23 February 2016

Blind Spot 2016: The Sting

There's something inherent in movies about con artists that just work on you, and, when the concept is done well, it is the most rewarding kind of movie experience.

The Sting is that kind of movie experience. It works on its audience very much like the story it tells. Let's just say I spent the better part of the movie at arms length, thinking I might be missing something, rewinding even at times, only to come to realize that nothing was really ever hinted at, or what it seemed, reaching places you knew it would go (because it told you it would) but never, for a second, letting on to how exactly it would get there.

That's good storytelling. And that lies on the back of the perfect mix of screenplay and direction. No wonder this movie cleaned up at the Oscars in the year between The Godfathers. It features a seriously focused, but charismatic script by David S. Ward, a guy who would never write anything better. It is carried by two actors on the back end of their decades long successes as classic leading men in Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Plus, it matches them back up with the helmer of their iconic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in George Roy Hill, the sort of director who made solid pictures but was never much lauded for his style. Even Roger Ebert called this movie "stylish" in his original review.

Everything works together here. It had to.

It's a classic story. Great Depression Era con man, Johnny Hooker (the most dapper Robert Redford there ever was), makes a big score, gambles it away, loses his partner, the legendary Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), only to make his way to the best...Henry Gondorff (a more guarded but equally dapper Paul Newman). Hooker wants the big con, the huge score. And as the pages literally turn, each calculated move in the script announced boldly, the two, and their team of pros, get closer and closer to nailing their mark, the cold cheating Irishman, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Layer after layer introduces us to more and more characters, all valuable to the plot, without us even caring who is in on it and who is not to the point that by the end, when it all becomes so clear just before the credits roll, we have experienced something all in good fun. It's a fun movie, playing as a story of gamblers and cons.

I chose this movie and my January Blind Spot, Rocky, for a simple reason. They are two 1970s Best Picture winners I just hadn't gotten to yet. And, when I think of 1973, a year in which I've seen four of the five nominees (Bergman's Cries and Whispers still escapes me), I am right on with The Sting as the right choice. The Exorcist is surely a masterpiece but one that I don't dare watch again. It's too much. A Touch of Class is a fun romantic comedy, but I am hard-pressed to think there wasn't something better that could've taken its place. American Graffiti is wonderful, but it's been too long since I've seen it. Maybe a tie between those two as of now.

But, yes. The Sting is a deserving winner. It's a perfectly well-made movie of the con game, one that certainly informed later films of that nature. The marriage of the con game and gambling sort of starts for me here, in 1973, alongside Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, another Depression Era con artist story, and leading to some of my favorite films, including David Mamet's House of Games. 

Redford and Newman are a duo of actors made to work together. I can't help but think of the match between Clooney and Pitt in something like Ocean's Eleven. It's good-looking to see them on screen together, and George Roy Hill's perfectly straight-forward direction in combination with the Oscar-winning period art direction of Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne and costumes of Edith Head, the simple, yet deep, frames of cinematographer Robert Surtees, and the also Oscar-winning editing by William Reynolds, together make a film that screams CLASSIC in just about every scene. And that ragtime though. Scott Joplin's "Entertainer." Nothing is better. It's been in my head all week.

Sometimes movies are best when there isn't anything especially profound about them. They just tell a good story that hooks you in, doesn't let up, shifts seamlessly between what we know and what we think we know, and then just lets everything work out in the end. In my recent recap post, Dell of Dell on Movies commented that this movie is "magnificent."

I agree. It is magnificent. Very simply so and for very simple reasons. Sometimes that's all a movie needs to be, simply magnificent. 


  1. Yes! Newman and Redford were made to work together. Very apt comparison between them and the Clooney-Pitt tandem, too. What a wonderful film, this is. Thanks for the link!

  2. Good overview and I'm glad you liked it so much. You're right the movie isn't terribly profound and it's all the better for it, that way the story is streamlined to tell its tale without forcing us to look for deeper meanings and the audience just sits backs and watches. It's also necessary since the con is complex in certain ways so if you aren't paying attention you can lose the skein of the story thread.

    I can see the Clooney/Pitt comparison and it's apt to a point, I like both actors though Clooney has become increasingly self-aware of his charm which diminishes it, but the mega-wattage that Redford & Newman throw off trumps the chemistry the others display.

    As great as they are the film is so full of other wonderful parts, the excellent period details, a perfect villain, Eileen Brennan and most of all the evocative absolutely spot on music, that they are able to be just another piece of the puzzle and not responsible for the complete success of the film.

    As far as it winning Best Picture I don't think it's a terrible winner at all though of the five choices it would be my runner-up to The Exorcist since my choice for best film of the year "The Day of the Jackal" wasn't nominated (it should have been there in place of "A Touch of Class" which I really like but isn't Best Picture material).

    1. Totally. I knew I was watching a con game movie and got in my own way in the beginning. This is a movie to just sit back and experience with full attention. It is just fun. And you can't beat the Newman and Redford pairing.

      Speaking of The Exorcist, William Friedkin just did the WTF Podcast with Marc Maron. It is a great interview. I highly recommend it. I haven't heard of The Day of the Jackal. Need to check that out.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it! One of my favorite films, I love the dialogue and a good story too. The ultimate con artist film and very rewatchable. ”You follow?” is an expression I often use.

    1. Nice! Thanks so much. It really is an all around solid movie.

  4. The Clooney-Pitt comparison totally works if you are talking about all four's good looks! ;)

    1. Of course that's what I'm talking about. Haha.