Thursday, July 23, 2015

Film Friday: The Sting (1973)

The Sting is one of my favorite heist films, though I can’t honestly say that it holds up today as a heist film. For that, it is too slow, too simple, and too obvious. What makes this film such a joy to watch despite this, however, is watching Paul Newman, Robert Shaw and Robert Redford try to outwit each other.


Robert Redford is Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter during the Great Depression. As the story opens, Redford cons a man out of the money he is carrying. It turns out to be $11,000. Even worse, it turns out that the money belongs to crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan kills Redford’s partner in retaliation and sends out his winged monkeys to kill Redford.
Redford flees to Chicago, where he meets Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Newman is a once-great conman who is now hiding from the FBI. Redford and Newman decide to work together to pull off a phony off-track betting scam known as “the wire” to get even with Lonnegan.

How this works is that Redford will entice Lonnegan into the scam by pretending that he works for Newman. Newman is running an illegal off-track betting parlor. But Redford has a way to supposedly defraud his boss Newman, by getting the results of the races phoned to him by a Western Union employee before the race gets called over the radio. How exactly they will use this to trap Lonnegan and then to escape his clutches, I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns and many of the characters you are shown turn out not to be who they claim to be.

Why This Film Is Worth Seeing

It’s actually difficult to tell you why The Sting works. The reason for this is that The Sting worked for a different reason in 1973 than it works today. Let me explain.
Heist movies are rather a specialized set of films. What you need are the coolest actors of the generation, some sort of scheme that sounds impossible except for the extraordinary expert skills of the “good guys,” a bad guy who is bad enough to make the “good guys” (who are usually shady thieves) seem nice, and a lot of twists. Fortunately, you can cheat on all of this and your audience won’t care, so long as everything is hyper-stylized to be as cool as possible.

In 1973, heist films were still relatively new and unsophisticated. Prior to this, you had films like Ocean’s 11 (1960) which followed this formula, but the twists were mild, and The Italian Job (1969), which wasn’t stylized and didn’t really have the kind of cool cast typical of modern heist films. The Sting was really the first film to put it all together, and in 1973 this film must have seemed amazing. For the first time, you had a cool cast of near-superhero conmen, a villain you truly hated, a cool stylized plot, unforeseeable twist after twist (at a time when twists were rare), and an iconic soundtrack. That is why this film was so popular.

Over time, however, heist films have become much more sophisticated. The schemes have become more complex, the twists have become tighter, and as a whole, these films have adopted a much faster pace and greater energy. Compared to modern twist films, The Sting feels slow, simple and lazy.
But the thing is, this film stands up in the modern era for a different reason. What makes The Sting work today is the relationship of the characters and the performance of the actors. Newman is amazing as the ultra-cool conman. He’s so good in this role that he stands up there with Frank Sinatra in the pantheon of cool, and watching him on screen keeps making me wish he had made more movies. His relationship with Redford, which continues here from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, shows amazing chemistry.
Newman and Shaw have equally amazing chemistry, though it’s more anti-chemistry. Indeed, Shaw is pure menace and he and Newman truly come across as if they hate each other. What’s more, Shaw does such a good job of making you hate him with little things like being huffy and snippy, that you come to loath him on a personal level and you want to see him brought down. You relish seeing him tricked.

Redford is really good in this too, though he shows again that he is a lightweight compared to Shaw and Newman. He is the pretty boy actor of his generation next to two of his generation’s finest giving some of their best performances. Fortunately, as with Three Days of the Condor where he played a perfectly fitting role of an outmatched amateur, here he plays the perfectly fitting role of the arrogant grifter who doesn’t realize how far out of his league he really is. In other words, the role fits him, which lets his acting style work.
It is the relationship of these three and how they keep gaming each other throughout which makes this film such a joy to watch. It’s not the scheme, which is rather simplistic and somewhat dull once you know the twists. It’s not the feel of the movie itself either, as what was stylized and cool in 1973 feels almost made-for-TV lame today. But the tricky interaction of these amazing actors is just not something you can find anywhere else nor can you find it duplicated anywhere else.

That is what makes this film such a classic.



Anonymous said...

The Sting is a genuine classic. One of the things I like about it is the slow pace. It takes it's time, unlike modern heist films, which seem to be made for audiences loaded up on sugar. The Sting is best watched on a Sunday afternoon when you have absolutely nothing to do. It just takes it's time and that's one of the things I like about it. Cool is an intangible and Newman just had it. Watch Slapshot. Look at the ridiculousness of his wardrobe. If another actor had played the same role with the same lines his wardrobe would have stopped the film. You'd say "why the hell is he wearing leather pants?" instead of paying attention to the dialogue. With Paul it never caused a hitch. He just pulled it off because he was cool. it's like the difference between Madonna and Debby Harry. Debby never had to roll around and figuratively climb all over the audience because she was just cool. If we were all in a bar Madonna would come up to you and rub her tits on your arm so you'd buy her a drink. Debby would just sit in the corner and assume that people would send her drinks. That's the difference between something like George Clooney's Oceans 11 and The Sting. When you watch Clooney in that you can tell he's drawing on old movie stars to be cool. Cool guys from yore, like Newman, Steve McQueen and Clint never spent any time trying to convince the audience that they were cool, just like they never tried to convince the audience that they had arms. They just took it for granted and we noticed.
One thing though. Given that last week's review was about The Exorcist, and the great discussion we all had about that. The Sting beat out The Exorcist for best picture of 1973 and George Roy Hill beat William Friedkin for best director. Two of the worst decisions in Academy history.

PikeBishop said...

A great one: Still holds up in my view. The reveal of the identity of the "hitman" is still one of my Top Ten movie Surprises (Gasp moments, twists what have you)

PikeBishop said...

Gypsy: Agreed and I love what you said about "Cool." Dennis Miller did one of his rants on what it is to be "cool" about 15 years ago and I think he nailed it. His opening line was "You know why Jack Keroauc was cool? Because he had no god-damned idea he was!" Miller looks for the definition of cool and defines the types of it as well. If you have never seen it, everyone should check it out. Since Andrew doesn't like live links here, just Yahoo the "Keroauc quote" and the first link will take you to a bunch of Miller's rants. It's about half way down. Enjoy

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I totally agree. Movies like this are all about "cool" and Newman was cool. I can't tell you why, but he was. He has amazing screen presence because of it too... you just can't take your eyes off of him. And in this movie, it works perfectly. Put some lesser actor in the role and this movie would have felt fairly generic. It was Newman's cool and his relationship with Shaw and Redford that makes this film.

On The Exorcist, sadly, horror movies always get short shrift.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That is a shocking moment. Even knowing it now, it's still a little shocking when it happens.

I agree about cool. The guys who are truly cool just are, they don't think about how cool they are. A lot of the "cool" modern actors however spend their time posing as cool rather than actually being cool.

You can post links here if you like. :)

Anonymous said...

Pike and Andrew, thanks for the responses and the tip, I promise I'll look that up.

Anonymous said...

"Put some lesser actor in the role and this film would feel fairly generic." You're absolutely right. So George Roy Hill got an Oscar because of Paul Newman, who wasn't even nominated. Ironic. And it has nothing to do with The Sting but while we're on the subject of guys who were cool without being conscious of it I would be remiss if I didn't throw a shoutout to Elvis Aaron Presley, in my humble opinion the coolest of them all, even now that I know how it ended.

PikeBishop said...

On that Miller show with the rant his guest was David Spade and Spade said a funny thing about trying to hard to "be cool." He said it must be tough to be Lenny Kravitz and just go to the 7-11. "Sharksin boots, sleeveless shirt, 18 crosses, Dude, you're getting Skittles!"

ScottDS said...

Gypsy - LOVE the Madonna/Debbie Harry comparison!

Andrew -

Sadly, this is one of the modern classics that I've never seen [ducks flying objects] so I don't have much to say. I know the original DVD was a crappy full-screen disc so I may have avoided Netflixing it for a long time... I no longer have that excuse. :-)

As for being cool. I have even less to add about that, except this bit of wisdom from The IT Crowd.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I hadn't thought about that, but it's true. He does owe his Oscar to Newman even if Newman didn't get his own. Strange. Seriously though, the more I thought about putting someone else into the rule, the more I realized just how important Newman was to the role. Replace him and the whole film falls apart.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That Spade quote is hilarious!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You need to get with it, my friend! These are great films. Check them out. :)

Rustbelt said...

Ah, Andrew, one of my all-time favorite movies! The first time I saw it was when my mother and I were discussing movies and I mentioned that I hadn't seen any Newman-Redford films. My Mom immediately went out, rented this one, and made me watch it. What can I say? It was great.
Some interesting tidbits about the film:
-Screenwriter David S. Ward based the film on "The Big Con," a nonfiction book by Dr. David Maurer about inter-war con artists. (It took a year to write.) After the film came out, Ward mentioned the book as the inspiration and Maurer sued for royalties. I think it was settled out of court.
-the film has so many twists that the actors usually had no idea what was going in.
-The bar set where Newman and Shaw meet was redressed a decade later and for the 50's bar where Marty meets his dad in 'Back to the Future.'
-George Roy Hill wanted to capture the feel of both the actual 1930's and 30's-era films. To that end, he used few extras in the street- just like films of the era. (By contrast, actual footage of the time shows shows the streets full of people.)
-Marvin Hamlisch rediscovered and adapted Scott Joplin's "The Wanderer" as the main theme, with the rest of the soundtrack also adapted from Joplin's work. Interestingly, the music is actually of the ragtime genre (1911), which means the soundtrack is 25 years out of date for the film's time period.
-The chapter (or 'inter-title') cards are meant to invoke the Saturday Evening Post. (On the final one- 'The Sting'- which depicts the race track, the lead horse is wearing Secretariat's colors.)
-If Hooker's buddy Luther reminds you of Darth Vader, don't be surprised: that's Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones.
-When the actor playing Curley Jackson- the con man who specializes in pretending to be an Englishman- says he is from Baltimore in his 'normal' voice, he is, in fact, using an authentic Baldi-mer accent.

Rustbelt said...

But I really have to give a shout-out to Ward's use of slang in the movie. He said he made it a priority to give the film authenticity. What I really like is how he works it into the script so that you can get an idea of what it means. Some notable examples:
"Grifting:" the act of con artists (or "confidence men," as Maurer calls them), stealing through treachery. (The meaning is implied through the con men's actions.)
"Blow off:" An escape plan. (Kid Twist says this while planning the con at Bonnie's building after noting how precarious the situation will be.)
"Mark:" The target of the scam. (Implied by word usage.) Interestingly, this word is still used in pro wrestling by writers and promoters to describe the fans.
"The Bait:" The con man who sets himself up as someone the mark will want to go after. (This is Gondorf's function.)
"The Hook:" The con man who actually "reels" the mark in and convinces him to take part in the scam- not knowing, of course, that he is the actual target. (This is Hooker's part.)
"The Sheet:" According to the 'Big Con,' confidence men of the 30's often met in particular bars and listed themselves with the owner that they were in town. The owner then wrote their names down for potential, um, "employers." (The bar owner Kid Twist meets with calls for the sheet.)
"The Quill:" The best. (Kid Twist: "These guys had better be the quill!")
"Dick:" Okay, knock it off. That meaning comes from the 70's. In the 1930's, 'dick' was slang for 'detective.' ("Dick Tracy" = "Detective Tracy") In a neat twist of words, since we already know that Snyder (Charles Durning) is a detective and crooked, when the bar owner says, "he's a dick," both the 30's and modern meanings apply.
"Jake:" Okay. (Hooker says it to calm down Gondorff.)
"Bunco Squad:" Local cops in charge of investigating vice crimes. ('Polk' (Dana Elcar) says this in a very disparaging way, since such cops are often on the take.)
"A Shut-Out:" Closing the betting tables just as the race starts. (This is necessary since all the winning horses were long shots and the scam doesn't have enough money to pay Lonnegan for the second 'trial' win.)
"Boodles:" Fake dollar bundles. Most are blank paper; only the top is real. (Gondorff tells Eddie not to bother prepping them since they're going to use the shut-out.)
"The Sting:" The point when the confidence men actually take the intended money from the mark. (It's not actually pin-pointed from the dialogue; only from the title card.)

Rustbelt said...

Hey, I just read another interesting use of slang in the movie. (I thought about and double-checked after all that excitement over American Pharoah):

WARNING: SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!! (Okay, you've been warned...)

When Lonnegan gets the call for the last bet, he hears, "place it on Lucky Dan."
After betting on Lucky Dan winning the race, Lonnegan tells Kid Twist what he did, and Twist is horrified. Twist explains that he meant Lucky Dan would 'place.' In horse racing, the first through third finishers are said to 'win, place, and show.'
In other words, Twist had told Lonnegan to bet that Lucky Dan would finish second, but Lonnegan completely misunderstood!
Good writing.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Nice tidbits of trivia! :) This is one of those movies that is well put together and it shows.

Koshcat said...


Rob S. Rice said...

Period piece. Incredibly and successfully stylized. Historian's dream. Incredible old-style glass paintings. A tremendous stable of the GRAND old character actors. CHARLES DURNING! The cars. And more cars. And yet more cars. Railroad cars. Hats. Well-tailored suits. Elegant writing. Believable FOOT chase scenes.

What in the name of all that's cinematic is there NOT to like?

Post a Comment