The Sting

The Sting
The Sting

Film poster by Richard Amsel
Directed by George Roy Hill
Produced by Tony Bill
Michael Phillips
Julia Phillips
Written by David S. Ward
Starring Paul Newman
Robert Redford
Robert Shaw
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Editing by William Reynolds
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) December 25, 1973 (1973-12-25)
Running time 129 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5.5 million[1]

The Sting is a 1973 American caper film set in September 1936 that involves a complicated plot by two professional grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) to con a mob boss (Robert Shaw).[2] The film was directed by George Roy Hill, who previously directed Newman and Redford in the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Created by screenwriter David S. Ward, 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.

The title phrase refers to the moment when a con artist finishes the "play" and takes the mark's money. (Today the expression is mostly used in the context of law enforcement sting operations.) If a con game is successful, the mark does not realize he has been "taken" (cheated), at least not until the con men are long gone. The film is divided into distinct sections with old-fashioned title cards with lettering and illustrations rendered in a style reminiscent of the Saturday Evening Post. The film is noted for its musical score—particularly its main melody, "The Entertainer", a piano rag by Scott Joplin, which was lightly adapted for the movie by Marvin Hamlisch (and became a top-ten chart single for Hamlisch, when released as a single from the film's soundtrack). The film's success encouraged a surge of popularity and critical acclaim for Joplin's work.[3]

The Sting was hugely successful at the 46th Academy Awards, being nominated for 10 Oscars and winning seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.[4]



Johnny Hooker, a grifter from Depression-era Joliet, Illinois, cons $11,000 in cash from an unsuspecting victim, with the aid of his partners Luther Coleman and Joe Erie. Buoyed by the windfall, Luther announces his retirement and advises Hooker to seek out an old friend, Henry Gondorff, in Chicago, to teach him “the big con.” Unfortunately, their victim was a numbers racket courier for vicious crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. Corrupt Joliet police Lieutenant William Snyder confronts Hooker, revealing Lonnegan's involvement and demanding part of Hooker’s cut. Having already spent his cut, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills. Lonnegan's men murder Luther, and Hooker flees for his life to Chicago.

Gondorff, a once-great con-man now hiding out from the FBI, is initially reluctant to take on the dangerous Lonnegan. However, Gondorff relents and decides to resurrect an elaborate and supposedly obsolete scam known as "the wire", using a large number of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor.

Aboard the opulent 20th Century Limited, Gondorff, posing as boorish Chicago bookie "Shaw", buys his way into Lonnegan's private high-stakes poker game and out-cheats Lonnegan, winning $15,000 from him and making Lonnegan furious. Hooker, posing as Shaw's disgruntled employee "Kelly", is sent to collect the winnings and instead convinces Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaw's operation. Kelly reveals that he has a partner named Les Harmon (actually fellow con man “Kid Twist”) in the Chicago Western Union office, who will allow them to win bets on horse races by past-posting.

Meanwhile, Snyder has tracked Hooker to Chicago, but his pursuit is thwarted when he is summoned by undercover FBI agents led by Agent Polk, who orders him to assist in their scheme to arrest Gondorff using Hooker. Additionally, Lonnegan has grown frustrated with his men's inability to find and kill Hooker. Unaware that “Kelly” is Hooker, he demands that "Salino," his best assassin, kill Hooker. A mysterious figure with black leather gloves is soon seen following and observing Hooker.

Kelly's connection appears effective, as Harmon provides Lonnegan with the winner of one horse race and the trifecta of another race. Lonnegan agrees to finance a $500,000 bet at Shaw's parlor to break Shaw and gain revenge. Shortly thereafter, Snyder captures Hooker and brings him before Agent Polk. Polk forces Hooker to betray Gondorff by threatening to incarcerate Luther Coleman's widow.

The night prior to the sting, Hooker sleeps with Loretta, a waitress at a local restaurant. As Hooker leaves the building the next morning, he sees Loretta walking toward him. The black-gloved man appears behind Hooker and shoots Loretta dead, later revealing her to be "Loretta Salino", Lonnegan's hired killer. The black-gloved man had been hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.

Armed with Harmon’s tip to "place it on Lucky Dan", Lonnegan makes a $500,000 bet at Shaw’s parlor on Lucky Dan to win. As the race begins, Harmon arrives and expresses shock at Lonnegan's bet, explaining that his tip meant that Lucky Dan would finish second. A panicked Lonnegan rushes the teller window and demands his money back. Just then, Agent Polk, Lieutenant Snyder, and a dozen FBI officers storm the parlor. Polk confronts Gondorff, then tells Hooker he is free to go. Gondorff, reacting to the betrayal, shoots Hooker in the back; Polk then shoots Gondorff and orders Snyder to get 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 con man, running a con atop Gondorff's con to divert Snyder and provide a solid "blow off" to Gondorff's con. Hooker and Gondorff depart as the other con men strip the room of its contents.



Filming on location in Pasadena. Stand-ins are used to set up the shot.
  • In 1974 The Big Con author David Maurer filed a ten million dollar lawsuit claiming at least part of the film's story had been taken from his book. The matter was resolved out of court in 1976.
  • The movie was filmed on the backlot of Universal Studios, with scenes also being shot at the Santa Monica Pier and in Pasadena.[5]
  • Doyle Lonnegan's limp in the film, used to great effect by actor Robert Shaw, was in fact completely authentic as Shaw had slipped on a wet handball court at the Beverly Hills Hotel just a week before filming began and had split all the ligaments in his knee. He had to wear a leg brace during production which was kept hidden under the wide 1930s style trousers he wore. This incident was revealed by Julia Philips in her 1991 autobiography You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. She said that Shaw saved The Sting since no other actor would accept the part, that Paul Newman hand delivered the script to Shaw in London in order to ensure his participation, and that he had to be paid an extremely high salary. Philips' book also asserts that he was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award because he demanded that his name follow those of Newman and Redford before the film's opening title.
  • Rob Cohen, later a director of 1990s action films like The Fast and the Furious, years later told of how he found the script in the slush pile when he was working as a reader for Mike Medavoy, a future studio head then an agent. He wrote in his coverage that it was "the great American screenplay and ... will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film." Medavoy said that he would try to sell it on that recommendation and promised to fire Cohen if he couldn't. Universal bought it that afternoon, and Cohen still has the coverage framed on the wall of his office.[6]


The film received rave reviews and was a box office smash in 1973-74, taking in more than US$160 million. In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".



The film won seven Academy Awards and received three other nominations.[7] Julia Phillips became the first female producer to win Best Picture at the 46th Academy Awards.[8]



The soundtrack album, which was executive produced by Gil Rodin, contained the following selections, most of which are Scott Joplin ragtime pieces. Ragtime had just experienced a revival due to several recordings by Joshua Rifkin on Nonesuch Records starting with Scott Joplin: Piano Rags in 1970. There are some variances from the actual film soundtrack, as noted. Joplin's ragtime music was no longer popular during the 1930s, although its use in The Sting evokes a definitive 1930s gangster movie, The Public Enemy, which also featured Joplin's music. The two Jazz Age style tunes written by Hamlisch are chronologically much closer to the film's time period than are the Joplin rags:

  1. "Solace" (Joplin) - orchestral version
  2. "The Entertainer" (Joplin) - orchestral version
  3. "The Easy Winners" (Joplin)
  4. "Hooker's Hooker" (Hamlisch)
  5. "Luther" - same basic tune as "Solace", re-arranged by Hamlisch as a dirge
  6. "Pine Apple Rag" / "Gladiolus Rag" medley (Joplin)
  7. "The Entertainer" (Joplin) - piano version
  8. "The Glove" (Hamlisch) - a Jazz Age style number; only a short segment was used in the film
  9. "Little Girl" (Madeline Hyde, Francis Henry) - not in the final cut of the film
  10. "Pine Apple Rag" (Joplin)
  11. "Merry-Go-Round Music" medley (traditional) - "Listen to the Mocking Bird" was the only portion of this track that was actually used in the film, along with the second segment of "King Cotton", a Sousa march, which was not on the album
  12. "Solace" (Joplin) - piano version
  13. "The Entertainer" / "The Ragtime Dance" medley (Joplin)

The album sequence differs from the film sequence, a standard practice with vinyl LPs, often for aesthetic reasons. Some additional content differences:

  • Selected snippets of Joplin's works, some appearing on the album and some not, provided linking music over the title cards that were used to introduce major scenes. (The final card, "The Sting", introducing the film's dramatic conclusion, had no music at all.)
  • Some of the tunes in the film are different takes than those on the album.
  • A Joplin tune used in the film but not appearing in the soundtrack album was "Cascades". The middle (fast) portion of it was played when Hooker was running away from Snyder along the 'L' train platform.
  • The credits end with "The Rag-time Dance" (Joplin) medley which features a 'stop-time' motif similar to a later work "Stop-Time Rag" (Joplin).

Chart positions

Year Chart Position
1974 Billboard 200 1
Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart
Preceded by
Chicago VII by Chicago
Billboard 200 number-one album
May 4 - June 7, 1974
Succeeded by
Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot
Preceded by
Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield
Australian Kent Music Report number-one album
June 17 - July 28, 1974
August 5–11, 1974
Succeeded by
Caribou by Elton John


A less-successful sequel with different players, The Sting II, appeared in 1983. In the same year a prequel was also planned, exploring the earlier career of Henry Gondorff. Famous confidence man Soapy Smith was scripted to be Gondorff's mentor. When the sequel failed, the prequel was scrapped.

Home media

A deluxe DVD, The Sting: Special Edition (part of the Universal Legacy Series) was released in September 2005, including a "making of" featurette and interviews with the cast and crew.


  1. ^ The Sting boxoffice/Business
  2. ^ Variety film review; December 12, 1973, page 16.
  3. ^ Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music, led a student ensemble in a performance of period orchestrations of Joplin's music. Inspired by Schuller's recording, the producer of "The Sting" had Marvin Hamlisch score Joplin's music for the film, thereby bringing Joplin to a mass, popular public,
  4. ^
  5. ^ Santa Monica Pier kicks off 100th birthday bash Martha Groves. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Sep 9, 2008. pg. B.2
  6. ^ Lussier, Germaine (November 21, 2008). "Screenings: 'The Sting' as part of Paul Newman Retrospective". Times-Herald Record (News Corporation). Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  7. ^ "The 46th Academy Awards (1974) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-02. 
  8. ^ "NY Times: The Sting". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-29. 

External links

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