Plot of the Movie "The Sting"

by Nathaniel Williams
Newman and Redford are one of cinema's great pairings.

Newman and Redford are one of cinema's great pairings.

Evan Agostini/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"The Sting," the second Robert Redford/Paul Newman buddy movie after "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," became an immediate sensation upon its release. It was not just a huge hit -- the 1930s-era setting inspired interest in the period's clothing and music, especially Scott Joplin's piano songs. While the music, art direction and actors were all key to the film's success, it was the twisting, surprising plot that made the biggest impact on its audience.

The Players

"The Sting" is a carefully structured film, with individual chapters preceded by charming period title cards. In the first chapter, the audience is introduced to con-artist Johnny (played by Robert Redford) and his partner Luther (James Earl Jones). They scam a man on the street out of several thousand dollars, only to discover this "mark" was an employee of a notoriously ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan takes revenge by killing Luther in front of his family, and Johnny flees to the big city to seek help in taking revenge for his partner's killing.

The Set-Up

In Chicago, Johnny finds Luther's friend Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who is a washed-up but eminently knowledgeable former con-man. Johnny convinces Henry into helping him take revenge on Lonnegan. Because of Luther's popularity among fellow con-men, Johnny and Henry are able to recruit a large number of talented, trustworthy grifters to help them in their elaborate scheme. They decide to use an off-track horse racing betting scam, which involves setting up a fake betting parlor.

The Hook

The pair realizes that it will take an unconventional approach to hook the cautious Lonnegan. Henry adopts a drunken, buffoonish persona and buys his way into a private poker game on a train that Lonnegan participates in. One of their associates picks Lonnegan's pocket before the game, and when Henry wins big (by cheating), Lonnegan can not pay his debts. This allows Henry to send his "employee" Johnny to visit Lonnegan's room in order to collect the money. Instead, Johnny poses as a disgruntled employee seeking Lonnegan's help to scam his "boss," Henry.

The Tale

Johnny shows Lonnegan his fake plan to scam Henry: an informant at a Western Union telegraph office will delay the wire result of a horse race and inform them of the winner before the off-track betting parlor gets the result. Both the Western Union informant and the off-track betting parlor are false, though Lonnegan believes they are real. However, he wants to test the set up before risking any serious amounts of money. In the first test, his "tip" horse wins.

The Wire

As all this is happening, Johnny is constantly eluding both Lonnegan's hit men and the police. Johnny and a police detective on Johnny's tail are captured and brought to a makeshift FBI office. The FBI men demand Johnny's help in capturing Henry, and they threaten Luther's widow for leverage. Johnny agrees to work with both the FBI and the detective.

The Finale (Spoilers)

The elaborate con comes to a head. Lonnegan arrives at the false betting parlor with $500,000 to bet on the tip horse. The Western Union informant arrives and explains a mix-up in the tip. Lonnegan panics and demands his money back, but the betting parlor agent refuses. Suddenly, the FBI bursts in and confronts Henry, revealing Johnny's complicity. Henry shoots Johnny in the back, and the FBI retaliates by shooting Henry. Lonnegan wants to recover his money, but does not want to be mixed up in the shoot-out and the FBI arrests, so he leaves embittered. After he departs, both Henry and Johnny reveal that their wounds, like the FBI men, were all part of the big con.


  • "The Sting"; Universal Pictures; 1973

Photo Credits

  • Evan Agostini/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images