Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Dimitra Arliss, Robert Earl Jones
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Original Screenplay (David S. Ward), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Henry Bumstead, James W. Payne), Best Costume Design (Edith Head), Best Film Editing (William H. Reynolds), Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation (Marvin Hamlisch)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Robert Redford), Best Cinematography (Robert Surtees), Best Sound (Ronald Pierce, Robert R. Bertrand)
SUMMARY: Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a small-time con artist who lives and works in Joliet, Illinois in 1936 with his partners Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) and Joe Erie. After the three men pull off a job worth $11,000, Coleman decides to take his share and retire. He tells Hooker about a man in Chicago named Henry Gondorff who can teach him about pulling big-time cons. Before Hooker can decide what to do, he is confronted by corrupt police officer William Snyder, who announces that the $11,000 they stole earlier belonged to crime lord Doyle Lonnegan. Hooker realizes that Lonnegan is already looking for them, and returns to Coleman’s house, but it is too late: Coleman has been murdered. Almost immediately, Hooker leaves for Chicago. Once there, he does look up Gondorff (Paul Newman), the man Coleman talked about. Gondorff was once one of the best and most well-known con men in the country, but his last job brought a lot of heat; he has been hiding out ever since. When they meet, Hooker tells Gondorff that he wants his help to con Lonnegan, as revenge for Coleman’s murder. Once Gondorff agrees, he decides that the only way to really get away with the con is to use a scheme called “the wire”. He recruits a large group of other Chicago con artists, including Kid Twist (Harold Gould), who acts as a sort of manager. The first step of the plan is to lure Lonnegan to Chicago. The men learn that Lonnegan frequently travels on a luxury train, and hosts a high-stake poker game during his trip. Lonnegan always cheats at this game, and thus always wins. Gondorff and Hooker also make it aboard the train, and Gondorff poses as a Chicago bookie named Shaw, who buys his way into the game. As they are playing, Gondorff repeatedly and purposely irritates Lonnegan, both by insulting him and by beating him. In the final hand, Gondorff manages to pull out a win – even though Lonnegan had stacked the deck. As this occurs in the presence of several other men, Lonnegan cannot fight back. A few minutes later, Gondorff sends his “assistant”, whom he calls Kelly (really Hooker) by to pick up his winnings.
When he meets Lonnegan, Hooker announces that Shaw (Gondorff) won by cheating, but that there is a way for Lonnegan to get his money back. Hooker says that he wants to take over Shaw’s racket, and needs Lonnegan’s help and money to do so: Lonnegan will come out a much richer man as a result. Lonnegan agrees, and meets up with Hooker in Chicago. There, Gondorff, Kid Twist and the others have set up a phony gambling room, where men gather to place bets on horses, and learn the results of the races. Hooker tells Lonnegan that by past-posting (with the help of an inside man, using the delay between real time and announcement time by placing a bet on the winning horse just before the results are announced), they can make (and win) a bet so big that it will put Shaw out of business. Lonnegan insists on checking everything out, including Hooker’s “source” – Kid Twist, pretending to be a Western Union employee named Les Harmon – but ultimately agrees to the scheme. However, there are two threats to this con: Snyder, who has managed to track Hooker to Chicago, and is intent on finding him, and Lonnegan’s pursuit of the men who robbed him in Joliet (he does not realize that Hooker and Kelly are the same man, as he never saw Hooker). When several assassins fail to kill Hooker, Lonnegan calls in his ace, Salino, to handle the job. Hooker is aware that he is being followed, and alerts Gondorff. After several successful bets, Lonnegan decides to bet $500,000 on the next race, a bet which will break Shaw. The night before this is due to happen, Snyder finally manages to nab Hooker. However, rather than taking care of Hooker himself, Snyder takes him to FBI Agent Polk. Several days earlier, Polk had made contact with Snyder and demanded his help in the capture of Gondorff. When presented with Hooker, Polk forces him to agree to betray Gondorff. After being released, Hooker looks up a local waitress named Loretta, and ends up spending the night with her. The next morning, he is walking to the phony club when he sees her coming toward him: just before they meet, a man behind Hooker shoots Loretta in the forehead. This man then reveals that Loretta was Loretta Salino, Lonnegan’s assassin; Gondorff had anticipated this, and hired protection for Hooker. That day, Lonnegan is told to “place it on Lucky Dan”, and so bets the half million on Lucky Dan to win. During the race, Harmon comes in, and when he learns what Lonnegan has done, panics – and tells Lonnegan that he was supposed to bet on Lucky Dan to place (come in second), not win. Lonnegan tries frantically to get his money back, but it is too late. At the same moment, Polk, Snyder and his FBI men burst in. Polk acknowledges Hooker’s help, then tells him to leave. As he walks away, Gondorff shoots Hooker in the back; Polk then shoots Gondorff, then tells Snyder to get Lonnegan (a very wealthy and politically influential man) away from the scene. Once the two are gone, Gondorff and Hooker get up. In reality, Polk is another con man working for Gondorff: his job was to distract Snyder, then get Snyder and Lonnegan away from the others (and provide a convincing ending, so that neither man will realize they’ve been scammed). As the men break down the gambling room, Hooker turns down his share of the money; he and Gondorff then head out of town.
MY TAKE: This is an elaborate plot, but it actually doesn’t get too confusing for the viewer. Rather, it’s impressive how well-planned it is, and how Gondorff anticipated every problem. Not only did he completely sucker Lonnegan, he kept Hooker from being offed and completely suckered Snyder. This last one is particularly interesting to me, because you aren’t aware that it’s part of the con until the very end, when Gondorff and Hooker are suddenly alive. I was fully convinced that Hooker had betrayed Gondorff, and that Gondorff shot him in revenge, only to be shot by Polk. Obviously, Lonnegan and Snyder were also fooled, because they booked it out of there as fast as their legs could carry them. I was actually so convinced that I was upset at this, because the Feds were letting Lonnegan get away. Then, of course, I realized what was really going on, and how brilliant it was. Even if they figured out that they had been scammed, neither Lonnegan nor Snyder is likely to tell anyone about it, because they’ll both lose face. However, both of them were so freaked out that I don’t think they’d figure it out. It’s one of those rare movies where you actively root for the bad guys (although everybody’s bad, so it’s more like rooting for the least of the evils). This movie reminded me quite a bit of Ocean’s Eleven (I’m thinking of the George Clooney version), where you don’t realize until the movie is done just how elaborate and layered the plot was. It’s really fun to watch, especially since they actually get away with it.
Fun facts: As I was watching, I thought that the guy who played Luther Coleman had a really distinctive voice — one that sounded a lot like James Earl Jones. I knew that it wasn’t actually James Earl Jones, but when I looked at the cast list, I realized that I had been partially right: Coleman was played by Robert Earl Jones — the father of James Earl Jones.
Kid Twist is played by Harold Gould, who was more recognizable to me because he played Rose’s longtime boyfriend, Miles, on The Golden Girls. Ironically, in the series Miles is in the Witness Protection Program because he testified against a major criminal.