Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lonnegan's Limp

Probably the greatest, most perfect movie of all time is The Sting. It's one of those awesomely good character studies and, if there is any flaw in it, it is that the secondary FBI plot isn't as good the second time around (or third, or fourth, or fifth) and that maybe a couple of scenes lose all tension because you know the actors are misleading you (a great writer would have been able to inject something there IMHO. Kind of how Dumbledore's death in HBP is more dramatic when you knew that Dumbledore had it planned, ya know? "Severus. Please" He is asking to die OMG I was bawling)  The score is iconic and the combo of Paul Newman and Robert  Redford is just ... yummy.

However, this time around I was distracted from all the awesomeness by Lonnegan's limp.

For those of you who have never seen this movie (and why haven't you) the plot is that Hooker (Redford) and his mentor/buddy Luther con a gentleman out of ten thousand dollars. Unfortunately the gentleman belongs to Doyle Lonnegan, an irish gangster in charge of Chicago, who has Luther killed in retaliation. Hooker hooks (heh heh) up with Henry Gondorff to con Lonnegan out of half a million dollars.

Lonnegan is a very bad man, and throughout the whole first quarter of the movie this is built up wonderfully (and I need to watch it again to analyse how they did it). By the time the con is enacted, you realize this man is pretty much unbreakable. He's physically impressive, he's got guns, he's the kill-at-a-distance-type, he's got no conscience whatsoever, and if he wasn't fond of playing cards on this one specific train, Gondorff and his buddies wouldn't be able to get to him at all (speaking of which, your confidence in Henry as a con artist is a little shaky at this point, but that's a thing for another day).

And then Lonnegan starts walking, and you realize he's got a limp. And even though consciously it doesn't register as anything except a limp, subconsciously it changes just about everything.

Our brains are a lot smarter than we are, and they are constantly reading different social cues that we don't ever pick up on. Good writing plays on this, and slides 90% of a story right in under our noses. An incredible example that I blew off as total nonsense the first time I heard it was a specific shot of Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back. A commander gives Vader a report when he's in this giant white space bubble ... thing. You see Vader without his helmet on, and you see a mass of scars and hoses and other things implying that this person is not in the greatest shape. Commander leaves. End scene. But up until this point Darth has only been seen in positions of overwhelming superiority and almost robotic single-minded evil. This moment tells your brain that under all the wires and circuits, he's human. And not just human, but badly fucked up and broken, and (by implication) that there is probably more to him than just evil. That he might want something. About an hour later, "Luke. I am your father." What makes this moment so impactful, so mind-shatteringly huge is not that Evil told Luke he's got a dad. It was that instant when you realize this thing is human, an hour before Vader pitched a paternal relationship to Luke Skywalker. What's shattering is not ONLY Luke's perspective on the world, but our view of Vader as a wholly evil, mindless, inhuman force to be reckoned with, and it all started with him taking his helmet off an hour before we got here. The shock is our own minds processing the ten thousand hints Empire walked right past us and realizing He's telling the truth.

It wouldn't have worked half as well if those scenes weren't in there.

Same thing with Lonnegan's limp. Up until the train scene, Lonnegan is never seen walking. Oh, he might be moving, lurching around an office, but we never get a good, long view of Lonnegan walking until we get to the train. Also, up until now, Lonnegan himself has not been beaten. We've seen his minions, who will kill without worry, nearly shit themselves because he comes into the room. We've seen him casually discuss murdering a friend of his during a friendly game of golf, and we ourselves are just a little bit scared of this tall, imposing man. We know that the only vulnerable spot Gondorff and Co. could find was his frequent games of Poker on this train, and that the whole rest of the con relies on them getting to him during this game. We know that everyone involved in this is scared out of their wits. We know that if they get caught, they'll be found in the baggage car with ventilated skulls.

And then we see Lonnigan get on the train, and he's limping.

Again, short scene. Not something our brains register consciously for more than a couple seconds. But subconsciously? We have just realized that this man has a weakness. The limp. His facade of imposing mob boss has this chink in his armor, a physical imperfection he can't get rid of. This implies that there might be other, deeper flaws that Henry Gondorff can take advantage of. Three minutes before the Con begins, we are told that taking Lonnegan might be possible--not by words, not by character confidence, but by a limp.

I don't know if the actor who played Lonnigan has a limp naturally or not. The only other movie I've seen him in (Jaws) is probably not a good reference. But Lonnegan's limp, real or an affectation is incorporated and becomes a critical part of the movie. It's a tiny detail that makes the scene that follows (Gondorff out-cheating Lonnegan in a game of cards) very tense. Because we know it's possible to take him. 

Oh, Gondorff doesn't get off easily either. There's a scene right before he goes into the poker game. After he dresses, after he has a girl flawlessly pick Lonnegan's pocket (building on the weakness of the limp; he doesn't catch her do it) and after he explains the best liquor to drink with a mark, he sits down and does card tricks for Hooker, flawlessly, with a smooth flick of the wrist and a wink of those charming blue eyes. And then he flubbs the last one. Cards go flying everywhere. And the same part of your brain that read the limp as hey, we can take this guy thinks Oh, shit. Gondorff will blow it at the very last second. Lonnagan can lose...but so can Gondorff, and so far Gondorff has done more loosing than Lonnegan.

None of this ever registers consiously. You're too wound up in the David and Goliath story unfolding before your eyes. But what makes it interesting is not the charming blue eyed David or the imposing and irish Goliath and their completely bullshit game of poker (the only question is who cheats better?) Rather, it's those little details. The limp, followed by getting his pocket picked. The smooth operating Gondorff and his swift education of Hooker...followed by blowing that last card trick.

The rest of the movie is, thematically speaking, just a repeat of the train scene. We build upon the weakness implied by the limp, and also the blown card trick. The FBI subplot also implies that Gondorff has blind spots, and one of these might blow the con (and get him arrested). Lonnegan is never given a weakness other than the card game, which was completely and totally built on his limp. You could say that the entire conflict of the Sting was constructed on a bad knee that may or may not have originated with the actor himself. A thing that you never really notice, because the movie is just that good.

Good writing is not about picking a decent plot, good, likable characters or using pretty, flowery phrases. Oh, yes, don't get me wrong. You need these things. But you can have these things and still have a flat story. Good writing is about manipulating your reader into seeing things the way you want them to. In the hands of a decent writer, sparkling vampires or a demon possessed car (not to mention a can opener) can be terrifying. Not because we are scared of glitter or can openers, but because there were little hints thrown into the plot before we got there. Things that our brains registered that we never really saw.  It's about setting up an unlikable protagonist by making him your best friend for thirty seconds at the opening. It's about setting up a trustworthy mentor by making him a drunk. It's about telling your reader one thing, because it lets you slip fifteen other things in under the carpet. A good writer will hold the reader in the palm of their hands and make them think what they want them to. A good writer will react to a reader saying "This was my favorite scene because you did this in it" by saying "Damn. You shouldn't have noticed that." and rewriting the whole book.

In short, Good writing is about Lonnegan's limp.

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