Like I said in my review of Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Sting (1973) is the granddaddy of all con-man movies. It’s a master class in the long con and making a nostalgic movie. From the scenery to the Scott Joplin/Marvin Hamlisch calls back to the 1900-1940’s era—if that length of time can be called an era—that American’s see as a golden age. Perhaps not on every front at every moment, there were some wars during that period, but the way of life, the pace of life, and the style was a combination of simple and modern that is very attractive. Plus those hats!
A young grafter named Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) pulls a switch on an unsuspecting mob gopher and collects about ten grand to split with his partners Erie (Jack Kehoe) and Luther (Robert Earl Jones). Little did they know that that particular racket was run by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) a vindictive sort who kills for pride. When Luther gets tossed out a window, Hooker legs it to Chicago to meet up with an old buddy of Luther’s, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who works the long con for big money. When he arrives, he finds that Gondorff’s got some trouble of his own after a con goes wrong and now the Feds are after him. Still, Hooker wants to con Lonnegan and Gondorff knows how to do it. With the aid of J.J. (Ray Walston), Twist (Harold Gould), Billie (Eileen Brennan), and others, they’re certainly going to try.
This has got to be on anyone’s list of top ten American films of all time. But it isn’t. Is it because it hasn’t been widely seen? I suspect this to be the case. It’s popular and well-known to those who have any interest in movies. But for the kind of people that go to the movies once every two months and think Humphrey Bogart gives whistling lessons, it’s just another 70’s movie that fell through the cracks.
Glad to meet you kid, you’re a real horse’s ass.
Only Redford was nominated for an acting Oscar, which is probably appropriate since he’s the only to play out serious emotions. Still, Newman, Shaw, and the supporting cast are fantastic. There isn’t a single weak link. The movie has the feel of something a couple decades earlier, but the best of that era. I think the perception of over-acting in 40’s and 50’s films to be a bit overblown, so don’t take this as a fault. The characters are wide and deep. I can count on one hand the number of conspicuous characters that have no real personality. The rest—the vast majority—are given life-like performances that are interesting and entertaining.
The dialogue from David S. Ward is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the best stories put to film. Ward got the idea from the real cons pulled off by the Gondorff brothers in their book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. That makes the job pretty easy so long as you can execute it. Note the first episode of the British television show Hustle (2004-12) which is fine for television, but isn’t near the quality of The Sting. It takes a couple watches before you realize how full the dialogue is. It walks a line of anachronistic and listenable.
George Roy Hill directs a stacked deck. Great dialogue, great cast, and an air-tight story. The sets are quite obviously the work of a studio. Hill doubles down on this obviousness and creates an environment of Saturday Evening Post/Norman Rockwell-inspired scenery. It sets the tone of the movie. If I were reading the script, I would imagine something much grittier. There are brothels, murder, theft, corruption, swearing, and gambling problems in this story and yet it’s a joyous romp in Depression-era Chicago. Oh yeah, and there’s a Depression on.
This is a great decision. It makes this a different kind of classic than The Godfather (1972). A comedy doesn’t have the same kind of pressure to deliver on any elements of a film (except for laughs). The Sting does deliver on every count and so it can be the kind of movie you can look on and call it your favorite without being solemn or pompous. It’s quality populism. That is, it’s the great American movie.
The Sting is two hours long, just about, and feels longer. That’s often a bad thing. But it only feels longer because it has such a rich plot that is incredibly balanced. Any sense I might have that something was a bit off is due entirely to my need to criticize. If you look at something too hard, what is right may seem wrong because you’ve got your nose pressed up against it. No, you’ve got to trust your in-film impressions and those were all “perfection.” Still, it feels as though it runs a bit slowly. Not ponderous or in a bad way, but lightly gliding. It’s a testament to the complexity of the story that, notwithstanding the gliding, you think to yourself at the end, “What? Oh! That’s great.”
If I can circle back, this is because of the direction. On a first viewing, you think that there are wheels within wheels. Who is playing who? And yet, there is no actual misdirection in the story telling. No ambiguous dialogue that misleads you. Still, the players play out the con and that’s what we see. The con is so well done that we (I) think that the con is reality. That’s helped along by [Spoiler]. Yeah, I can’t really spell it out without ruining it for those who haven’t seen it. But for those that have, that spoiler is a really neat trick. It’s a single twist that creates a highly dramatic ending.
Neither Hill, Ward, nor Newman would be in something near as good again.
If you haven’t seen this movie, it is an absolute necessity. Even with the language and some tassels, I’d say 10 and up. It is a movie to be shared. I don’t know what BluRay can offer, but with $13 you get both.