Before watching the movie:
What caught my attention was the Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post style of the poster. Being a 70s movie, that may have little to do with the content of the movie and more with the state of movie poster art in the 1970s, but it suggests a throwback to the nostalgic view of the 1930s the movie is set in.
The synopses I’ve seen paint it as a dysfunctional duo of con men looking to steal a fortune from a mobster with a gambling scam. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen Robert Redford in anything yet, and I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I get the impression this is a high-stakes comedy, which is one of the best, or at least most respectable kinds.
After watching the movie:
As part of a small-time grifting trio, Johnny Hooker nets a windfall $11,000 off of a mark. His partner and mentor Luther announces he’ll be using his cut of the take to retire into legitimate business, but it turns out the mark was a courier for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan, and Lonnegan’s men seek out the trio and manage to murder Luther. Hooker runs away to Chicago to enlist the help of Luther’s old partner Henry Gondorff, asking him to guide him through a big con on Lonnegan in revenge. Gondorff is persuaded, and with his grifting ring crafts a large-scale scam casting himself as a bookie who out-cheated Lonnegan in a high-stakes game of poker and Hooker as his underling offering Lonnegan the chance to bilk Gondorff out of a lot of money with a horse race betting scheme. Not only is Lonnegan still looking for the grifter who fleeced his courier and got away, but Hooker also has a dirty cop after him for paying him off in counterfeit bills, and the FBI is looking for a chance to catch Gondorff.
This was pitched to me as a comedy-drama. It’s a comedy in the sense that a lot of Shakespearean plays are considered comedies because a majority of characters survive. What it does do really well is low-key high-tension drama. The tension is very well modulated, usually through long takes, good acting, and probably some pointed attention to the types of camera shots used, though I didn’t pay that close attention unless shots particularly stood out.
Interestingly, I think the very limited score plays into that sustained tension. Music can of course heighten the emotion of a scene, but for some kinds of tension, it inflates it to bursting. This is the kind of quiet tension that would only be ruined by music. And so the music leaves most scenes alone.
It’s strange to see Paul Newman as a middle-aged guy. I’ve seen him as a young man, or playing young, and I think I’ve seen him act as an old man, but his character has a sense of being just on the downslope side of his peak here, an experienced professional closer to retirement than his start, but still very much in control of the game. It turns out this is not the first time I’ve seen Robert Redford perform, but the only other one was from just a few years ago, in an entirely different part of his career. This young Redford seems very familiar though, but I seem to only know him through his presence in movies I should have seen but haven’t yet.
This is a ride. It’s not silly. It’s not very dangerous. It doesn’t seem to have a big statement to make other than exploring a convolutedly artful scam. It’s fun, fascinating, but mostly very down to earth. It’s a heist where the bank comes to them.