Film / The Sting

"Dukey, if this thing blows up, the Feds will be the least of our problems."
Kid Twist

The Sting is an iconic con film released in 1973. It reunites Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director George Roy Hill with stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

Set in 1936 Chicago, the film opens up with novice con Johnny Hooker (Redford) along with Joe Erie (Jack Kehoe) and Hooker's mentor, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), as they pull off their latest sting. Unfortunately, they've bitten off more than they can chew this time; their latest victim has connections to Big Bad racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). When Lonnegan's goons rub out Luther and put a hit on Hooker's head, Hooker seeks out his mentor's friend, Henry Gondorff (Newman), a master of the "big con". Assembling their team, Hooker and Gondorff prepare to scam the big one out of Lonnegan.

And just to complicate things, Hooker is being chased by a policeman and the band's got to make sure Lonnegan never even finds out he's been conned, otherwise he'll put hits on all of them.

The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven (including Best Picture). It is also one of the biggest box office hits of all-time; when adjusted for inflation, it currently sits as the 19th-best domestic earner of all time according to

This film features examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Subverted, Gondorff is introduced in the story during a heavy hangover but it's a one time instance and he is a Consummate Professional, despite Hooker's first impression.
  • The Assimilator: Conventional example in Lonnegan's modus operandi, he expands his criminal empire by learning the trades and insights of an illegal business to eventually take it over.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Kid Twist (Kid Twist!) wants to know who else is available for the big con:
    Horse Face Lee, Slim Miller, Suitcase Murphy and the Big Alabama are in from New Orleans; Crying Jonesy and the Boone Kid from Denver; Dippy Burke and Limehouse Chappie from New York ...
  • Berserk Button: Doyle Lonnegan gets angry if you mispronounce his name (though he has the self-control to hold back for at least a little while).
  • The Big Board: With horse racing odds and results.
  • Big Store: The betting parlour.
  • Black and Gray Morality: The protagonists are con men who swindle people for a living, but their antagonists are worse; a scummy courier, a corrupt brutal cop and a ruthless gangster.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Luther
  • Blood from the Mouth: Hooker fakes this at the end as part of the big con.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Lonnegan takes one of these to bet at the con.
  • Burlesque: Hooker's girlfriend stars in a burlesque show.
  • Catch Phrase: Doyle Lonnegan's "Ya folla?" (You follow?), used habitually enough to be something of a Verbal Tic.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A very quick one. When it's time to get ready to pull the Big Con, Hooker is seen putting something in his mouth while standing in front of his mirror. It's the blood bag that he uses to fake Blood from the Mouth at the climax.
  • Complexity Addiction: Salino is a sufferer. To elaborate: Her plan to kill Hooker pretty much depends on Hooker coming to her (working on a hole-in-the-wall diner in Chicago under an assumed name) instead of actively searching for him, and then she takes too long stringing him around as an apparent Love Interest before trying to shoot him-which provides enough time for the bodyguard that Gondorff hired to tail Hooker to identify her and then shoot her.
    • It's not quite as complex as it seems at first blush: Dialogue makes it clear that he was a regular there, and she replaced the regular waitress, either paying her off or possibly killing her. And every time she may have had an opportunity to take him out, there were witnesses around (still, she manages to spend the night before the Big Con with him... and she doesn't tries to kill him right then, but the morning after).
  • The Con: One so good it cons the big one out of its audience!
  • Con Man: Many of the main characters. Erie and Hooker start in a lower, Hustler territory since they lack experience in the Long Con.
  • Con Men Hate Guns: Averted, Hooker would happily kill the villain in revenge for the murder of his friend Luther, but realizes that he doesn't know enough about killing people to successfully pull it off and opts for cheating him out of a fortune instead.
  • The Con Within A Con: The initial plan is for Hooker to try and entice Lonnegan into wanting to pull a con on Gondorff posing as a bookie named Shaw.
  • Confiscated Phone: Hooker pulls a woman making out of a call out of a pay phone booth in order to try to call Luther before he's murdered, then runs off to try and reach him. Hooker's friend is left behind, being swatted by the woman and her purse because she lost her nickel and wants it back.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: Hooker uses his share of a small con to impress a girl, it backfires.
  • Cool Train: Gondorff takes Lonnegan in a high-stakes poker game aboard the 20th Century Limited.
  • Criminal Procedural: A team of con artists setting up shop to scam a racketeer.
  • Cuffs Off, Rub Wrists: Hooker, after Snyder arrests him.
  • Dating Catwoman: Loretta, the waitress, who saves Hooker's life and with whom he then spends the night, turns out to be the feared hired killer Loretta Salino, who all along intended to kill him herself.
  • Deadpan Snarker
    • Hooker. Erie occasionally. Snyder is the regular target of their sarcastic quips.
    • Lonnegan, of all people, has his moments too; when he rubs Erie's nose in it regarding a losing tip and when he makes a jab about insulating his bodyguard from smart guys, lest he starts thinking for himself.
  • Death Glare: Lonnegan's common stance, prominent example towards the train attendant who vouched for Shaw (Gondorff), when Shaw shows up and is revealed to be a drunkard.
  • Delayed Wire: The off-track betting tale.
  • Detective Mole: The "FBI agents" who assist Lieutenant Snyder are an integral part of the con.
  • Dirty Cop: Lt. Snyder... Counterfeit Cash notwithstanding.
  • The Dreaded: Lonnegan, The Mark, to the point one fellow con man prefers money in advance over a cut of the winnings and another points out if the thing blows up, the Feds will be the least of our problems.
    Hooker: You are afraid of him.
    Gondorff: Right down to my socks, buster.
  • Dream Team: There is a roster and a casting to assemble one, with a token novice too. Gondorff remarks he would be able to recruit a crew of three hundred con artists.
  • The Dragon: Floyd to his boss, The Big Bad Doyle Lonnegan. He's unafraid to disagree with Lonnegan, and even mildly argues with him.
  • Episode Title Card
  • Establishing Character Moment: Subverted with the main duo and with other characters; as befits a con film, few things are what they seem to be at first:
    • Hooker is in the middle of a short con, so he deliberately projects the image of a random and unsympathetic bystander. Some clues about his deception may be picked up in hindsight.
    • As mentioned above, Gondorff appears to be an alcoholic washout in his first appearance, but he is a Consummate Professional and one of the best con artists out there. Invoked in-universe a second time when Shaw comes across as a drunken slob to Lonnegan when the two first met.
    • Played very straight with Lonnegan, who casually talks to his Dragon while playing golf in an upstate New York club that he will kill anybody who tries to dupe, mock, or steal from him in any way whatsoever (even the long-time friend that he's playing golf with) and to put more effort into finding the men who stole from him to Make an Example of Them; showcasing that his sophistication and straight-edgedness are just a mask for a Hair-Trigger Temper, Disproportionate Retribution, Kill 'em All-happy brute (and, quite justifiably, The Dreaded).
  • Exact Words: One of the key ways they make sure Lonnegan doesn't figure out he's been conned, along with the fake feds busting in and the real cop hustling him away. He thinks "place" means one thing, when in horseracing terms, it means something else. It's a good thing he's not familiar with horseracing, otherwise the con probably would not have worked.
  • Fake Brit: In-universe. Curly Jackson, a grifter from Baltimore who joins the con, specializes in masquerading as an Englishman.
  • Fake Mark: Gondorff plays an obnoxious bookie named Shaw, whom Lonnegan is set to rip-off with inside help from Kelly (Hooker).
  • Feet-First Introduction: Lonnegan's courier/Hooker and Luther's mark, in the opening.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Hooker is a con artist, but his wits do not apply beyond his profession and he engages in ruinous Suspicious Spending, losing his share in an afternoon. He becomes aware of it so in the end he forfeits his share.
  • Gag Penis: An old burlesque joke told by burlesque comic Leonard Barr. The punchline is, "Yeah, but this one's eating my popcorn!".
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: The title. In old parlance, it was the final part of a con — the bit where the con men took the mark's money — and could be used metonymically for the whole con itself. Today, people tend to think of police sting operations. (Which is rather circular- the original Operation Sting was named for this movie.)
  • The Great Depression: Chicago 1936; why the Universal Studios logo of that time was used.
  • Hand of Death: Subverted; it's revealed that the hit man hired to rub out Hooker is named Salino. However, the ominous hands that show up every so often are those of the bodyguard Gondorff hired for Hooker. The bodyguard shoots Salino.
  • Hand Signals: The Con Artist recognition signal and Dukie's "stop" sign.
  • Hollywood Silencer: A silenced revolver (And it's not a Nagant or one of the obscure designs purpose made for the folks at Moscow Centre) appears at one point.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Billie, the madam who runs a whorehouse and carousel is Gondorf's girlfriend, who apparently loves him.
  • Important Haircut: Hooker has one (along with new clothes and a manicure) when he puts himself under the tutelage of Gondorff at the beginning the long con.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After almost getting ambushed by two hitmen waiting at his apartment, Hooker goes directly to the betting parlour and pours himself a drink.
  • Informed Ability: Salino is supposed to be Lonnegan's top assassin, to the point that Lonnegan's Dragon tells Lonnegan that ordering them to find and kill Hooker is a serious case of overkill. As the Complexity Addiction explanation above showcases, their spending way too much time toying around with Hooker is what gets this "top assassin" killed with ease, on top of a very real risk of having never found him (with the method they were using to look for him).
  • In-Name-Only: The very inferior 1983 sequel The Sting II starred Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis as characters with vaguely similar names to the ones played by Newman and Redford in the original: Gleason plays Fargo Gondorff and Davis plays a seemingly lobotomized Jake Hooker. Doyle Lonnegan still has his original name, but Oliver Reed plays him as an erudite bookworm, whereas Robert Shaw's Lonnegan would be more likely to beat someone with a book than actually read it.
  • The Irish Mob: Strangely, in post-Capone Chicago.
  • Iris Out: The movie ends with one.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: We know we're watching a con, then the movie cons the audience into thinking (1) Hooker had agreed to turn Gondorff in to the FBI; (2) Hooker and Gondorff were killed until we see that it was all a setup.
  • Karmic Thief: The Con Men scam a mobster who murdered one of their fellow con artists.
  • Keep the Reward: A variation in the end, Hooker forfeits his share because he wasn't in it for the money and he reckons he would blow it anyway.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: The weary Gondorff the night before the big con. Used as counterpoint to the up-and-coming Hooker, who scores a one night stand.
  • The Magic Poker Equation: Justified in this case because both players are cheating.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Gondorff repeatedly and deliberately gets Lonnegan's surname wrong to get under his skin.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: The "big con." Gondorff and Hooker set up a fake off-track betting joint to con Lonnegan into betting on horses with delayed results so the con men already know the winners.
  • Meaningful Name: Hooker is a snarer. It seems to be his real surname and not an In Universe Nickname. Lampshaded in one of the chapter headings on the DVD: Hooker Hooked by the Feds
  • Mentor: Hooker is redirected by Luther (paternalist) to Gondorff, more cynical.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Luther.
  • Mistaken Identity: Lonnegan spends the entire movie sending people to kill Luther's partner Hooker (who he's never seen). Meanwhile, he's heavily involved with "Shaw's" turncoat "Kelly" (who the goons trying to kill Hooker have never seen). He never realizes that Hooker and "Kelly" are the same person.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: Flat-out said with the line that provides the page quote: Lonnegan is such a homicidal brute that if he catches wind that he's the victim of the con, every single conman will need to fear his retaliation for the rest of their lives (which will be very short, if Lonnegan has any say in it).
  • Mondegreen: Invoked in the final bet with the horse Lucky Dan. "I said place! Place it on Lucky... That horse is gonna run second!"
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: When Lonnegan is informed by Kelly that Shaw played him like a fiddle, his first intention is to kill them both right there on the train and get rid of the bodies. Floyd tries to talk some sense into him, because they are about to reach the station and there were other players on the table who could get suspicious.
  • No Name Given: The black-gloved gunman who Gondorff hired to guard Hooker, and who rescues him from getting killed by Loretta Salino.
  • Nose Tapping: A signal between the con men. Trope image as of Jun'12.
  • Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught: Part of the con involves Gondorff out-cheating Lonnegan.
    Lonnegan What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: The bartender in Billie's whorehouse can be seen drying a glass with a cloth.
  • Oh, Crap!: Subverted, the con men quietly panic when Lonnegan approaches the inexperienced Joe Erie, but Erie delivers a magnificent performance.
    • When Harmon tells Lonnegan—who bet $500,000 on Lucky Dan to win—that Lucky Dan is going to run second.
  • Open Secret: Mundane example with Hooker's big hit.
    Hooker: If Snyder knows about us, so does everybody else. He never gets anything first
  • Orphaned Punchline: During the burlesque scene, the first part of a background joke is not heard because Hooker is talking.
  • Le Parkour: The chase/evasion scene at the elevated train stop.
  • Percussive Pickpocket: While Doyle Lonnegan is walking through the train to the poker game, Billie (Gondorff's girlfriend) bumps into him and steals his wallet. He doesn't notice until after he loses big at the poker game and tries to take it out to pay off his debt.
  • Playing Drunk: Gondorff pretends to be drunk to justify acting offensively toward Doyle Lonnegan. To enhance his act he gargles with gin to get alcohol-laden breath and brings along a gin bottle cut with water to drink from.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Henry Gondorff contacting his old crew.
  • Rabid Cop: Lieutenant Snyder. His Establishing Character Moment is pulling a borderline-Car Fu Dynamic Entry on Hooker in order to muscle all of Hooker's share of the runner's money out of him, he intimidates and beats up his way through the Chicago underworld to find Hooker, pulls a second Dynamic Entry-slash-*Click* Hello on Hooker by smashing his pistol-packing hand through a phone booth's glass... there is also the fact that Snyder is a cop from Joliet, Illinois and probably doesn't has jurisdiction in Chicago, yet he continues to act like he has full authority.
  • Retirony: Luther is killed shortly after he tells Hooker how he'll use his share to go straight and support his family.
  • Retraux: The film opens with a sepia-tinted version of the 1936-46 Universal logo. The different "chapters" of the story are introduced with old-fashioned title cards, done in the style of Norman Rockwell's vintage Saturday Evening Post illustrations and bearing titles like "The Tale", "The Set-Up", etc. Scene transitions are done with old-fashioned wipe effects. And the film ends with a classic Iris Out.
  • Revenge: Hooker's driving force against Lonnegan. Also the reason for Gondorff and his band, but more toned down to avoid unprofessionalism.
  • Robbing the Mob Bank: The opening Short Con; a team of con artists (Johnny Hooker, Luther Coleman and Joe Erie) inadvertently swindle a numbers runner for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. Lonnegan assigns hit men to find and kill each of them, and the hit men appear and carry out attacks throughout the movie
  • Rooting for the Empire: In-universe example, Luther's wife is displeased about their kids rooting for the police against Machine Gun Kelly in a radio serial.
  • Samus Is a Girl: Salino's first name is Loretta.
  • Searching the Stalls: Johnny Hooker is trying to escape a hit man trying to kill him. He goes into a restroom to hide. The hit man enters and starts opening doors to find him. He gets to the last stall and realizes there's a woman inside. He figures Hooker went out the window and does the same. It turns out Hooker was inside the stall with the woman — she was helping him.
  • Shameful Source of Knowledge: Doyle Lonnegan tries to cheat Henry Gondorff with a stacked deck during a poker game, but Gondorff outsmarts him by switching out the cards he was given for better ones.
    Floyd: We can't let him get away with that.
    Lonnegan: What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?
  • Shout-Out: Hooker loses a bundle at a rigged roulette wheel that comes up 22 — the same number that comes up on the rigged roulette wheel in Casablanca.
  • Stab the Scorpion: The bodyguard reveals himself by shooting Salino.
  • Staged Shooting: Hooker and Gondorff, as part of their Big Con.
  • Standard Snippet: "The Entertainer," by Scott Joplin, is the film's main theme.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Doyle Lonnegan is a sober country-club-member banking gentleman with no apparent interest in women and whose only vice is poker ... and he cheats. He's good at it too. His real money comes from his numbers racket, and he won't hesitate to murder anyone who cons him out of a single payment from a single runner on a single day of it.
  • The Tale: One of the named segments. Lonnegan is made to believe insider information about a Delayed Wire.
  • Talent Double: Gondorff's hands doing card tricks before the poker game are actually those of technical adviser and professional magician John Scarne.
  • Trouser Space: Johnny Hooker demonstrates trouser space when suggesting that a money courier should hide his money there. This was a trick. During the demonstration, Hooker switched the courier's money for a wad of plain paper. This con is called The Jamaican / Hankie switch.
  • Twist Ending: First, Lonnegan hires Salino to kill Hooker, and when Hooker is walking through an alley, smiles, seeing his girlfriend, a man behind Hooker pulls out a gun, points it, and shoots her. Turns out he's a body guard Gondorff hired to protect Hooker, and Hooker's girlfriend was actually Salino, the assassin who would have killed him. Second, the FBI guys bust into the gambling den to arrest Gondorff, and per their promise, let Hooker go. At this point, Gondorf shoots Hooker, and the FBI guy shoots Gondorff. The FBI guy has the cop rush Lonnegan out of the place. After they leave, Gondorff and Hooker get up, with blood stains like they've been shot. We then find out it was a scam to make both the cop and Lonnegan think they're both dead.
  • Underdressed for the Occasion: Gondorff deliberately dresses like a drunken slob at a big poker game with Lonnegan on a train.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The audience is aware of most of the setup, but there are several details that remain hidden until the very end.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: In the final scene Hooker, proving Gondorff right, feels this way after beating Lonnegan and remarks vengeance is not enough. He still cracks a joke: "but it's close!"
  • Verbal Tic: Ya folla?
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story was inspired by real-life con games perpetrated by the brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and documented by David Maurer in his book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man.
  • Video Credits: The opening credits show the main cast with actor and character names.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Is mentioned offhandedly that Lonnegan is a Knight of Columbus and is primarily known as a banker.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Luther calls Hooker out on his Suspicious Spending. It's most unwise for a con man to be flashing his money.
  • The Windy City: Hooker moves to Chicago after the events of the initial con.
  • Wipe
  • You Got Spunk: Kid Twist tells Joe Erie (who wants in on the con) that he's got moxie for keeping his mouth shut when Snyder beats him up for not talking and being snarky instead.