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The Sting

Crime is not cute; real criminals are frightening.

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
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EVERYONE'S SEEN "The Sting," because it's a great movie. Well, I guess not everyone, but you know what I mean. And it's still a great movie. Newman and Redford are wonderful (I've always wished the two of them had made more together), and the rest of the cast is as good as it gets: Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Harold Gould, Ray Walston, Dana Elcar, and many others. The great George Roy Hill directed--he passed on not too long ago--and David S. Ward wrote the script.

I saw it again last week. We were flipping around, it was just coming on and, you know how it is, you kind of groan, because you know there's no way you're not going to watch the whole thing. "Oh," you always think to yourself, "I'll just watch up until they get on the train," but of course that's stupid; you're in 'til the credits, and you should just be grateful it's not "Gone With The Wind." More than once I've been slumped on the couch like a deflated "S" at three in the morning on a Sunday night waiting for Al Pacino to snort that mountain of coke and snarl, "Say hello to my little fren'."

As you know, "The Sting" is about con men, and they're all cute and cuddly and funny. Heroic, too. The cops, on the other hand, are vicious and corrupt, the FBI is manipulative and conniving, and the murderously vindictive "mark" is a banker. But that doesn't seem to matter, does it?

Why do we love movie criminals so much? Why is crime so entertaining? It's not coincidental that the must-watch-the-whole-thing movies I just mentioned are all about crime. After all, I love "The Quiet Man" and "Horatio Hornblower" and "How Green Is My Valley" and a zillion others, and I talk constantly at work about their lighting and editing and shot choice, and I know them as well as a mother knows her children's feet, but I can turn them off. Not easily, but I can do it. On the other hand, Jason Robards or Rod Steiger or Robert De Niro as Capone (or Paul Muny as the first Tony in "Scarface")? I'm a dead man. So to speak. It's almost impossible to tear ourselves away from good stories about criminals. We dig them. Worse, we support them. Worse still, we're praying for them to win.

THIS IS IN MY HEAD FOR A REASON. I met a real con man last week, the day after I saw "The Sting." Not on a screen, not at a party, not in a meeting. At my home; at my front door. I wasn't doing research, either. He was trying to con me. They're not cute or cuddly; they're sociopaths with no feelings for others whatsoever, and they smell a score on you like vampires smell living blood. (Movies again: Strange.) And if they thought they could end your life with no threat to themselves and take everything you have, they would do it with no more thought than stepping on a cockroach.

And it was not entertaining. I was scared.

Let me be clear, I don't mean a fast-talking salesman. This was not the Fuller Brush Man. (Remember them? A terrific company, actually, and everyone was always glad to see them.) This was criminal fraud, and I think the old movie word for it was "bunko."

He was 23-cum-15. (I don't know what that means, exactly, but I've always loved the "cum" thing in writing, and I think it's close.) Well favored, I guess, but the looks were all wrong, like an alien who assumes human form and can't quite make it all work (more movie stuff). The pitch was familiar, but no less effective for that because, to a con man, the words are just a vehicle for his tractor-beam will.

"Hi, I'm Keith from down the block. [Baloney.] Our school soccer team won the championship, and we're representing the United States in France. Isn't that great?" (Even if it'd been on the level, he lost me at "France," but never mind that now.)

He flashed a big smile (alien again, and chilling) and stuck his hand out, and before I could think straight we were shaking. I disengaged and every instinct said, "Close the door . . ." but he quickly spoke again.

"We're selling magazines, but my mother told me people have enough magazines, you know what I mean? And even though it's officially this big catalogue sale from a company that works a lot with schools and teams like us . . ."

He grinned again and gestured with a pamphlet in his left hand, open, but hard to see, and my eye was fooled and glanced at it, just like with a good magician. It could have been tractor parts for all I know. Then he held up a laminated card in the other hand for a better look, and although it was a list of real magazine titles (familiar ones, like Parenting and Sports Illustrated), the paper inside the plastic was crumpled and yellow, like a Civil War letter, obviously used many times by many others over many years, the printing was very poor, fifth or sixth generation on a '70a Xerox and--the creepiest part--Off kilter. At an angle. Poorly done. Clearly wrong.