Remembering 'The Sting,' the Grandfather of 'Focus' and Every Modern Con-Artist Movie

Remembering 'The Sting,' the Grandfather of 'Focus' and Every Modern Con-Artist Movie

Feb 25, 2015

The movies are, first and foremost, a fantasy land. Sure, some films work to depict a realistic world with characters and consequences that mirror our own, but even then they are a construct. Like all art, film is built to instill us with specific feelings, to make us believe the director's lies for two hours. But of all the lies in film history, none have been as prominent or as popular as the depiction of criminals. In the real world, that con man who swindled someone out of his money is a scourge who deserves to be put down. In the movies, he's a charming rogue, a lovable scamp whose career choice is less about being a selfish manipulator and more about being a rebel who works outside of the system.

Watching the trailers for Focus, which casts Will Smith and Margot Robbie as a pair of con artists, I was reminded of this contradiction. Of course we want to watch a movie about two crooks played with charming screen presence! Of course we're going to root for them! For the running time of the film, we're totally okay with crime because they make it look so cool and so fun.

But more than anything else, the mere existence of Focus reminded me of The Sting, which, 42 years after it swept the Academy Awards, is still the best con-man movie ever made. In fact, it feels like a major turning point for the crime genre. Focus certainly wouldn't exist without it, but neither would Ocean's 11, The Brothers Bloom or countless other movies about criminals you can't help but love.

There's one thing that director George Roy Hill got right before he even shot a single frame of The Sting: he cast Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who he had previously teamed up with for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) in the leading roles. Now, by default, we couldn't not love these two. No matter how much they stole and how many people they swindled, they were still Redford and Newman and we were going to be on their side to the very end. Much like how casting George Clooney and Matt Damon as master thieves automatically earns our affection, Hill knew the importance of star power. Any good actor can play a grifter, but it takes a movie star to make us love him unequivocally.

The Sting also leans on another Hollywood trope that you see pop up all the time in glossy crime movies about charming criminals -- the multiple tiers of the criminal underworld. Yeah, Newman's Henry Gondorff and Redford's Johnny Hooker may by lying crooks out for your money, but they're nowhere near as bad as mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who is the real nasty piece of work. He even sets the plot in motion by murdering Hooker's just-retired partner. Naturally, Hooker swears vengeance, and in other crime movies this would mean bloodshed.

However, in The Sting, vengeance means concocting a new and more elaborate con to siphon away Lonnegan's fortune. It's awfully hard to stay on even the most smooth-talking criminal's side when he's out for murder. In The Godfather (released one year earlier), Michael Corleone is a compelling character because he chooses to walk down a very dark path. But we fall in love with Gondorff and Hooker because they choose to sidestep true darkness. What could have been a dark film is, instead, a joyous romp.

And what a romp it is! The Sting may have a witty screenplay and Hill's direction may be sure-handed and each and every actor may be pretty much perfect, but so much of the film's success ultimately comes down to the fact that it's a lot of fun to hang out with these people for 129 minutes. It's always fun to watch movies about people who are good at their jobs and Redford, Newman and Hill make being a con artist look like the most fun gig in the world.

While other con-man movies like Matchstick Men or The Brothers Bloom ultimately deliver a "crime doesn't pay" message (or at least a "crime will lead to great pain and suffering" message), The Sting lets its heroes get away with it. To be more specific, they get away with it and come out the other end feeling more confident and satisfied with their existence than before. They don't go to jail and we don't want them to go to jail. This may be a movie set in the 1930s, but its heroes feel more like the loose cannon cinematic heroes of '60s and '70s Hollywood. They fight The System and they win.

In real life, we can't help but embrace The System. After all, the laws of society keep us safe from thieves and criminals and charming con artists. But in the movies, and only in the movies, we all want to be crooks. On film, nothing looks like more fun than breaking the law and The Sting makes it look more fun than most movies.

 

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