As we continue the list of my all-time favorite movie scenes, let’s look at heroes and villains. I’m not talking about climactic shootouts or sword duels to the death, because while those can be good, they’re expected. I’m talking about our hero and our villain meeting and subtly duking it out in a game of wits. The characters may act polite, but we know underneath it all, they’re both sizing each other up. Often, it hides under the facade of a civilized or even friendly conversation like in Heat‘s famous diner scene, Insomnia‘s boat scene, and even Eyes Wide Shut‘s incredibly awkward billiards room scene. The scene in Chinatown where Jake meets Noah Cross for the first time is a masterclass in subtlety, with Noah maintaining dominance by serving fish with the eyes still on and intentionally mispronouncing Jake’s last name. Of course, there’s the famous meeting of minds between The Man in Black and Vizzini in The Princess Bride, but my personal favorite is the poker game from The Sting.
The poker scene is just one small piece in an enormous con, but if you simply watched this one scene, you wouldn’t know that. It’s like a short film until itself, and the dialogue is almost unnecessary. We get everything we need to know just by seeing the the cards and the faces of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), and Lonnegan’s henchman Floyd (Charles Dierkop).
Lonnegan has clearly thought through his cheating plans, as he not only deals himself a great hand (four nines), but also deals his opponent a great hand to mislead him (four threes). He knows Gondorff will likely try to cheat him, so he has Floyd communicate with him through subtle glances and smiles. It’s interesting to note that Floyd looks like the most stereotypical, Looney Tunes-style image of a gangster ever created, which knowing the brilliance of this movie, is likely intentional.
Lonnegan and Gondorff are enormously confident in their hands and raise the pot considerably. Lonnegan smugly lays down his four nines, sure of his victory. Then comes the kicker, as Gondorff lays four Jacks on the table. We the audience didn’t see him switch his hand. Floyd behind him didn’t see him switch his hand. In fact, it’s never made clear how exactly he did switch his hand, but he’s duped Lonnegan in the exact same way Lonnegan was hoping to dupe him. Lonnegan’s smug grin quickly changes to a combination of shock and anger at Floyd, who is clearly just as shocked.
Gondorff has engineered a perfect scenario against his opponent, which is pointed out by Lonnegan (prviately) in what is probably the film’s greatest line, “What was I supposed to do, call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?” Sure, Doyle Lonnegan went in knowing what the other man might do, but Gondorff knew exactly what the other man would do. If he didn’t know from the get-go, he definitely did the second he was dealt the four threes.
Even though the stakes are monetary and not life-or-death, the tension is incredibly thick. There’s no music, but only the sound of the train on which they are riding. We think that as an audience we’re seeing everything of the game, but just like Lonnegan and Floyd, we too have been duped. Gondorff is just that good.
Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a look at the dreaded dream sequence. It can be done wrong, and it’s usually done wrong, but in this instance it creates one of the most poignant scenes in all of film.