Wednesday, February 1, 2012

THE STING (1973)


Sandwiched between the victories for the first two GODFATHER movies, George Roy Hill's THE STING is a good natured period piece made in the classic Hollywood style, complete with likable stars and a fun story.  While it is perhaps a trifle too light weight, it's still highly entertaining.  Its victory also marked the first time that a woman ever won an Oscar for Best Picture; the late Julia Phillips, who in 1991 famously penned a scandalous Hollywood memoir, YOU'LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN.
Screenwriter David S Ward first came up with the idea for THE STING while researching con artists for his first film, STEELYARD BLUES.  Loosely basing his script on the real life exploits of  brothers Charlie and Fred Gondorf, Ward wrote with Robert Redford in mind for the lead role of John Hooker.  Director Hill liked the script, and eventually he and Ward convinced  Redford to star.  Hill also brought along Paul Newman to play veteran card sharp Henry Gondorff; it seemed like a logical choice since it was Hill who had brought the two handsome stars together in 1969's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and their immediate, easy going chemistry had made that film a critical and commercial hit.  Although set in Chicago, creating the 1930's setting proved easier to do on sets in Los Angeles, except for a few exterior shots. The  shooting process went easily, and the film opened on Christmas day 1973.  Not surprisingly, it became an immediate hit, grossing over 160 million dollars on a budget of around five.
Set in 1936, its the story of John Hooker (Redford), a small time grifter who, with his partner Luther  (Robert Earl Jones), tricks a man on the street out of ten thousand dollars.  Unfortunately, the money belonged to big time gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who has Luther killed.  John teams up with well known con man Henry Gondorff to get vengeance on Doyle; using a large gang, they set up an elaborate fake gambling parlor to trick Doyle.  Meanwhile, corrupt cop Lt. Synder (Charles Durning) is pressuring Hooker for money. 

Paul Newman and Robert Redford

This really is a fun movie, with lots of nice touches; from Edith Head's Oscar winning costumes to the great looking sets and sepia toned cinematography, not to mention the clever use of old hand drawn title cards, (made to look like Norman Rockwell paintings), to set up the story.  Hill said that he got the idea of using the music of Scott Joplin in the film after overhearing his son playing some in his room, and while a stickler may note that Joplin's music predated the film's setting by about twenty years, who cares when Joplin's arrangements are played so wonderfully by Marvin Hamlisch on the soundtrack, and add such a jaunty air to the film.
In keeping with the lighthearted tone, Redford and Newman never take themselves too seriously and rely on their natural charms to carry the film.  Newman often seems to be having fun here, especially when he rudely berates Doyle while cheating him at cards, meanwhile the more earnest Redford does a good job of using his natural likability to make himself a believable con artist.  And Shaw, with his loud Irish brogue and threatening limp, makes a good villain as  Doyle.  Durning also makes a good, despicable cop.

Robert Shaw

Hill makes sure that the film really zips along (his formula seems to be, whenever the story starts to slow down, have some bad guys start chasing Redford, which happens three times in the film!), and Ward's script comes up with a believable way for our heroes to fleece Doyle  and get rid of Lt. Synder without either of them coming across as total fools, with Newman's Gondorff using a small army of loyal con men to pull the scam off. The film's final twist doesn't really work, since it involves a moment where we are supposed to believe that Hooker has sold out Gondorff; really how many people in the audience would think that a Newman Redford buddy movie could possibly end with one of them backstabbing the other.  Still, this is a minor point that hardly hurts the film.
Overall, I do prefer the first paring of Newman and Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, over this film, because that film had a historical heft and themes (the ending of the old west) that the more lightweight THE STING does not have.  Still, both films are a delight to watch, and I often wish the two stars made more films together.


While I praise this film quite highly, I can't quite say that I think it was the best film of that year.  Not when George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Peter Bogdanovich's PAPER MOON(another movie about con artists), William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (perhaps the best horror movie ever made), Bob Raphelson's THE LAST DETAIL and Bernardo Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS were all also released then.  But, I can't say that THE STING is a bad choice.