February 20, 2021Series
Part of the joy of The Sting is going along for the ride as it all unfolds. So I'll go light on the plot details here, beyond the fact that Robert Redford plays Johnny Hooker, an incorrigible flirt with impulse control issues who also happens to be a preternaturally gifted grifter. He connects with Paul Newman's Henry Gondorff - a long con veteran behind whose blue eyes (and trust me, they are SO. BLUE.) you'll find an exceptionally astute judge of character and a probable three-dimensional chess champion. Backed by a rollicking ragtime score (thank you Scott Joplin!) and a crack team of supporting players, they work together to set up a monster scam on Robert Shaw's Doyle Lonnegan.
I have seen this movie many, many times through the years, and it holds up extremely well, even under repeated examination. The script and plot are TIGHT - you might find a quibble or two once you've seen it as often as I have, but on the whole the entire scheme holds up beautifully, there are no significant holes to overlook. That's important because so much of the pleasure of this movie is believing that these people are very, very good at what they do. I'm already on record as a fan of competence porn - and especially in a world when so much seems uncertain, it's a great escape to watch people who work collectively to take down a bad guy, problem solve (in advance and on the fly) calmly and efficiently, and look so good doing it.
The Sting is set in 1936 Chicago, and the effects of The Depression are clear. The street scenes include bread lines, homeless, general despair. That makes the opulence of Lonnegan's surroundings that much more galling - as a criminal he makes a lot of his money off the desperation of the era, so you're predisposed to dislike him, even before you get a load of his personality. I'm no expert in the 30s, but to my untrained eye all the props whether in the drug stores, diners, gambling halls or brothels provide an authenticity that makes The Sting a really immersive experience. When you add Edith Head's costumes (pinstriped suits, and hats - oh the hats!) you feel really transported.
It would be hard to root for Newman and Redford, despite their many charms, if their marks were the poor or vulnerable. But in The Sting the protagonists only punch up, and some of their most important tools involve using their "victims" own greed and cruelty against them. They are also PERFECTLY willing to create illusions. The other guy gets to think he's smarter than them, our heroes pretend not to notice, and slide even more of the scam under the smirks of their antagonists. It's extremely satisfying.
The actors had had a huge hit just a few years before in 1969's Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. It was the top-grossing film released that year, so it's not surprising that folks would want to get the band back together for another go around. The temptation of all that money, though, can often lead to bad choices (I'm thinking about Neighbors, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's disappointing follow up to the vastly superior The Blues Brothers, as just one example). It's hard to catch lightning in a bottle even once, so going for twice can seem foolhardy.
But the Newman/Redford chemistry is completely intact here, and it's backed up by best-in-class everything else (script, score, cast, direction). This was the last movie they made together, and I don't know how they could have topped it. They're great together (their first meeting is awesome - Newman is hungover, Redford is unimpressed and mouthy). But they're also great separately. Newman has an incredible performance as a loutish drunk who gets under Lonnegan's skin in an on-train poker game. His entrance line is one of my mom's favorite movie moments of all time, and I only wish you could hear her laugh every time she hears it. Redford's character is kind of a mess, but he knows it. He spends a lot of the film staying one step ahead of the reaper, but wow he does it with style. I swear the way he brandishes his hats should be used as a master class in using props to convey character (in his case, everything from insouciance to resignation to exhilaration). Based on screen time, Redford really has the lead role, but they're both consummate movie stars - it's impossible to look away from either of them.
It's hard not to be delighted by the idea that Newman's character, at any time, can command an army of scam artists. They have names like Kid Twist and Curly Jackson. Harold Gould's Twist and Ray Walston's JJ are fantastic in what essentially amount to lieutenants roles. On the other side of the fight are Charles Durning's dirty cop Snyder, and Lonnegan's thuggish sidekick Floyd (played by character actor Charles Dierkop), each bringing different kinds of smarm and menace to their roles. I wish there was more diversity in the cast, although we do get some time with Eileen Brennan (who classes up the joint by a factor of ten every time she shows up). In fact, although I'm generally DEAD SET against remakes, I could be persuaded to be interested in one with more women and people of color. It would be great for a different type of cast to get to have this kind of fun.
And bottom line, this movie is so much fun. It's cunningly crafted and its two hour, nine minute run time practically flies by. You'll be left wanting more, but as one of my favorite characters in Anne of Green Gables says "Enough is as good as a feast". The Sting is at least a five course meal. Dig in and enjoy!
The Sting isn't currently available on any of the streaming services I have (and I have practically all of them) but you can rent it for $3.99 on either Amazon Prime or Apple TV. That is a lot of entertainment for four dollars!
Content Warning for racial epithets and brief episodes of violence.
Two Hours, Nine Minutes