“THE STING” (1973) Review
Whenever film critics or film fans bring up the subject of Best Picture Oscar winners during the 1970s, the topic usually turned to movies like 1975s “ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO NEST”. But the two main Oscar winners usually discussed are the“GODFATHER” movies – 1972’s “THE GODFATHER” and 1974’s “THE GODFATHER – PART II”. The 1973 Oscar winner, “THE STING” is sometimes remembered . . . but not always with the same reverence. At least it seems that way to me.
“THE STING”, which was a caper film set during the middle of the Great Depression, reunited stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford with director George Roy Hill. The latter had directed the pair in the 1969 biopic Western, “BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID”. In “THE STING”, Newman and Redford portrayed a pair of grifters who set out to con a vicious crime boss who had ordered the death of a friend. Screenwriter David S. Ward was inspired by the careers of grifters Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose exploits were featured in David Maurer’s book, “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man”.
The movie begins in 1936 Joliet, Illinois; in which three grifters – Johnny Hooker, Luther Coleman and Joe Erie – con an unsuspecting victim out of $11,000 in cash. Both Hooker and Erie discover from a corrupt cop named Lieutenant Synder that they had conned a numbers racket courier, who was carrying the $11,000 for a vicious crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan. Even worse, Lonnegan has discovered their identity and sent hit men to kill them. The killers manage to murder Coleman before Johnny and Joe can split up. On Coleman’s advice, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff, a world-class grifter hiding from the F.B.I. in Chicago with his girlfriend, Billie, who runs a brothel in the city. Hooker asks Gondorff’s help in getting revenge for Luther’s death. Although reluctant to pull a con against the crime boss, Gondorff decides to use an elaborate and supposedly obsolete scam known as “the wire”, using a crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor. Hooker eventually discovers that both Lonnegan’s hitmen and Lieutenant Synder have tracked him to Chicago, and he has to maintain a step ahead of them in order to keep Gondorff’s scam on track.
While watching “THE STING”, I found myself wondering if there was anything about it that did not appeal to me. I realized that most of my problems with the film were at best, ascetic. Before the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood seemed to have great difficulty in recapturing women’s fashion in the early-to-mid 1930s . . . and that includes hairstyles. In fact, this seemed apparent in “THE STING” regarding the hairstyles for actresses Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss. I hate to say this, but it looked as if Brennan was wearing a wig. And Arliss’ hairstyle reminded me of one worn by women in the 1940s, not the 1930s. Only Sally Kirkland managed to escape this fate. Hmmm . . . you know what? I cannot think of any other flaws in “THE STING”. At least not now. Perhaps I need to watch it again. I could complain about Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s music used in a movie set in the mid-1930s- especially since Joplin’s music dated back at least 30 years before the movie’s setting. But for some reason it worked. It worked. I could write an essay on how songs written at the turn of the 20th century meshed so well in a movie set during the Great Depression. But I cannot explain how this happened, other than movie magic.
However, there is so much to admire in this film. Former 20th Century Fox studio head, Darryl Zanuck, once said that the backbone to any movie is the story. And I heartily agree. Apparently, the producers of “THE STING”, Tony Bill, Julia and Michael Phillips, felt the same about the movie’s screenplay written by David S. Ward. On the surface, “THE STING” is a first-class story about grifters pulling a major con against a crime boss responsible for the death of one of their own. First of all, Ward’s script gave audiences a detailed account of the con pulled by Gondorff, Hooker and the others. Audiences not only got to see the con play out from the beginning to the end, but also its planning stages and unexpected problems. There were three major problems that the grifters had to face – namely Lonnegan’s contract on Hooker for the con that he, Coleman and Erie had pulled; Hooker’s conflict with Detective Synder, who was after the grifter for passing counterfeit money as a bribe to him; and the F.B.I., who seemed to be closing in on Gondorff. And Ward’s screenplay handled all of these plot lines with a seamless skill that led to his Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay.
I can honestly say the same about George Roy Hill’s direction. When Hill won the Best Director Oscar for his work on “THE STING”, he had responded that with Newman, Redford and Ward’s script; he could not lose. But I have come across a good number of movies that possessed a first-rate cast and a decent script. Yet, these films still managed to result in pure crap. Another director could have screwed up with the cast and script given, but Hill did not. Instead, he transformed quality material – the cast, the crew and the script – into Oscar gold. He also injected a great deal of oomph into the movie’s storytelling by shooting it with a “Saturday Evening Post style” that included page turning chapter headings and graphics. He and cinematographer Robert Surtees imitated the flat camera style of the old Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, which included ending each scene with a slide across the screen or a circular motion. The most interesting thing about Hill’s direction is that he managed to inject the desperate air of the Great Depression in a movie that is generally regarded as somewhat light froth. And that is a hell of a thing to accomplish. Both Newman and Redford had expressed great admiration toward Hill’s stylized direction and his firm handling of the movie during its production. After watching the movie for the umpteenth time, I can see why they held him in such high regard.
Looking at “THE STING”, I am still amazed that aside from a few locations around Southern California and Chicago, most of it was filmed on the Universal Studios lot. As a Southern Californian, I have seen those backlot locations during many visits to the studio. But I am still amazed at how Bob Warner’s special effects, the film’s art department, James W. Payne’s Oscar winning set decorations and Robert Surtees’ cinematography made me forget about the studio lot locations and convince me that I had transported back to Depression-era Chicago and Joliet. I could also say the same about Edith Head’s costume designs, which led to her winning an Academy Award. But Albert Whitlock’s visual effects – especially his matte paintings – really gave this movie its unique visual style, as shown below:
I am happy to say that Whitlock also won an Academy Award.
“THE STING” marked the second screen teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It seems a damn shame they never shot other films together, because those two are magic as a team. Hell, they were magic period. Newman was perfect as Henry Gondorff. He did a great job in portraying who proved that despite his world weary attitude, he was still the master grifter capable of operation a first-rate con job, acting as mentor to less experienced grifters and handling unexpected problems. I especially enjoyed the sly air that Newman injected into the character and one particular scene in which his Gondorff emotionally manipulated the Doyle Lonnegan character. Someone once claimed that Robert Redford was wrong for the Jay Gatsby character, because his personal background and “golden boy” looks prevented him from understanding the air of desperation that drove Fitzgerald’s character. I disagree. In fact, I would point to Redford’s portrayal of Johnny Hooker in “THE STING” as an example of why that particular criticism is utter bullshit. He did a beautiful job of conveying Hooker’s impatience, addiction to gambling and more importantly, air of desperation – traits that led him into trouble with Lonnegan and Stryder in the first place.
Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Red Grant is considered one of the best James Bond villains of all time. Frankly, I found his portrayal of crime boss Doyle Lonnegan to be a lot more scary. Lonnegan must have been one of the most chaotic characters that the actor had portrayed. On one hand, Lonnegan seemed to be the epitome of the cold-blooded businessman, who did not suffer the loss of even one penny. At the same time Shaw was excellent in portraying the gangster’s pride and hair-trigger temper that led him into moments of recklessness. “THE STING” was the first movie that ever made me take notice of actress Eileen Brennan . . . and this was seven years before her Oscar-nominated performance in “PRIVATE BENJAMIN”. I thought she gave a very sly and sexy performance as Gondorff’s grifter/madam girlfriend, Billie. This was especially apparent in one scene in which she was forced to deal with Lieutenant Synder, who was searching for Hooker. Speaking of Synder, this role marked the first major one on film for Charles Durning. I thought he did a marvelous job as the vindictive and crooked Joliet cop. Durning did an excellent job in conveying Synder’s venal nature in a very subtle manner.
Both Ray Walston and Harold Gould gave very entertaining performances as two of Gondorff’s trusted men – J.J. Singleton and Kid Twist. Walston injected a good deal of sardonic humor that I found particularly fun to watch. And Gould gave a very elegant performance as the charming Twist. Jack Kehoe, who was also in 1988’s “MIDNIGHT RUN”, did an excellent job of portraying Hooker’s loyal, yet slightly nervous partner, Joe Erie. Kehoe was especially effective in the one scene in which Erie had a brief conversation with Lonnegan during the con. I suspect a good number of people would be surprised to learn that Robert Earl Jones, who portrayed Luther Coleman, was the father of actor James Earl Jones. After watching the father’s performance as the aging grifter who served as Hooker’s mentor, it is easy to see from whom the junior Mr. Earl Jones had inherited his talent. Robert Earl Jones, despite a screen time of twenty minutes or less, gave a first-rate performance as the doomed elderly grifter.
What else can I say about “THE STING”? I managed to spot a flaw or two. But right, I cannot think of any more flaws. I would have to watch the movie again. However, between the film’s visual artistry, Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s music, David S. Ward’s excellent screenplay and the first-rate cast led by Paul Newman and Robert Redford; director George Roy Hill created magic. And it is due to this magic that “THE STING” remains one of my favorite movies of all time, to this day.
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