Robert Redford is currently the co-favorite (along with Chiwetel Ejiofor) to win this year’s Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film All Is Lost. Should he win, the award would be Redford’s first Oscar for acting; a surprising fact given Redford’s long run as one of America’s most celebrated dramatic actors.
Redford hasn’t even been nominated for Best Actor since 1974, when he was up against a Murderer’s Row of phenomenal actors: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Jack Lemmon. (Can you guess who won?)
This month the IFC Theater in Manhattan is celebrating Redford’s career with screenings of all of his major films. This weekend the retrospective kicked off with The Sting, the film he was nominated for in 1974 and the winner of that year’s Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars.
The Sting is one of the greatest movies of modern American cinema. Set in Depression-era Chicago, the movie is loosely based on the life of famous con artist Yellow Kid Weil. The film follows Redford’s character, small-time con man Johnny Hooker, as he seeks out legendary con man and master of the “Big Con” Henry Gondorff (based on Weil).
Hooker asks Gondorff for help setting up a “Big Con” to ensnare a powerful gangster, Doyle Lonnergan (played by Robert Shaw), who was responsible for the murder of one of Chicago’s South Side small-time hustlers Luther Campbell (played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones).
The “Big Con” or the “Long Con” is different from the kind of short cons and everyday hustles that most con artists are known for. Where Johnny Hooker was used to swindling people on the street for whatever was in their pockets, the kind of scam that Gondorff was master at would require dozens of co-conspirators and weeks or months of preparation and work. These scams were detailed in David Maurer’s book “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man.”
Published in 1940, Maurer’s book was an important work because it was the first time that many of these elaborate scams were ever revealed to someone other than another member of the con-artist community. His interviews with Weil, Limehouse Chappie, and Charles Gondorff were some of the first on-the-record conversations about the workings of the “Long Con.” (Maurer sued the producers of The Sting for $10 million, claiming they ran their own con on him and took the source material for their screenplay right out of his book without attribution. They settled out of court.)
The con that Gondorff and Hooker settle on for Lonergan was called “The Wire,” a scam that involved convincing someone that you could provide them inside information on a horse race to convince them how to bet.
In those days not only was horse racing incredibly popular all over the country, but the demand for betting on the races was such that gamblers didn’t just want to bet their local racetrack when the meet was in session. Bookmakers would run underground betting parlors where they would take bets on races all over the country, then report the results when a telegraph came through on tickertape from the local racetrack. The whole operation resembled an early-day off-track betting parlor, only without any technology besides a telegraph machine, and also was highly illegal.
In order for “The Wire” to work, the con artist needed to convince the sucker that they had access to the results of the races before they came over on the telegraph. Often, the backstory was an insider at the telegraph office. Then the sucker needed to be convinced to make a sizeable bet on a “sure thing” with another member of the con artist’s gang that wouldn’t come in, causing the mark to lose the bet yet not know that they were swindled.
In The Sting, Gondorff and Hooker employ what con artists called “The Big Store” to pull of their version of “The Wire.” A “Big Store” is an elaborate location that the con artist controlled where they could dupe their mark without any fear of being made. In this case they created a phony bookmaking joint from scratch to give Lonnergan the illusion of betting in confidence. Then they had him answer a phone call with the advance information on the winners of the races at a pay phone across the street.
The fake inside information worked the first couple of times Lonnergan used it. But once he felt good about the setup and decided to bet the farm, he screws up the bet. The caller tells him to “Place” it on Blue Note, which Lonnergan dutifully bets to win. Of course, the horse runs second. “I said Place!” The con doesn’t end there, nor does it begin with the “Big Store,” but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
When con artists employed “The Wire,” the reason it worked was because most gamblers were familiar with the notion of “past posting,” or getting information about an event after the fact and placing a bet before anyone else knew. It wasn’t uncommon in the days when information travelled slowly, human-to-human over the wire. As technology improved, it became easier for authorities to crack down on past-posting scams. Today, nobody would ever fall for “The Wire.” Incidents of high-tech past posting still pop up now and again, like the notorious case of the 2002 Breeder’s Cup Pick 6 scam. While not technically past posting, the perpetrators did make use of information about the races that had already run in order to place winning tickets, so it was perhaps the next best thing. That scam motivated the industry to modify its software and practices to guarantee that even an insider at the tote company couldn’t pull off such a coup ever again, let alone everyday grifters like Hooker and Gondorff.
If you’ve never had an opportunity to see The Sting, give it a look. In addition to wonderful performances, the movie has great period costumes and set pieces and a unique soundtrack - it is completely scored by Scott Joplin’s famous ragtime compositions. It’s also a glimpse into the gambling world from well before the internet age: a high-stakes poker game on a train, a rigged roulette wheel at a speakeasy casino, a numbers-runner’s wire room, and of course the “Big Store.” Whether you’re a fan of great American movies or just of Americana, you’ll find something to enjoy in The Sting.
If you’re a fan of Robert Redford, you’ll certainly enjoy The Sting; if for no other reason than the fact that he says far more than the three words he utters in All Is Lost.