Friday, October 03, 2008

Newman’s Cool Hand

Paul Newman in 'The Sting'I imagine most responded to news of Paul Newman’s death last week by thinking back to particular films in which he appeared. With such a long, impressive résumé, it’d be hard for anyone who watches movies even casually not to be familiar with at least a few of ’em.

I suppose my list of faves ain’t too far removed from that of most others, with Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Slap Shot (1976) at the top, and The Hustler (1961) not too far behind.

Got a kick out of George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973), too, though wouldn’t necessarily rate it an “all-time” best film (as some do). A terrific “popcorn” movie, however, that consistently entertains without necessarily giving one more nourishing “food” for thought. Besides, I’m a sucker for both the period (1930s) and the subject (grifting, writ small and large), from which much of the hard-boiled fiction I like comes, too.

While the film as a whole is not really about poker, The Sting contains what many consider one of the all-time best poker scenes in movie history. There are several fun, memorable moments along the way as the film relates its clever story of how con men Henry Gondorff (Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) set up an elaborate scheme to get even with mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). But the scene in which Gondorff successfully outhustles Lonnegan in a game of five-card draw in some ways transcends the entire story, succinctly conveying in five short minutes the movie’s entire raison d'être.

'The Sting' (1973)Like I say, many cite the scene as an especially good poker scene. David Spanier singles it out for praise in his chapter in Total Poker about poker and gambling in movies. (Spanier also happens to highlight The Hustler in that chapter as a quintessential cinematic exploration of lessons that apply to poker, despite the fact that it is not a poker film.) Why is it such a good poker scene? I can think of a few reasons.

Shaw and Newman both play it well, although in some respects it isn’t the sort of scene that demands too much from the actors. The scene does function to help move the film’s twisty plot along, but it also provides a perfect setting in which to dramatize the characters’ relationships with one another. In other words, unlike in a lot of films that feature poker, here the game is well-integrated into the narrative as a whole.

The main reason why I like the scene, though, is how it involves the audience. Some have taken issue with the way it doesn’t “play fair” with viewers. For one, it isn’t clear how exactly Henry and Johnny come to find out this was the train Lonnegan was taking from New York to Chicago. Nor is it shown to us exactly how Henry switches out his hand, somehow getting rid of the quad treys that had been dealt to him from the cold deck to show down the quad jacks. We know he came to the game armed with an extra deck of his own, but we don’t actually get to see him remove the treys and introduce the jacks into his hand.

But, really. Not playing fair is what this entire film is about, yes? Thus are we almost as surprised as Lonnegan -- and his lackey (check out his expression in the pic above).

Also enjoyable here -- again, something true of much of The Sting -- is the way the scene affords the opportunity for actors to act like they’re acting. (Something else generally provided for by poker scenes.) Gotta love the way Newman plays Henry’s indignation when Lonnegan, faced with having to pay 15 grand to the man who’s proven to be the better cheater, says he left his wallet in his room -- a situation made all the more grin-producing since Gondorff and his colleagues had stolen the wallet just before!

I could say more, but here . . . just take a look for yourself:

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