The Big Con?
Monday, 1 August 2011
Bluff looks at the book that inspired The Sting, and asks, ‘Can a cheat ever be honourable?’
Remember when cheats and swindlers used to be cool? We’re not talking super-user accounts or bots, or scuzholes that collude and chip-dump, we’re talking guys in zoot suits who said things like, “Never drink gin with a mark, kid. They can tell ya cut it.” We’re talking artistry and flair and savoir faire: proposition bettors like Titanic Thompson; the wisecracking lowlife gamblers of Damon Runyon novels; Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting. In fact, when pushed, we here at Bluff Towers will site The Sting as our all-time favourite poker movie. Except it isn’t a poker movie. The film’s sole poker scene is simply an elaborate set-up by the grifters to draw the Robert Shaw’s psychopathic mob boss, Doyle Lonegan, into the wider con. And yet, from the moment Paul Newman enters the poker game pretending to be drunk: “Sorry, I’m late. I was taking a crap!” to the dénouement when he surreptitiously switches his hand and out-cheats the mark, it’s a master class in putting your opponent on tilt.
“What was I supposed to do?” asks Lonegan, raging at his right-hand-man. “Call him for cheating better than me?”
You know that this nasty piece of work has been suckered, hook, line and sinker, into their devastating, grandiose plan, and what’s more, they’re going to bust his pasty white ass all the way back to Dublin.
The thing is, whereas Titanic Thompson was a genius of a hustler (and anyone in doubt should check out Kevin Cook’s recent biography, The Man Who Bet on Everything), you get the feeling he would have sold his granny’s dentures given half the chance. He killed five people, for heaven’s sake. Meanwhile, the fictional Henry Gondorf [Newman] and Johnny Hooker [Robert Redford] are seeking righteous vengeance against the murderous Mob and corrupt policemen, against a backdrop of cool, shabby, rag-time Chicago. In short, The Sting works because Hollywood would have us believe that cheats can be honourable.
But The Sting wasn’t all Hollywood, and the mechanics of the elaborate cons were real. We know this because of David W Maurer, who attempted to sue the film’s producers for plagiarism. Much of the language and even the names of characters, including that of Henry Gondorf, are taken, unaccredited, from his 1940 book The Big Con, which was the result of decades living amongst and befriending real grifters during the first half of the 20th Century.
Maurer was a linguist who studied the slang of those that made their living on the fringes of society, from pickpockets to fortune-tellers. When he turned his attention to con artists, he found himself drawn into their world, building lifelong friendships with fast-talking, sharply dressed men with names like Jimmy the Rooter and the Leatherhead Kid. He found their argot to be so rich that he realised a simple glossary would not suffice and set about conducting a full sociological study. Much of The Big Con is spellbinding aural history, in which grifters recount stories from their lives and brag about the greatest cons of their careers, in their own words, punctuated with the slang of The Sting.
Whereas “the small con” referred to the kind of hustling that had been around for centuries, such as Three-Card Monte, and was little more than skilful street crime, the big con involved elaborate and dramatic set pieces, performed by a team of tricksters in which everyone played a part. Often, once a mark had been selected, he would be he would become an unwitting character in a piece of imaginary stagecraft in which every person he then encountered would be in on the scam, kind of like the Truman Show but for real. By the time the show was over, the mark was often relieved of every penny he had.
The horseracing con used by the grifters in The Sting to break Doyle Lonegan certainly existed. According to Maurer: “The wire, the first of the big-con games, was invented just prior to 1900. It was a racing swindle in which the con men convinced the victim that with the connivance of a corrupt Western Union official they could delay the race results long enough for him to place a bet after the race had been run, but before the bookmakers received the results. For this game two fake set-ups were used. The first was a Western Union office, complete with operators, telegraph instruments, clerks and a "manager"; some mobs economized by sneaking in and using real Western Union offices until the company put a stop to it.”
But were these cheats honourable? Maurer certainly argues that many had a certain amount of personal integrity. And many of their marks were certainly – how can we say – not particularly loveable. In fact, a brash superiority complex was a pre-requisite for the perfect mark. Maurer explains:
“Most marks come from the upper strata of society, which, in America, means that they have made, married, or inherited money. Because of this, they acquire status which in time they come to attribute to some inherent superiority, especially as regards matters of sound judgment in finance and investment. Friends and associates, themselves social climbers and sycophants, help to maintain this illusion of superiority. Eventually, the mark comes to regard himself as a person of vision and even of genius.
Thus a Babbitt [mark] who has cleared half a million in a real-estate development easily forgets the part which luck and chicanery have played in his financial rise; he accepts this mantle of respectability without question; he naively attributes his success to sound business judgment. And any confidence man will testify that a real-estate man is he fattest and juiciest of suckers.”
Maurer eventually settled out of court with The Sting’s producers. When asked what he would do with his share of the cash, we’d like to think he handed it back with the words, “Bah, I’d only blow it,” before shuffling off into the sunset to the strains of Scott Joplin, happy that justice had been served. That’s what a true, noble grifter would have done, after all.
Or maybe we’re just gullible.