I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1973 winner, The Sting, directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw. I first watched this movie about a decade ago and had not watched it since.
The Sting is the first real con movie and inspired many imitators. The fun comes from watching this elaborate plot unfold and trying to figure out what's going to happen next.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, and A Touch of Class. The Sting also won Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Scoring Original Song Score or Adaptation), and Best Writing (Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced).
The movie is based on the exploits of Charley and Fred Gondorf, who engaged in a similar con, both of whom did time in Sing Sing. Information came from the book The Big Con by David W. Maurer.
As the film opens, we meet Johnny Hooker (Redford), a smalltime con man who crosses the wrong guy, criminal banker Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). After Lonnegan's men kill Hooker's partner, he finds himself on the run and anxious for revenge.
To get even, he seeks the assistance of seasoned con man Henry Gondorff (Newman), who used to run big cons until he got into trouble and went into hiding. The plot they put together is a major operation, involving dozens of hired actors, setting up elaborate fake locations, and finagling their way into restricted areas to gain access to crucial information. There are a lot of moving pieces, and a lot that could go wrong. The audience watches anxiously, wondering if they can possibly pull it off.
Watching the movie again after so long, I was surprised once again by the ending, and pleased. That's the best part of a con movie is getting conned, and every con movie since The Sting has tried to achieve the same result, many of them unsuccessfully. After all, it's become a trope of the con movie, that key information is kept from the audience so that they can be surprised.
The Sting is more about the plot than it is about anything else. Even so, the on-screen chemistry between Redford and Newman helped to drive the film. It's easy to get drawn into caring for those characters and wanting them to succeed.
Great attention was paid to sets and costuming, hence the Oscar wins in those categories. The film is set in the 1930s, and the director received some criticism for using ragtime music (which comes from the early 1900s), rather than 1930s jazz. But according to the making-of documentary that accompanied the movie on the DVD, the director wanted music that was playful. Unlike many other movies, no music underlies the action. Instead, it's played between scenes, which draws more attention to the music. Because of that, Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" became an unlikely pop hit. In fact, few people can listen to that song today without thinking of The Sting.
While The Sting is a much lighter film than those that typically win Best Picture, it's a well-executed film. Don't forget: the movie came out during the height of the Watergate scandal, with the president of the United States being linked to shady, illegal activities in an effect to win reelection. I'm sure that audiences enjoyed watching a blustery crook get his comeuppance.
Incidentally, Lonnegan's limp came from the fact that Shaw injured his ankle before the production. He got the part of Lonnegan after Richard Boone and another actor declined it.
Writer David S. Ward got the idea for the movie while research pickpockets for another movie. Researching this, Ward found himself reading about con artists, which gave him the idea for the outline. He shared it with Tony Bill, who liked it immediately and brought in Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; the three then produced both films.
Ward wrote the script with Robert Redford in mind as Hooker, but Redford initially turned down the part, saying, he didn't expect the movie to be a hit. Hill saw the screenplay by accident and asked for the director's job. He showed the projects to Newman, who was pleased to join the project.
While Hill wanted to film the picture on location, but art director Henry Bumstead felt it would be too hard to get the period appearance right. Ultimately, the only location shooting was a few days' worth in Chicago and Los Angeles; most of the exteriors were filmed on Universal's back lot.
That's the secret to enjoying The Sting. Don't expect major drama (although there are a few darker moments), and don't expect anything terribly deep. Just expect to have a good time, and you won't be disappointed. And remember, too, that all the con movies made in the last three decades owe a debt to this film.
Rating (4 out of 5): ****
A well-crafted movie doesn't have to have any serious purpose.