There are a plethora of things that fascinate me about the movies. Among them is the way our impressions of a particular movie can change so dramatically over a fairly long period of time. Such is the case with "The Sting," a beloved Tinsel Town caper which this year turns 50 years old.
Rarely has my opinion of a film changed after a rewatch quite like it has with "The Sting." For clarity, it's not that I ever openly disliked the movie. It just never left much of an impression. In fact my apathy towards it was such that I had no real urge to revisit it in the 30 or so years since my first viewing. Boy what a difference a few decades can make.
Recently I sat down to rewatch and re-evaluate "The Sting" and to my surprise it felt like a different experience altogether. For reasons I still can't quite put my finger on, the movie clicked with me in ways I wasn't expecting. It had something to do with the stylish Saturday Evening Post-inspired title cards by artist Jaroslav "Jerry" Gebr, award-winning production design and costumes, its use of Scott Joplin's iconic ragtime piano tune "The Entertainer," George Roy Hill's stellar direction and David Ward's snappy screenplay. And of course the cool and charismatic duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. This time they all came together like it didn't before.
Released on Christmas Day in 1973, "The Sting" was a smash-hit at the box office, earning $160 million against a $5.5 million budget (quite the contrast from today's model). It was also a hit with critics and at the 46th Academy Awards. The film earned a total of 10 Oscar nominations, winning seven including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It even spawned a sequel (of sorts) some 10 years later that starred Jackie Gleason, Mac Davis and Teri Garr.
Most people (wisely) choose not to talk about it.
Coming into "The Sting," George Roy Hill was just a couple of years removed from directing Newman and Redford in the highly acclaimed "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." The three reunite in another period film, this one taking place in 1936. It was a time when big cities were full of gangsters and hustlers; dirty cops and dirtier politicians; speakeasies and underground gambling halls. It's an era Hill has a ton of fun exploring.
Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a good-looking but reckless grifter from Joliet, Ill., who gets himself in a bind after he and his hustling partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones) swindle $11,000 in cash from a poor sap. The problem is, that "poor sap" is actually a numbers runner for a powerful mob boss named Doyle Lonnegan (a fantastic Robert Shaw).
Hooker is approached by Lt. William Snyder (Charles Durning), a crooked police detective on Lonnegan's payroll, who demands he pay back what he stole. Hooker pays him off in counterfeit bills which understandably provokes the ire of Lonnegan even more. His goons kill Luther, sending Hooker fleeing to Chicago.
After arriving in Chicago Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff (Newman). Gondorff was an old friend of Luther's and a big-time conman. But lately he's been laying low, trying to avoid the pesky FBI. Hooker tells Gondorff about Luther's murder and persuades him to help pull "the big con" on Lonnegan.
Gondorff puts together a crack team of hustlers played by a terrific collection of actors including Ray Walston, Harold Gould and James Sloyan. But pulling one over on a tough guy like Lonnegan proves to have its challenges and consequences.
"The Sting" plays a lot differently from many of the gangster pictures of its time and ours. There's a playful allure that permeates much of the film and it has a cool retro style that calls back to the classic mob movies of Raoul Walsh and Lloyd Bacon. But it also has a touch of 1970s grit, which helps set it apart.
Things do get a bit far-fetched in the third act, but it's hard not to be hooked by the quirky mix of old-fashioned playfulness and gritty violence. That's a big part of what gives the movie its unusual charm. And to George Hill's credit, it might be a bigger sleight-of-hand than anything we actually see on screen.