Monday, January 28, 2013

The Sting

The Sting
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw

A movie like The Sting provides me another great reason to be a part of Squish’s 1001 Movies Blog Club.  Technically I had seen The Sting before.  But I say “technically” because I’m pretty sure my previous viewing was over 15 years ago, and this was the sum total of my memory of it: 1) it’s about con men, 2) there’s a scene on a train, and 3) Paul Newman and Robert Redford wear tuxedos.  Yep, that’s all I had.  I do believe I owed the film another viewing.

Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a con artist working the streets of 1930s Joliet, Illinois.  When he and his partner Luther hit upon a huge payday, they can’t believe their luck.  Problem is, they just unwittingly stole from mean as nails gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw) who will stop at nothing for revenge.  When Luther is killed, Hooker goes on the run and teams up with con man extraordinaire Henry Gondorff (Newman).  The two must delicately work a long con in order to get Lonnegan off their backs – and simultaneously take him for everything he’s got.

The Sting is a lot of fun.  That’s its greatest hook.  It’s not world-changing, it’s not an expose, it doesn’t attempt to bring horrible issues to your awareness.  Nope, it’s just pure entertainment.  Goodness knows we all need that in a film every now and then.  Dark intense dramas are all well and good, and certainly some of my favorites, but every now and then I want to turn my brain off.  I’d categorize The Sting as an extremely well-crafted “turn your brain off” movie.  It’s a fun romp, and really, nothing more.

Where is the fun?  Mostly Newman and Redford.  The director had paired them up previously in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it’s not hard to understand why he wanted to pair them up again.  Once more, younger rough and tumble Redford is there to learn from older, more world-weary Newman.  Those two have fantastic screen chemistry.  I want to believe that they were best friends in real life because they seem like they’re having so much fun together onscreen.  This feeling of camaraderie translates to the overall film.

Where else?  Much of the film is about the long con that Hooker and Gondorff pull on Lonnegan, and it’s definitely amusing watching them set up the con, recruit players, build sets, and work their magic.  A basement dump is transformed into a slick bookie’s office that has to be convincing enough to trick skeptical mobsters. 

The music is fun too.  The credits open with Scott Joplin’s famous “The Entertainer,” and much of the scored is adapted from Joplin’s other rags, which helps contribute to the film’s old-timey feel good vibe.  Granted, Joplin’s music wasn’t written in the 1930s (more like the 1900s), but it works.

I enjoyed the costumes a great deal as well.  When Hooker opens the film by unexpectedly stealing thousands of dollars, he goes right out and buys the most lurid zoot suit he can possibly find.  Watching Redford strut his stuff in a very loud brown suit with bright blue pinstripes was pretty damn funny; this is contrasted with the greater sophistication of Newman’s Gondorff, even though that character makes his entrance in a wife-beater and overalls.  Lonnegan’s wardrobe is fantastic, full of the extremes of thirties clothing; the plus fours he wears while practicing putting at his club are great.  There aren’t as many female roles in the film, so the focus on men’s fashion is actually refreshing.

Additionally, I liked the setting of the movie.  Most movies set in the Great Depression either completely ignore the tough times (The Thin Man, Top Hat), or are completely about the tough times (Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).  The Sting does neither.  It is not about the tough times, but it doesn’t ignore them either.  Hooker is chased by a cop through a ramshackle camp of homeless people.  There are many people out on the streets, and times certainly seem tough.  We see the reality without being bogged down by it.

Unfortunately for The Sting, however, its biggest draw was also its biggest weakness.  The main appeal of The Sting is the novelty of “the con” and just how amusing that is.  However, I am well aware of con story tricks.  Ocean’s 11, the new one, is one of my favorite fun films.  I really like the television show Leverage.  White Collar, all about a con artist, is one of my favorite new shows.  When you watch enough of these things, you start to realize how all con stories play out.  This really hurt my recent viewing of The Sting.  Despite the fact that I couldn’t remember how it ended, I could tell what was going to happen about 45 minutes out from the end of the film.  What makes con movies so great is that it is you, the audience, who is really conned.  The movie tricks you into thinking one thing, when really, something else entirely is going on.  That surprise is what gives you most of the fun.  Given that I knew this from my experience with other con stories, I just plain was not tricked by The Sting.  Audiences back in the seventies must have loved this trick that was pulled on them, and I can totally understand why they ate this movie up.  Back then, the concept of pulling the long con was fresh and new, something fairly novel to audiences.  But now, with the set of movies and TV shows I’ve already seen, if I want to watch a good con, I’d rather see something a bit more slick and modern.  Props to The Sting for originating – or at least, popularizing – the idea in such an awesome, fun way, but I feel no compunction to see it over and over again.

This is one of my parents’ favorite films, and I understand why.  It’s charming and diverting and fun.  Moreover, I like that this won Best Picture at the Oscars – rarely do we have such a crowd-pleasing flick win that particular prize.  However, it doesn’t really do all that much for me.  It’s nice, it’s fun, it’s a frothy little romp, and Redford and Newman are terrific.  But it stirs no grand passion for me. 

Arbitrary rating: 7/10


  1. It is dated, but it's one of those films that's dated specifically because a lot of other people liked it so much they copied it. In a way, it's a victim of its own awesomeness.

    I do like this movie, and I'm old enough to have seen it when it was still relatively fresh--I saw it as an impressionable kid before it was copied by everyone else. So I'm emotionally invested in it, but I can see why you feel about it the way you do.

    1. "a victim of its own awesomeness."

      I love that. Great quote.

      I give The Sting credit for originating (or, again, popularizing) this idea. But... I've seen the idea before. Not The Sting's, fault, though. More of my own "baggage" as a film viewer than anything else. I like it, but... that's about all.

      I kind of wish I could erase parts of my viewing history and see it "new." That would be cool.

  2. I can't remember when I first saw this, but it was no later than the mid 80s and it was probably the late 70s. Even back then I never believed for a minute that Redford and Newman wouldn't come out okay. Perhaps it was youthful naivete. I did watch it again several years ago when I was acquiring all the Best Picture winners on DVD. Like you said, it's a fun movie.

    1. Definitely fun. But like you said, not a single doubt in my mind, which strips the movie of some of its power.

  3. I had the same problem of second guessing the ending. There was a TV show called Hustle on in the UK a few years ago, and I swear every single episode ended in the same way this does, so around the same point that you were sure of the ending, so was I. Still a great film though, but it'll always come second to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Newman/Redford team-ups for me. Not enough bicycles.

    1. "Not enough bicycles" - I love it.

      Glad I'm not the only one who had the same "problem" with the ending - not really a problem, but more being able to guess it in advance, which isn't nearly as fun as having it surprise you.