Chicago, the Great Depression. Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and his long time cohort Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) run an unexpectedly successful street hustle, unwittingly grabbing thousands of dollars from a foot soldier of Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan, who was on his way to drop the money off. Lonnegan decides to send a message by having Luther killed and Hooker knows his card is marked too. Vowing revenge, Hooker joins forces with Paul Newman’s veteran con-artist Henry Gondorff to plan and execute the eponymous sting on Lonnegan, but the police and FBI are closing in on everyone and Hooker may have to betray Gondorff to save his own neck.
Evidence that every now and then the Oscars do get it right, The Sting’s win for Best Picture in 1974, even up against Friedkin’s The Exorcist, was wholly merited. Although written by a relatively untried screenwriter (David S. Ward) who had one solitary script in production and was pretty much fresh out of UCLA’s film school, the screenplay is an object lesson in how to thread together a narrative that entertains the audience, keeps them guessing, makes them care and balances seriousness with a light touch.
Obviously matters are aided no end by the lashings of star quality brought to bear by Redford and Newman, reunited here with George Roy Hill who directed them to such great effect in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but stars and imperious directors will aid you not a jot if your script is sub-par. Further top-drawer character support is provided by Robert Shaw (Jaws, From Russia With Love), Charles Durning and James Earl Jones’ dad (you can hear it in the voice), but the film’s greatest strength remains that screenplay.
Heralded by the film’s producer Michael Phillips (who would go on to produce Taxi Driver and Close Encounters) as “to this day the best script I’ve ever read”, it is genuinely flawless. Often, these exercises in bluff and double bluff, especially where you are trying to hoodwink the audience as well, can backfire with an end product that is clever but cold, the audience feeling manipulated and unengaged. In this case, the characterisation is so strong, the rapport between the actors so effortless, the ruthlessness of the antagonists so compelling, that you feel instantly and unrelentingly drawn in.
Although the film shares its milieu and some of its themes (and costumes) with Bonnie & Clyde, it does not have the same freewheeling pace as that late-1960′s classic, nonetheless The Sting moves through the gears of the story in a careful and sufficiently swift manner. The intricacies of the scam being hatched, essentially tricking Lonnegan into gambling on horse races that have already been run using a nifty time delay ticker-tape, are explained without being belaboured and each character is introduced and fleshed out with admirable economy. No-one feels half-drawn or under-developed and the film keeps plenty of tricks up its sleeve as denouement upon denouement unfolds. But crucially, none of it feels like a cheat and on closer repeat viewings (which are enthusiastically recommended) the subtle tell-tales are there, with the whole film hanging together with impeccable cohesion.
Newman and Redford would both go on to greater commercial and critical glory, the former as one of the greatest actors of his or any other generation, the latter as an unexpectedly accomplished director (Ordinary People, Quiz Show), but it is arguable that no-one has come close to assembling as intelligent, witty and downright enjoyable a con movie as this before or since. Wholeheartedly recommended.
Extras/BR polish: The HD transfer here is absolutely flawless. As part of Universal’s 100-year celebrations they have digitally scanned a vast array of their archived films and brought them bang up date, dealing with faded colours, damaged prints and conspicuous graining. It has all been done very sensitively here, with the film looking at once modern yet unmistakeably of its period. An object lesson in how to do a proper HD transfer.
As for special features, all of the films included in Universal’s 100 year re-release celebrations include a number of featurettes looking everything from the origin of the studio, Carl Laemmle’s background and the studio’s more famous characters, to the process of cleaning up the older and more degraded films and how Universal’s vast backlot has been used for an unexpectedly varied number of films. Who knew, for example, that the courthouse steps for To Kill A Mockingbird went on to be used as the clocktower for Back to the Future? Some of these featurettes are shameless fluff pieces, but there are some fascinating nuggets to be found. There is a making of doc (filmed in 2006) which includes most of the key individuals and covers an awful lot of detail, which in turn renders some of the content from the commentary redundant or at least repetitive, but everything here is well worth checking out.