This is the archetypal con-movie: grifters Hooker (Redford) and Gondorff (Newman) team up to take down numbers boss Lonnegan (Shaw), after his hit-man kills Hooker's partner. From that simple premise spins off an elaborate scheme in which they set up an entirely fake betting establishment, and reel in Lonnegan with the twin lures of revenge [Gondorff having humiliated him during an on-train poker game] and making a very large sum of money. Who could possibly resist? Certainly not a boorish and greedy gangster, who believes himself invulnerable. And that's the chief appeal of the film: watching the methodical preparations, and the inexorable journey toward the climax. Meanwhile, a cop is tailing Hooker for fleecing him with fake money, and the FBI are closing in on Gondorff. Will our gentlemen thieves get to pull off their spectacular fleece-job before the net closes on them?
There is an awful lot here to enjoy, though I'm not sure the actual con itself is entirely watertight. It probably made sense 70 years ago, in a ticker-tape era, no-one here bothers to explain exactly how it works. However, the ending is among the finest in cinematic history, pulling the carpet out from under the audience in a thoroughly satisfying matter - unlike cheap cop-outs favored by certain modern film-makers (I'm talking to you, M. Night Shyamalan!). Redford and Newman exhibit an easy grace working with each other - not for the first time - and it's easy to see how people could fall for their silver-tongued charms. This plausibility is essential in this genre, and goes a long way to explaining why this is still regarded as a classic.