The Sting – Trust The Theme
“What makes you think you can trust him?”
A crime caper film set in prohibition-era Chicago about two con artists who set up an elaborate con to get back at a ruthless gangster/banker who had their friend killed.
Even though the screenplay follows a classic structure, the story is divided into “chapters,” which nicely separate the main sequences, with the final being the titular “Sting.”
The element that stood out to me was the underlying theme aka “the what’s it about,” which was trust; specifically, what and whom can you trust in this story of con artists, grifters, and crooks? Because everyone is playing some sort of angle, even the cops are crooked and on the take. For me, the issue of trust permeates the entire story in an organic way and works. Or works almost entirely, except two sections where I found myself wondering just a bit.
In the screenplay, trust is mentioned only twice, and both times in the same scene, the first time we meet the protagonist, Hooker. In this scene, we don’t know that Hooker is the hero as we have until now followed the Mottola character. When he and Hooker find themselves in an alley thwarting a robber and helping an old man, we don’t suspect it’s anything but what is happening on the surface. When the injured old man asks for help delivering $5,000 in mob winnings, Mottola agrees. This is when Hooker asks the old man, “What makes you think you can trust him?” To which Mottola answers, “I gave him back his wallet, didn’t I…Don’t worry, you can trust me.”
This is an organic way of stating what the film is about.
Hooker then shows Mottola how to hide the bundle of cash in his pants, and he’s off. At this point, we follow Mottola into the cab, where he can’t help but grin and, in his excitement, even shares with the cabbie that this is the easiest $5,000 he’s ever made. Then, however, when he takes a gander at his loot, he realizes he’s been conned….in other words…he’s the sucker. He’s the one who trusted.
I find the fact that trust is never again mentioned is an elegant choice…the rest of the film plays with that question and does so from various standpoints.
It turns out that Hooker and the old man Coleman are partners who grift, pulling off mostly small cons. The Mottola gig, however, netted them $11K of money that belongs to a shady businessman Lonnegan, who, of course, wants his cash back.
When Hooker is confronted by the crooked cop Snyder, he “returns” his portion in counterfeit money, again showing another side of the trust issue. However, Coleman is not as lucky and is killed by Lonnegan’s goons.
This sets in motion the rest of the story, or the main story, which is the revenge sting to get back at Lonnegan for having Coleman killed.
Hooker connects with Gondorff, a famous long con operator. And this is the first instance that felt just a tad wonky…the instant trust they develop seemed a bit convenient. While they come recommended by Coleman, it still felt a bit fast the way they connected and decided to continue setting up a huge con, knowing they’re both con artists.
The second instance is the perfect collaboration with the entire team of petty criminals. They’re setting up an elaborate con against a well-known heavy, and I found it a stretch that none of the 30 men who participate in the con don’t try to cash in on it somehow: either by tipping off Lonnegan or by simply scamming some of the setup budget. It works just a tad too perfect.
And so, it got me thinking…perhaps it’s because of our cynical 2022 minds…we have seen it many times and thus are more sensitive to it. Perhaps in the 70s when the film came out, this was a non-issue? Regardless… from a story fix, it could have easily been solved by setting one of them and having him found out…a red herring.
Other than that, the con game continues, and the trust issue becomes very much an issue of, “will Lonnegan buy all of this?” In other words, will he trust what he sees and hears? After all, he is a sharp and shrewd guy. But greed wins out, or as Gondorff puts it, “Never known a gambler who wouldn’t like to beat the ponies.”
And this is the part that was most interesting to me, in the screenplay and especially in the film. Because the tone is light-hearted…it’s a caper, and the two main guys are Butch and Sundance. But the way Lonnegan is written and then played by Shaw brings a true sense of menace to the story, and it helps us “buy” into the whole premise.
He is a guy from a poor neighborhood who has made something of himself, even though the “something” was achieved using criminal means. But he’s a gentleman now. At least in his eyes. And that’s his deception; he wants the world to trust the appearance and the fine garb. But underneath, he remains rough.
Once Lonnegan is hooked through a card game, he wants revenge, and the sting comes along perfectly to feed into his ego and greed, which betray his inner sense of caution, i.e., if he would have looked at it with more somber eyes, he would have seen he was being set up. Again…what and who can he trust?
The final twist drives the theme of trust home…first, when Hooker is recruited by the FBI and even the crooked cop Snyder is part of the FBI operation, we (the audience) trust this is real. We finally think Hooker will indeed betray Gondorff’s trust. And then, when it turns out that even the FBI bit was part of the sting, it plays out beautifully. Everything is organically connected and pays off in a highly satisfying way. The theme aka trust is explored through the story, not on the surface.
Written by David S. Ward
Directed by George Roy Hill