finally, all obstacles are taken care of, just as armed with Harmon’s tip to “place it on Lucky Dan”, Lonnegan makes the $500,000 bet at Gondorff/Shaw’s parlour 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” that is finish second. In a panic, Lonnegan rushes the teller window and demands his money back. A moment later, FBI Agent Polk (Dana Elcar), Lt Snyder and half-a-dozen FBI agents storm the parlour. Polk confronts Gondorff/‘Shaw’ and then tells Hooker/‘Kelly’ he is free to go. Gondorff/‘Shaw’ reacting to the betrayal, shoots Hooker/‘Kelly’ in the back. Polk then shoots Gondorff/‘Shaw’ 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 conman, running a con atop Gondorff’s con to divert Snyder and provide a solid “blow off”. As the conmen strip the room of its contents, Hooker refuses his share of the money, saying “I’d only blow it”, and walks away with Gondorff.


Director, George Roy Hill made choices for ‘The Sting’ that would utilise certain stylistic techniques of the 1930s. For instance, he decided to use an old-fashioned Universal logo from the period at the beginning of the film, immediately evoking a nostalgic tone for the movie.

It was just prior to Elizabeth Taylor’s presentation of the Best Picture Oscar for ‘The Sting’ that the streaker Robert Opal darted across the stage as actor David Niven was introducing her. It was this incident – among others – that inspired singer, Ray Stevens to write the song “The Streak” which went to the top of the US charts the month after the awards. Incidentally, Opal was found murdered in his San Francisco sex shop in 1979.

Robert Shaw injured his knee during the filming of ‘The Sting’ and incorporated the resulting limp into his performance.

Robert Redford’s character – Johnny ‘Kelly’ Hooker – is supposedly named after Blues legend, John Lee Hooker

Robert Redford didn’t see ‘The Sting’ until June 2004.

The Hindi film ‘Khosla ka Ghosla’ (2006) directed by Dibakar Banerjee and starring Anupam Kher and Boman Irani was loosely inspired by ‘The Sting’.

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