In 1936, during the Great Depression, Johnny Hooker, a grifter in Joliet, Illinois, cons $11,000 in cash in a pigeon drop from an unsuspecting victim with the aid of his partners Luther Coleman and Joe Erie. Buoyed by the windfall, Luther announces his retirement and advises Hooker to seek out an old friend, Henry Gondorff, in Chicago to learn "the big con". Unfortunately, the reason their victim had so much cash was that he was a numbers racket courier for vicious crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. Corrupt Joliet police Lieutenant William Snyder confronts Hooker, revealing Lonnegan's involvement and demanding part of Hooker's cut. Having already blown his share on a single roulette spin, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills. Lonnegan's men murder both the courier and Luther, and Hooker flees for his life to Chicago.