15 March 2004 | JamesHitchcock
The Moral Order Restored
Johnny Hooker and Luther Coleman are `grifters' or confidence tricksters in 1930s Chicago. Unknown to them, however, one of their victims works for a vicious local gangster named Doyle Lonnegan, and when Lonnegan finds out what has happened he has Luther murdered. Hooker is not a violent man by nature and admits that he does not know much about killing, but nevertheless wishes to take revenge for his partner's death. He decides that the best way is to hurt Lonnegan's pride by relieving him of some of his wealth. He joins forces with another con man named Henry Gondorff, and together they come up with an elaborate plan, not only to cheat Lonnegan, but also to do it in such a way that he never realises that he has been cheated. The plot unfolds with great ingenuity; until the final denouement the audience are never quite sure which developments are for real and which are part of the elaborate scheme.
Crime thrillers set during this period are normally associated with the classic `film noir' style, with its dark, brooding, cynical atmosphere. In `The Sting', however, George Roy Hill deliberately sets out to create a very different mood. The style is almost the exact opposite of film noir. The acting is heavily stylised (as is the scenery), and the division of the film into sections with titles such as `The Hook' or `The Line' is reminiscent of the formal division of a stage play into acts and scenes. The film is not in black-and-white but in bright colour, and the mood, far from being heavy and brooding, is light and cheerful. Scott Joplin's music, although written slightly earlier than the period in which the film is set, fits this mood perfectly. The major actors all play their parts perfectly- Robert Shaw as the glowering, menacing Lonnegan, Robert Redford as the young, idealistic Hooker (insofar as a con-man can be said to be an idealist), and Paul Newman as the older, more experienced and laid-back Gondorff. There are also good contributions from Charles Durning as the corrupt policement Lieutenant Snyder and Robert Earl Jones as Luther.
Despite the cheerful mood, the film has serious undertones in keeping with its themes of revenge and murder. I am not usually a great admirer of what are known as `heist' or `caper' movies, as I feel that too often they glamourise crime and dishonesty. `The Sting', however, is different. Hooker and Gondorff live in a world where the moral order has broken down. The police are hopelessly corrupt- Snyder, the one representative we see of the forces of law and order, is on Lonnegan's payroll. There is no chance of Hooker getting justice for his friend's murder through the normal channels; the only way in which this can be achieved is to go outside the law. Where the police are crooked, only the criminals can execute justice. The emotional satisfaction we feel at the end of the film is because a sort of moral order has finally been restored and, moreover, because this has been done without anyone getting injured except Lonnegan's wallet. An excellent film, which well deserved its Academy Award. 9/10.