The con is on in more ways than one in George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973); a devilishly featherweight period piece made in a decade when dark, brooding, contemporary narratives were all the rage and the norm. From its preposterous use of Scott Joplin’s classic ragtime (that predates the film’s settings by at least 25 years) to the deceptively ‘of the moment’ performances given by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, The Sting is a Teflon-coated cinematic anomaly of contradictions, where apparently not even continuity – or lack thereof – manages to hinder the overall narrative, brilliantly scripted by David S. Ward.
Set during the Great Depression, our story centers on grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) whose latest con has just netted him a cool $11,000 in cash. His cohort, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) is an aging master who announces his retirement from the fray and advises Hooker to do the same…or seek out the advice of superior con, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman); the only man this side of Joliet Illinois who can teach Hooker about ‘the big con’.
Unfortunately for Coleman and Hooker, their last victim was a numbers racketeer working for the unscrupulous Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw); a tough as nails/cold as ice crime boss who can snap a man in half for double crossing him. Lonnegan even has crooked cops in his pocket, and used one – Lt. William Snyder (Charles Durning) – to confront Hooker and get his money back. One problem: Hooker’s already blown his half of the winnings. So, Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit instead. When Lonnegan’s men find out, they kill Luther. But Hooker manages a clumsy getaway to Chicago.
This dime store fraud is up against a pro and knows it when Gondorff tells Hooker he will not join him in his life of crime. Seems Gondorff – a once truly great con artist – has recently had his wings clipped by the FBI. To reaffirm for himself that he’s still the best there is, Gondorff tells Hooker they’re going to perpetrate ‘the wire’ – a phony off track betting parlour. The two board the 20th Century Limited where Gondorff poses as ‘Shaw’; a loutish Chicago bookie who easily cons Lonnegan out of $15,000. Naturally, Lonnegan is outraged. But his distemper is somewhat quelled with the arrival of ‘Kelly’ (actually Hooker) who poses as Shaw’s disgruntled employee come to collect his winnings. Shaw hints to Lonnegan that he is looking to wipe out his current boss and take over his operation with a new partner Les Hamon (Harold Gould), who goes by the name Kid Twist. Kelly tells Lonnegan that Twist has the perfect set up where they can bet and win a bundle of cash on past-posted horse races.
So far so good; except that Snyder has tracked Hooker to Chicago and is about to spill the beans to Lonnegan when he is summoned by FBI agent Polk (Dana Elcar) to partake in his sting operation. Polk wants to arrest Gondorff by manipulating Hooker. In the meantime, Lonnegan has grown restless with his men’s inability to find Hooker. Unaware that Kelly is Hooker, Lonnegan hires Salino (Joe Tornatore) to assassinate his arch nemesis.
Lonnegan grows more impressed with Kelly, whose connections to Kid Twist earn him a tidy profit on a pair of rigged horse races. Lonnegan agrees to finance a half million dollar bet at Shaw’s parlour, presumably to exact revenge on Shaw for his earlier defeat. It seems so perfect; only Snyder finds Hooker and brings him to Polk, who forces him to betray Gondorff by threatening to incarcerate Luther Coleman's widow, Loretta (Dmitra Arliss).
To clinch the deal, Hooker beds Loretta only to have her gunned down by Salino early the next morning. As it turns out, Loretta – not Salino was Lonnegan’s hired killer. Salino has been hired by Gondorff to keep Hooker safe.
Armed with a hot tip, Shaw makes his half million dollar bet on Lucky Dan – a horse that is predicted to come in second, not first. Lonnegan panics when he finds out the horse’s ranking and attempts to get his money back from the teller’s window. Agent Polk, Snyder and a slew of agents storm the parlour with Polk telling Hooker he is free to go. To avenge this betrayal, Gondorff shoots Hooker in the back and Polk kills Hooker in self-defence. Polk orders Snyder to get Lonnegan away from the crime scene or face incrimination and arrest.
The two terrified cohorts steal away into the night and Hooker and Gondorff – both having faked their deaths – get up off the floor amidst cheers and laughter. Polk reveals that he is actually Hickey, a con used to divert Snyder’s suspicions and scare Lonnegan away. Having pulled off the ultimate con, Hooker and Gondorff stroll away as the other men dismantle their setup.
The Sting is a strange duck indeed. It’s light-hearted to the point of never taking itself seriously and that’s something of a problem – or perhaps part of the in joke played on the audience. Director George Roy Hill gives us a lot of smoke but no fire, relying on the teaming of Newman and Redford (previously seen together in Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969) to pull us through this manipulative pun within a farce. At times, however, it seems to be too clever for its own good. There is something mildly off putting about Redford and Newman, neither assimilating into their roles, each riding the crest of their own popularity – as both individual stars and as a team. They’re undeniably having a good time. But neither actor challenges us to look deeper into their performances, perhaps because there really is nothing going on beneath the surface.
Robert Shaw is, as Robert Shaw usually was, an over the top ham selling his steely-eyed thug in a three piece suit like a sledge hammer cutting through Jell-o. It’s too much, frankly, and compounded by Charles Durning’s heavy-handed lampoon. Don’t get me wrong: I like The Sting. It’s a slap-happy wink-and-nudge shuffle that is preposterously great fun to watch. But it doesn’t really hold together upon a second or third viewing. The clichés become too obvious, the loopholes in Redford and Newman’s star turns large enough to ride a small pony through them.
Instead of everything crystalizing the second time around, the narrative tightening up, the performances growing richer with renewed admiration, everything gradually unravels, becoming more glaringly obvious. What continues to hold up is Henry Bumstead’s marvellous set design and Robert Surtees evocative cinematography – both capturing the essence and mood of the gritty Great Depression; a colourful backdrop of speakeasies, hoodlum lairs and lavishly appointed train cars – for those still rich enough to afford them. In the final analysis, those who have never seen The Sting will likely enjoy it – perhaps even immensely so. But those who already have will likely remember it with more fond recollections than it actually rates.
Respect must be paid to Universal’s 100th anniversary Blu-ray. The Sting’s earthy palette is winningly reproduced. The 1080p hi def transfer yields a lot of fine detail and very accurately reproduced grain for a very film-like presentation. The image is noticeably brighter than the DVD release, but I am not entirely certain that the DVD’s presentation was more accurate. Contrast levels on the Blu-ray do not appear to have been artificially bumped leading me to deduce that the Blu-ray has accurately achieved a more realistic look that is faithful to the theatrical presentation. Tough call, but I’m sticking to it.
The audio’s an entirely different matter. The DTS 5.1 sounds too manufactured, meaning that a lot of ‘creative’ mixing has gone into making the original mono tracks sound as though they were recorded yesterday and in stereo instead of forty plus years ago. Again, a minor quibbling, but dialogue and effects are very frontal sounding while the Marvin Hamlisch score takes a backseat in the rear and side channels. There aren’t any defects per say in the audio. Dialogue and effects are crisp. The score sounds spectacular. But does it sound like a vintage 70s release? Ah, no. Enough said.
I continue to be a tad disappointed by Universal’s lack of extra features. We get the 60 minute documentary that was part of the Legacy Edition DVD, but presented in a ‘quality’ that is lagging. I would have loved an audio commentary, but the only other extra included (apart from the glossy booklet) is the same tired old 100th Anniversary junket featurettes on characters, film restoration and the studio’s heritage. Ho-hum. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)