The best movies of the 1960s and 1970s are so good that it’s easy to forget that they were corporate product as much as today’s blockbusters are. The Sting got made in 1973 because Robert Redford and Paul Newman were both attached, and their last collaboration was the monster hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Sting even has the same director as Butch and Sundance, George Roy Hill. However, the movie comes from the pre-blockbuster era, when movies were intended to be cash cows by way of being great art. The Sting became one of the top 20 highest grossing films of all time simply because it is easily one of the top 20 most fun films of all time.
What you have here is your basic con-man picture, with each stage of the con highlighted by a title card – “The Set-Up”, “The Hook”, “The Tale”, etc. Redford is the instigator: he accidentally hits New York mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (a superb Robert Shaw) with a “short” con, and then after Lonnegan attempts revenge, Redford strikes back with a “big” con by enlisting legendary con artist Henry Gondorff (Newman). David S. Ward’s Academy Award-winning script pares the con game down to its most basic elements and attempts no frills; Redford’s character, who delivers “the hook” in every con that we see him run, is even named Johnny Hooker.
Ward’s script is phenomenal with its delivery of hard-boiled dialogue. Even the simplest exchanges pop right off the page, such as Hooker’s first meeting with Detective Snyder of the anti-con “bunco squad”:
Hi there, Snyder. Things a little slow down at the Bunco Department tonight, eh? Somebody lose the dominoes?
You scored blood money today, Hooker. You need a friend.
Aw, find yourself a shoplifter to roll.
Snyder gives him a beating.
You got the wrong guy, pal. I been home with the flu all day. You can stake out my toilet if you want.
However, Ward is also making a clever commentary on the con, and the movies as well (which, as a number of long-time producers and directors will tell you, is itself a confidence game of sorts). Hooker and Gondorff are basically creating a movie, with Lonnegan as their only audience member, and they want him eating out of the palms of their hands as much as Universal wanted The Sting’s audience eating out of theirs.
Moreover, Lonnegan is sophisticated, the sort of guy that will see all of the basic cons coming a mile away. Audiences were becoming equally sophisticated about the movies at the time, so The Sting had to deceive them even though they surely had their guesses as to how the film would end. Ward’s script does that too, setting up a couple of different subplots with Redford’s gambling nature and his struggles with the law that might seem to set up one sort of ending, only to turn into something completely different. It’s so expertly constructed that it can still fool audiences today, even though we’re more sophisticated about movies in general and con-artist movies in particular.
Redford and Newman are both screen legends, but I’d like to focus on Newman in this movie, because frankly he blows Redford away. His performance is utterly without vanity – Gondorff is introduced in a drunken stupor, drooling against the wall of his run-down flat – and utterly without artificiality. Redford’s performance says “movie star” a little too much: he gets the best clothes, the best girl, the big dramatic challenge when his character is filled with self-doubt. But Newman kills all of the movie’s smallest and more important moments, especially the poker game with Shaw that sets the entire con moving. He’s perfectly willing to let Redford be the movie star, knowing that the movie doesn’t succeed unless he makes that decision, and he simply does superior work.
One of the side effects of the superior acting in this movie is that The Sting is an almost perfect film for introducing children to old movies. Although there is some content which nowadays would cause a movie to be rated R (cursing and smoking, mostly), it’s all presented in a manner so harmless that it’s impossible to corrupt young minds with it. A few scenes take place in a brothel, but this film is so chaste that only one or two lines of dialogue even dance around the idea that something illegal is happening in the building. Meanwhile, you have actors who fill their roles so well that kids can easily understand what they’re about (Shaw is an especially effective villain), but the acting is so nuanced that adults will love it too.
But beyond all of the analysis and the criticism, The Sting is just pure fun, in a way that movies rarely are anymore. Every scene has a clever line of dialogue, and the occasional action scenes are surprisingly tense when you consider they’re just a few guys running around on a Hollywood backlot. There is so much superior craft happening here that the movie transcends the sum of its parts and becomes a masterpiece. The Sting won seven Oscars, including Best Picture; if it were up to me, I would have tried to find a way to give it seven more.
Reviewed by Mark Young
- Credited on some of his other films as simply George Hill.
- Adjusted for inflation.