The Sting (1973)
I put it all on Lucky Dan. Half a million dollars to win!
Conman Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) joins forces with the master of the game, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), in order to get revenge for his murdered friend resulting in a ridiculously complex con and a lot of Scott Joplin music.
Why We Love It
The Sting represents the second pairing of Redford with Newman after they worked together on Butch Cassidy, and if there was any doubt that the two make a brilliant team, this movie cements it as fact. What a fantastic film. That kind of chemistry between two leading actors is incredibly rare, and when you place it firmly in a clever, very fun story, it creates a film that will be remembered for as long as the medium exists. It also garners a few Oscar wins if you’re into that sort of thing.
For one thing, the movie is just cool as hell. It’s buried deep in the effortless slick world of cheating people out of money, being gunned down in the street, and wearing fedoras, but instead of looking dark and dangerous, it’s shot with a broad daylight look that makes it seem more realistic. It’s day-to-day. It seems odd to think of a gangster or grifter film as looking better in the warm scope of the sun, but there’s something really genius about avoiding all that angst. After all, Redford can get serious when he needs to be, but mostly we need to see him pulling one over on marks and smiling that shit-eating grin of his.
Add to the brilliance of Redford and the stone cold cool of Newman (which Pitt and Clooney only dreamed of mirroring for the Ocean’s movies), one of the most interesting con stories put to film. It’s got heart and moxy, dealing with the macabre reality of the gang world with the sort of Americana sensibility that you might expect a movie about how gosh-darn great it is to live in 1940s American suburbs to have. Hooker’s partner is killed, sure, but he deals with it using a level-head instead of taking the audience down a darker emotional path. Meanwhile, he’s sneaking out of bathroom windows, running down alley streets, and running an intensely complex con job on the notorious, deadly gang head Doyle Lonnegan (played beautifully by Robert Shaw). And how does one do that? You gain his confidence, start feeding him information about horse races, and then create a violent misunderstanding that snakes a ton of his money away. It also helps if you make fun of his limp.
I first saw this movie when I was in middle school, learning how to play the piano, and something about how confident and slick the characters were against the backdrop of Scott Joplin’s ragtime rhythms made me really dig in. Not only did the movie win Best Picture (over some strong competition from American Graffiti and The Exorcist), it also won for Best Music by showcasing the sounds of a time where the best musicians were playing the most technically proficient, most popular tunes.
Oh, and not to mention awards for Costume Design, Art Direction, Directing, Film Editing, and Best Writing.
Not that Academy Awards are the end-all, but this is one of the cases that they got right. Over thirty years later, this movie has an unquestionable impact on culture and each person who sees it. It’s infinitely re-watchable even if you don’t find something new to love each time. You can fall in love with it on several levels over and over again.
Moment We Fell in Love
Yet again, it’s almost impossible to choose any one scene that stands out amongst so many great ones. The diner scene where Hooker finally makes a love connection only to barely escape with his life. The iconic back alleyway scene where a man is gunned down in cold blood. The final scene of the con where each strand of intrigue and lies comes together to finally reveal the ingenuity of the scheme.
But, of course, I fell in love during the poker scene.
Paul Newman’s Henry is a mess, acting casual at the table and laying down irritation and good cards until it’s just him and Lonnegan at the table. But Lonnegan has no intention of playing fair, so he breaks to his train compartment, getting his cronies to stack a false deck with 3s and 9s so that Henry gets pulled into thinking he has the winning hand. The bets come hard and fast, and the tension in the room is played to the fullest as cocky lines and silence bend back and forth against the sounds of the train driving ahead. We look down to see Quad Threes in Henry’s hand and Quad Nines in Lonnegan’s as Henry confidently bets more and more into the pot. Even knowing the outcome, it still gets me every single time.
The Sting is a timeless classic that has something that most films, even classics, don’t have: the essence that makes it fun to watch no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Somehow, director George Roy Hill created a film that works both as a popcorn flick, as a thoughtful character study, and as a showcase of grand storytelling. Not an easy task to pull off. And one that isn’t usually pulled off at all. From the costumes right down to the look and feel of old town Chicago, you could discuss the movie on a deeper level, but damn if it isn’t a ridiculously fun ride. The key is the pairing of Redford and Newman acting with some of the best talent in the business costuming them, dropping them into a world that could have seemed cheesy in lesser hands, and enveloping them in music as frantic, complex and lighthearted as the characters themselves and the long con they mastermind.
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