1973 - PG - 129 Mins.
|Director: George Roy Hill
|Producer: Julia and Michael Phillips
|Written By: David S. Ward
|Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston
|Review by: John Ulmer
There was this piano piece I performed two times for separate live recitals, back when I used to take piano lessons a few years ago. It was Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," and to this day it is the most wild, rambunctious and fun piece I have ever played on the piano--more out of control than "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," more exciting than any piece from classical artists such as Beethoven and Mozart, and as strikingly bouncy as it is silly.
It took me a little while to hear that the music had been made famous by a movie, so I did a bit of searching and finally found out what it was: "The Sting." I borrowed a VHS tape from a relative (it came with a CD that had Joplin's original score!), and finally got to view what I heard was one of the best films of all time.
As I recall, I was not disappointed, and after viewing the film again last night--some three years after an initial viewing--it's evident that it only grows better with repetitive viewing. (Most of the great movies do.)
"The Sting" is a worthy example of how to make a well-rounded motion picture. The value of entertainment in a film is entirely opposite of how it is made. The newest action film may not be well made but it is entertaining, so therefore it garners a forgettable viewing and a grudging pass into the archives where it will be viewed on television a few years later.
But when the technical aspects of a film intertwine with the fun factor of a motion picture, the result is extraordinary. When a fun movie is also made well, you have a wonderful combination of sorts, hence a great movie.
"The Sting," perhaps the greatest of all con man movies and one of the most enjoyable films of all time, is as fun as it is smart; as entertaining as it is well made. George Roy Hill ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") reunited Robert Redford and Paul Newman for this, a movie as excitingly well made, as it is enjoyable.
Redford is Johnny Hooker, a lower class "grifter" who works as a con man duo along with Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, James' father). After they inadvertently con a powerful figure out of some $11,000, they find themselves being hunted down by a Chicago criminal (Robert Shaw) whose money they have stolen. After Luther is murdered, Hooker finds himself at the mercy of Henry (Newman), an experienced grifter who's been out of the game for quite some time. ("Luther said you were the best, but I already know how to drink," Hooker says.)
Out of revenge, the two team up to swindle Luther's murderer out of $500,000. First, there's the set-up. Then the hook. Then the sting.
One of the keys to the film is the way it takes the audience on such a wild ride and reveals how so many of the smaller cons relate to the big picture. We are all fascinated with characters different than us, and that includes con men. Nicolas Cage was one last year and they've been around on the screens for quite some time. Even Dana Carvey played one.
We like to watch them demonstrate what they do, because it's entertaining. This isn't restricted entirely to con men, of course, but grifters are certainly an area of cinema we tend to enjoy because they are foreign to us. They seem to be portrayed with the same sense of class and high society as a James Bond figure. They're untouchable, breezy and cool. Just look at "Ocean's Eleven." They're portrayed like gods--always one step ahead of the game.
Here's where a lot of that stuff started. Perhaps Hooker isn't as glorified as Brad Pitt was in Soderbergh's heist movie, but he carries all the same charms. And these ruthless crooks that con people out of their money are never once shown conning innocents--they're always conning the fat cats. It's manipulative, but it works, just like most of manipulative cinema does. For example: Did you ever see the Corleone family do anything particularly awful in "The Godfather"? Every crime they committed was justified. That's manipulative, too, but it also works splendidly. "Goodfellas" was more raw and realistic but it was a different type of motion picture. "The Sting," like "The Godfather," wants us to relate and care for its characters--not to show discontent towards them. Indeed, had Hooker been shown conning a starving mother out of her remaining pennies we might find some sort of discontent towards him, but he never does. He is first shown conning a rich crook, then an even richer one. Of course, Hooker doesn't know the man is a crook, but we do, and perhaps if the movie slowed down a bit so we could reflect, more people would realize this fact. But as it is, we enjoy the movie because we know more than Hooker. Is that possible? I suppose so.
Newman and Redford, already well known for their roles in the smash hit "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" by the time this movie came along; arguably have better chemistry than ever before. They bounce lines off each other and interact amazingly well, putting so many other buddy actors to shame. Over the past thirty years or so, there have been only so many truly wonderful buddy pairings--Lemon and Matthau, De Niro and Pesci, Gibson and Glover, Candy and Martin, et al (I refrain from saying Cheech and Chong). Newman and Redford are two of the all-time best; their chemistry is beyond the typical meaning of the word. It's like watching two experts at the top of their game. It's truly wonderful.
A film like this should be necessary viewing for anyone interested in the history of film and arts. It's entertainment, but it's also a splendid period piece that evokes the feelings of Depression-era America as grandly as it takes the audience on a wild ride. This is superb filmmaking at its finest. The people who feel that the newest "Lord of the Rings" movie is the best film of all time should be required to view this. Simply put, the film is an unheralded masterpiece. But more than that: It's also one of the most entertaining motion pictures of all time. You don't get that combination very often. But then again, you don't get many movies like "The Sting" very often, either.