Judge Ryan Keefer wondered why the guy from The Police would change his name like that, but then he came to his senses, and realized that were good films made before he was born.
"Luther said I could learn some things from you. I already know how to drink."
The Sting ranks fairly high in the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 Favorites at # 71. It won seven out of ten Academy Award nominations. After an initial release that was a dreadful full frame release, Universal has re-released the film in anamorphic widescreen as part of its "Legacy Series." Is it worthy of the title?
Facts of the Case
In the midst of the '70s revolution of independent films and filmmakers, and the rise of directors like Hal Ashby and William Friedkin who managed to make quality films outside the big studio production chain, a film written by David Ward (Sleepless in Seattle) and directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) placed him in competition with films like The Exorcist and The Last Detail. The Sting was about 1930s con men and focused on a young, inexperienced pickpocket named Johnny Hooker, who, with the help of some friends, manages to steal several thousand dollars from a well-connected "legitimate" businessman. The businessman, named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, Jaws) was more than a little put off by the robbery, and conspires to get Johnny and his accomplices killed. Johnny gets away and finds an older semi-retired con man named Henry Gondorff, and the two set out on putting together a elaborate scam to not only take more of Lonnegan's money, but also as revenge for Lonnegan's brutal murder of their friend, Luther.
Hill, reunited with his Butch Cassidy co-stars Robert Redford (who played Johnny) and Paul Newman (who played Henry) bring back the chemistry that came from their work several years before. Adding a more than qualified supporting cast that included Ray Walston (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Charles Durning (North Dallas Forty) and Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin), just to name a few, generated outstanding performances. As arguably the last of the big studio films that still had a collaborative environment in it before the money stood on top of the mountain, The Sting racked in over $150 million dollars in 1973. And if you adjust that for inflation kids, it's made more money than Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Two things that a cops and robbers or caper film must do with some level of competency are to get the viewer involved in the scam that's going on, and to give the viewer engaging dialogue that helps to immerse them in the experience. In Ward's screenplay, you are so involved in the con, that when there are some changes or swerves in the road, even though you don't see them coming, they are subtly self-evident upon review. And the lines are full of depression-era slang, with talk about not getting caught by "G-Men" or the "Knights of Columbus." Some people may think it's a bit easy to accept the premise of the story and the script, but the movie is extremely enjoyable, regardless of your point of view. With Hill's direction, he manages to get quality performances from both stars. If there is a perspective to identify with, it's definitely Redford's, as he spends the most time on screen. Through his troubles with a corrupt police detective (Durning), learning the scam from Newman and getting Lonnegan on the hook, he does it with professionalism and some occasional anxiety, which is calmed by the crew that Newman has put together. An unexpected change in plans by Lonnegan actually results in an enjoyable turn during the scam, and helps to involve you further in the story. As Henry, Newman is great as the gin-soaked drunk who knows that revenge to get money is a fleeting emotion, but to do it for the right moral reasons may be more enjoyable than anything else. Durning and Brennan have an exchange in Newman's hideout that should be required viewing for any cop interrogation today for the character's interaction. And as the mark, Shaw portrays Lonnegan with a bluntness that other film villains of present day should have, and his glare is so intense it's liable to burn holes into metal. During the poker game that he and Newman have, if put into a modern-day film, Shaw would have shot Newman in the head based on Newman's behavior, long before the players agree to a break. As it stands, the menacing looks he provides his defining physical element for his character, no matter how many rivals he wants to have killed at his command.
All in all, for all the adulation that movie fans have given the other films released around this time (and the adulation is legitimate), many people seem to forget that The Sting is a very engaging film. It helped set the stage for films like The Usual Suspects and The Grifters, along with possibly some of the recent British crime films that have been released. The Sting, combined with Chinatown, are wonderful nostalgic looks at previous eras in Americana, and it's nice to see it get the proper video treatment it deserved after all these years.
With the picture being "digitally remastered" along with a "completely restored audio" selection, Universal has clearly done the film proud. Aside from finally seeing the film in its original aspect ratio, it looks like a new transfer has been created, making the film look breathtaking. Clearly, it's the best the film has ever looked, and quite possibly the best that it will look, all things considered. Along with retaining the original mono track, the film boasts separate Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 sound mixes that reproduce Hamlisch's score vividly and without issue. The Scott Joplin music was an elementary school flashback from previous years, it sounded that clear.
With the film having a wide variety of sound choices on the first disc, the second disc holds a relatively small amount of extras. Universal framed The Sting as one of three films in what can only be assumed Universal's way of treating classic films. In its Legacy Series, it would be reasonable to expect that the movie would be given a "bells and whistles" treatment similar to what Warner Brothers has done to films like Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur. And while the packaging looks nice from an aesthetic point of view, the supplements are a bit lacking. Aside from a trailer and a few pages of production notes (which has at least one spelling error in them), the only other feature here is entitled The Art of The Sting. It's broken down into three segments, or you can play the whole thing, which covers just under an hour. Featuring recent interviews with Newman, Redford, Brennan and others, each discuss the story, the film and the actors in it. Newman and Redford discuss their relationship and what they thought of Hill. They also talk about the fun they had on the set, and the film's impact on them since they shot it. It's hard to tell just how "new" these interviews are, as Walston (one of the participants) died in 2001, but it's a nice look at the film by those who are still around to talk about it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Similar films such as The Grifters have almost seemed to leave The Sting feeling a bit dated. But the fact of the matter is, the film has a great story with some really cool lines in it. While there weren't any individual acting performances that received awards (Redford's was the only one to be nominated), the fact that it still won seven awards is a testament to just how much attention was put into the film, from script to screen.
The film is a classic and even though The Exorcist has had the greater impact on audiences three decades later, The Sting combines a good story with great dialogue and sharp performances with outstanding production details. Then there's the score, which is memorable in its own right.
The Sting and the filmmakers are found not guilty, the work is excellent and is worth revisiting. Universal is found guilty of their substandard production of this new edition. Presenting a film in its original aspect ratio is an expectation, not an extra; they must work harder on similar releases for any reduction of sentence.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Art of the Sting" Retrospective Featurette
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