Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
The Sting is directed by George Roy Hill and is inspired by the real-life con brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and a book by David Maurer titled: The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The film stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw.
There is hardly any variation in the types of films that have been blessed with the Academy Award for Best Picture over the decades, which is why it ought to have been a crime that a caper film like The Sting was able to snag the award in 1973. In a decade of film rampant with cynicism, the last thing on peoples' minds should have been enjoying a cheery, old-fashioned crime drama that never takes itself too seriously, one that scored big at the box office and was not only a Best Picture winner, it was an overall resounding success at the 46th Academy Awards, taking home the prizes for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay on top of winning the most coveted Oscar. Indeed, The Sting is a film that had everything going for it, despite looking like a divergent member of the 1970's greatest movie hits.
I shouldn't dismiss The Sting as an anomaly to the 70's, though. The only thing that The Sting is an anomaly to is the series of boring message pictures and sentimental romances that make up too much of the history of the Best Picture Award. In terms of the 70's, The Sting might as well be the perfect movie: it is an immensely rich blend of New Age cynicism and a dislike towards the changing of American societal values, evident through a story in which people are secretly having fun by showing how much they don't trust one another. And yet, it is a film that is constructed to look like something made during the early years of Golden Age Hollywood, with inter-title cards reminiscent of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations and a 1930's lighting style that is tweaked with just enough up-to-date mechanics in order to achieve the stylish visual look that Hill was hoping for. With so many nooks and crannies from so many different periods, it's hard not to think of The Sting as some kind of secret celebration of all these features that have come to shape the history of American cinema.
The story takes place in the late 1930's and follows a grifter named Johnny Hooker (Redford). In the opening scene, Hooker and his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) con $11,000 out of a victim. It's a haul big enough to make Luther announce his retirement and leave Hooker to continue on and learn how to pull off the "big con". Luther advises Hooker to go and meet with his old friend Henry Gondorff (Newman), who can teach him how to pull off the "big con". Unfortunately, it turns out that the victim that Hooker and Luther conned earlier secretly works for the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). Lonnegan has his men murder Luther, forcing Hooker to flee to Chicago. In Chicago, Hooker finds Gondorff and is able to convince him to take on the dangerous Lonnegan and help Hooker get revenge for Luther's death. The two team up with a larger crew of con artists and begin to put together a scheme so cunning, Lonnegan will never realize he's being tricked.
- A story like the one that screenwriter David S. Ward put together here would not be complete without an ongoing series of well-designed plot twists. The Sting has such radiant confidence in its twists and turns and is one of the few movies I can think of that so openly embraces the idea of the plot twist. When executed properly, a plot twist can be one of the most powerful narrative techniques imaginable, and Ward understands that he has to be the smartest person in the room in order to pull off whatever double crosses or swindles that will move the story forward. Almost none of the movie's twists are for shock value; they're about finding just the right way to slap a big silly smile on your face and make you wag your finger and say, "Oooooh, they got him there!" The Sting should also serve as an example of how a twist doesn't have to always be for intense dramatic effect; it can be for the sake of pure fun and to achieve a prestige that the likes of magicians and other artistic performers hope to achieve. As you can imagine, the film's ending is advertised as being one of the greatest double crosses in all of film history. Personally, I think of it as a perfectly fine ending that is mildly surprising. It's not the greatest twist ever, but it's definitely one you're not likely to guess on the first attempt.
- Ward's script also deserves praise for how well it tells the story, despite using extensive vocabulary from the field of confidence tricks. Assuming you don't ever start to feel bored, this is a movie that I am confident anyone without the slightest knowledge of confidence tricks can pick up on and easily follow, a lot like how anyone can watch and enjoy L.A. Confidential without any deep knowledge of law enforcement or the world of crime. The most essential parts of the plot are fleshed out extremely well, and it's never too hard to follow what characters are saying and what they're planning to do next. Although I'd say you'd feel better about watching The Sting after you sit down for a few minutes and study some terminology of confidence tricks, there is certainly no kind of prerequisite that would make or break how much you'd enjoy the movie the first time through.
- The Sting does fall short in the pacing department, as the movie sometimes grinds to a halt and elects to be as sluggish as possible. This is especially true in the second half, as we get several scenes of Hooker, Gondorff, and the rest of the con group basically practicing the big con, which gets repetitive pretty fast. There's also several scenes in which Hooker talks with a waitress named Loretta (Dimitra Arliss) from a restaurant, eventually getting romantically involved with her. The whole thing comes off like an unnecessary subplot, but the movie attempts to justify all the time we see Hooker and Loretta together by throwing in a twist involving Loretta right near the end. Overall though, The Sting likes to take its sweet ol' time to get from one important scene to the next scene, as if it's unable to maintain its attention span, getting distracted from time to time by something else that it thinks is fun and exciting.
Fun and exciting: I'll tell you what, that is a rarity of the highest order among older films that have been graced with at least a nomination for Best Picture. Bolstered by terrific performances, an even more terrific script, and a cheerful spirit, The Sting is a delightful caper film that has not lost any of its value in the forty five plus years that it has been a Best Picture winner. Despite coming out in a decade full of cynicism, the movie is a fascinating hybrid of Hollywood's Golden Age and that very cynicism that was growing in American society. It's almost as if The Sting was a last hurrah before Hollywood finally let go of their old way of life. Films were changing, but The Sting proved that they could still be fun. Not a bad way to earn the most coveted Oscar.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: