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The One-Line Summary: During the Great Depression, when Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), a small time grifter, runs into some big trouble, he heads to Chicago on the advice of his former partner and joins up with professional con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who is hiding from the FBI, to run a “big con” on the infamously notorious mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) by involving him in a horse race betting scheme.
The Two-Line Blurb: After working on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), director George Roy Hill got his two stars together one more time for this highly entertaining and wickedly complex story all about theatrics, constantly keeping the viewer wondering about what they are seeing and how true any line of dialog really is as characters glance and nod and subversively communicate in a delicious game of staying one step a head. Never pressuring the audience to pay full attention to all the shenanigans, the rewards are numerous as the intricate plot converges in one of cinema’s greatest finales as players we think are arranged in one direction are indeed playing us for another.
The Three-Line Set-up: This moment is about setting the trust needed to get Lonnegan in on the con, beginning with Henry playing a character named Shaw, an over-confident and arrogant bookie who, aboard Lonnegan’s private rail car, tricks the mob boss in a card game and wins $15,000. Hooker, acting as a man named Kelly, an unhappy employee of Shaw, comes to collect the money but instead tells Lonnegan that he has schemes to knock Shaw out of the business and take over, but needs help, asking Lonnegan to join his cause. He tells him he as a stooge inside the Western-Union telegraph office who can give him race results before information is public, therefore guaranteeing a win and ruining Shaw.
The Four-Line Moment: All that needs to happen now is to convince Lonnegan that the connection at the telegraph office is legit, so Henry and Johnny, along with a small troupe of fellow con artists create a seemingly fully functional off-track betting site, that, when Lonnegan visits, feels wholly authentic. What he doesn’t know is that every person in the room and even the man calling the race on the speaker is in on the grift and playing a part. While Lonnegan seems tentative, he lays down a small bet and takes a seat, while Johnny, playing Kelly, pretends to be coy and assures the mob boss that things are under control. Like a professional stage play, the entire performance goes off perfectly and convinces Lonnegan that the scam can work, leading to the buy-in where the real con begins.
The Five-Word Review: The best con movie ever.