This is one of the films from the Seventies that did not make my original project because it was not a summer release. It sure feels like one though, it is breezy, clever and gets by with charm and wit galore. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out my favorite that year “The Exorcist”. If it ultimately deserves that honor or not is really not relevant to this post. I will say that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you love this movie, because in addition to the qualities I mentioned just now, it has Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and our featured star this week Robert Shaw.
Shaw plays Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster the grifters target in the movie for ordering the killing of their friend. This character is despicable from the moment we see him in a half shadowed profile, giving the ambiguous murder warrant for the two con men who took one of his numbers runners. He is a joyless golfer and a grinding businessman,which makes him a bit hard to crack. The research the con artists dig up suggest that ambition is his only flaw and that he might warm to or at least recognize the ambition of another up and comer. Oh, and he cheats at cards. This gives us the lead to follow for the rest of the story as each segment of the narrative is labeled with a title card, “The Hook”, “the Set Up”, “the Tale”, etc. This willingness to cheat at cards give the scam a way to push Lonnegan into behaviors he would otherwise avoid.
The first pivotal sequence with Shaw is on the train to Chicago, in a high stakes poker game. He is a humorless man, playing a game with others, not for the joy of it but as a mechanic, tweeking the engine of his ambition and taking advantage of others. Shaw plays him as a sour mirthless automaton, seeking only the next chance to take someone himself. The most volatile scene he has comes when he expresses to his underling the frustration that he can’t call out Gondorf, Newman’s character, for being a better cheat than he is. His instinct is to have him killed, but his pride is what calls him back from the rash act and ultimately means he has taken the bait.
You don’t get to the top of the rackets by being stupid, and Lonnegan is suspicious all along the way. The con artists are able to exploit that by using his own suspicions as a way of building up their own credibility. They play loose with a couple of his last minute demands and surprises, and allow him to talk himself into everything they ultimately want. Shaw is cheerless in each false victory that gives him confidence. His curt manner with his new partner, reminds us of why we want this Son of a Bitch to go down. When he demands that Redford’s character accept a ride from the train station, if I had been Redford’s character, my testicles would have crawled up inside me, and my bladder would feel tight. It is clear from the way the character is written and that Shaw plays him, that this is a venomous snake, best to stay away from but to which he must stick to make the sting work.
It seems like Shaw played more villains than heroes in his career. Most of his facial expressions clarify exactly why, he has a cold eyed look that seems pitiless. His voice is often controlled and low key, with just an edge of menace. He did a fine job in this film, but the star of the movie is first the plot, then the two leads, and finally the surprises. It is often said that a movie is only as good as the bad guy is allowed to be. That makes this a pretty good film. Shaw does not overplay it or draw attention to his work. He is loathsome, but not in the showy manner that so many of today’s actors (John Travolta, Gary Oldman) seem to be. The closest he comes is at the end when he is frustrated about the outcome of his gamble, but if you lost a bucket load of money you might raise your voice just a bit too.