Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008 as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”
Welcome back to “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.” I was catching up on more recent films over the summer but I’m excited to start a new year of discovering the new in films of old. This year’s first installment examines the 1973 flick The Sting in honor of the death of its star-screen legend and cool customer Paul Newman. Newman stars along with Robert Redford as two Depression-era grafters in Joliet, Illinois, who team up to con a ruthless mob boss.
The Sting starts by doing what every crime caper seems to do by showing the main characters pull a small but clever job, just to set the stage and show us they’re good at what they do. And they are good at what they do. Johnny Hooker (Redford) and his friends scam others partly out of desperation and partly because they enjoy it. They’re like the crew from the “Ocean” movies; they don’t know, or want to know, a life without a gamble and the risk of high reward.
Especially Hooker. He is so anxious to gamble the money he conned from another hapless bystander that he blows it all on a rigged game of craps. His elder and wiser partner-in-crime Luther calls him on it: “You’re a con man and you blew it like a pimp!” With Hooker on the run from a crooked cop, he finds Henry Gondorff (Newman) to enlist in a big con per Luther’s advice. Hooker finds Gondorff snoozing between his bed and the wall after a long night drinking. When Gondorff is sober, Hooker convinces him to try a big con on a big-time mobster.
From there the movie unfolds like a play neatly divided into four acts: the Set-Up, the Hook, the Tale, and the Sting. Each act even has its own title card. If you see The Sting after seeing a lot of modern crime flicks like Matchstick Men and Ocean’s Eleven it will seem predictable. But the truth is to the contrary. Modern-day crime capers owe their existence to the ingenuity of movies like The Sting. The story moves along so fluidly, adding the twists and covers required for a decent crime movie, that the audience doesn’t feel cheated with any new revelation.
But you don’t have to worry about being out of the loop until the very last scene like you are in some mystery films. The Sting lets us know about the con, but doesn’t give out details, so we can watch the bad guys squirm. Once the con is laid out, we can just sit back and enjoy. And enjoyable it is. For winning seven Academy Awards in 1973 (which by all accounts was a light year for film) including Best Picture, The Sting is a lightweight fare. Newman especially seems to just be enjoying himself. He has a few scenes playing drunk which will make you smile.
The mood changes throughout; sometimes there is tragedy, suspense, or drama, but underneath it all there is always comedy. And most of the time it’s not laugh-out-loud. It’s like the entire movie is a joke but the joke-teller never smiles. The merry-go-round in the indoor amusement park Gondorff lives in does all the laughing; when it’s turned on it disguises the fact that the amusement park doubles as a tavern and a brothel.
In many ways, The Sting is the unofficial sequel to the equally funny and thrilling 1969 flick Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both movies share the same leading men, playing similar characters, and director (George Roy Hill) and pull off the same light-mixed-with-heavy dynamic that so many movies today try to duplicate. The characters in both films are criminals, but criminals we want to be friends with.
This wouldn’t be possible without Newman and Redford as the leads. With Newman’s trademark blue eyes and devilish smile and Redford’s con-man good looks, we believe them in their roles and root for them too. Even when the movie runs flat—a rare occurrence—we never give up on it simply because it’s so entertaining. Entertaining like the soundtrack, anchored by Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and other ragtime songs like it. The upbeat music screams irony when it plays over scenes with such bleak surroundings.
The Sting isn’t on any of the American Film Institute Top 100 lists; no matter, it’s still fun, and good. You don’t see that combination too often these days. That’s why, sometimes, you have to dip into the past. There is plenty to see. The Sting is one of many golden oldies sitting on the shelf at Blockbuster that deserve much more attention than the underwhelming bunch of movies in theaters now are getting, so rent it now and give it some love.