Judge Clark Douglas wishes his life were underscored with Scott Joplin tunes.
All it takes is a little Confidence.
"Luther said I could learn some things from you. I already know how to drink."
Facts of the Case
Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford, Spy Game) is a skilled con man who has generally been contented with targeting small, relatively easy marks. However, after his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, The Cotton Club) is murdered, Johnny determines to undertake an immensely complicated con in order to strike back at the mob boss (Robert Shaw, Jaws) responsible for Luther's death. He teams up with Luther's old pal Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman, The Hustler), a once-great con man who has been reduced to a tired alcoholic. Johnny's presence and skill proves an inspiration to Henry, who begins the process of gathering a large team of professional crooks. Can this makeshift band of thieves take down a powerful mob outfit? More importantly, can they pull off the task without giving into the temptation to betray each other along the way?
So much of George Roy Hill's The Sting has been borrowed by popular culture that the film will undoubtedly feel more than a little familiar to 21st Century viewers checking it out for the first time. It's one of the key ancestors of con movies and buddy movies, and countless films have borrowed aspects of its lovably crooked characters, its segmented structural design and its narrative sleight of hand. However, the many imitations haven't dampened The Sting's ability to entertain, as few (if any) movies since have done this sort of thing quite so well.
One element of the film that remains entirely unique is Hill's amusing period design, which delivers a stylized and gloriously nostalgic take on America during the 1930s. It's doubtful that the version of America The Sting presents ever existed, but it's such a distinctive and memorable place that it might as well have. The characters seem to have wandered in from a Damon Runyan novel, the soundtrack is dominated by turn-of-the-century Scott Joplin rags (re-arranged and revived in memorable fashion by Marvin Hamlisch) and film is fond of covering certain images in a sepia-toned haze ala Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (a clever move on Hill's part, as it suggests early on that the film might be something much different than what it actually turns out to be).
We're generally a step or two behind the complex plot The Sting offers, but we're supposed to be. One of the film's pleasures is attempting to assess the motivations of each character from scene to scene—is this guy actually getting cornered, or is this all part of the con? Even though modern audiences have been trained in the art of watching movies about con men (always expect a twist!), The Sting will still undoubtedly manage to throw a few surprises at even the most attentive viewers.
Many period movies feel unconvincing because the actors seem less like people of the era than like actors who have just wandered onto a fancy, old-fashioned set. One of the great virtues of The Sting is that it feels like the characters have been hanging out in this joyfully seedy world for ages. There are so many lovingly-drawn bit players littered throughout the film, from Robert Earl Jones (who looks and sounds uncannily like his son James Earl) as Redford's exuberant initial partner to Charles Durning (The Hudsucker Proxy) as a cantankerous cop to Eileen Brennan (Murder by Death) as Henry's world-weary confidante to Harold Gould (Patch Adams) as a genial grifter. Having such rich characters littered throughout the film ensures that the film never turns tedious when it's focusing on the mechanics of the con.
Of course, Newman and Redford are the core of the film's charm, and their chemistry together is every bit as appealing as it was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford brings both the youthful cockiness and intelligent wariness his role requires; few leading men have been able to pull off Redford's combination of movie star magnetism and subtle understatement. Newman gets to have the most fun, frequently stealing scenes in the background and delivering some killer comic material during a lengthy sequence in which he poses as a boorish Chicago bookie. The two stars have a relaxed rapport that is a pleasure to behold. Special mention should also go to Robert Shaw as the villainous Doyle Lonnegan. In a film loaded with lovable crooks, Lonnegan is a genuinely scary bad guy. He's essayed by Shaw with murderous intensity; there's a genuine air of danger that surrounds the character. It's a lot of fun to see Shaw's ferocious brand of villainy constantly threaten to crush the film's amiable vibe.
The Sting (Blu-ray) has received a reasonably satisfying 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. While the image is rarely stunning (in fact, certain sequences look particularly soft), the image looks dramatically better and brighter than ever before. The main concern for most videophiles will be the employment of DNR—while it's not employed excessively, it's clear that the image has been scrubbed a little bit. Even so, the film's original grain structure is still present to a large degree, so I doubt most viewers will be too bothered. On the positive side, the brighter colors have a lot of pop, and the level of depth is impressive as well. Flesh tones are warm and natural throughout. I have no complaints with the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which delivers that memorable Hamlisch/Joplin score with vigorous clarity and captures all of the dialogue quite well. Scenes that deliver detailed ambience have been beautifully preserved and mixed. While the film doesn't have any thunderous material to give your speakers a workout, what's here is quite strong.
Supplements are highlighted by the hour-long "The Art of The Sting" documentary (divided into three parts entitled "The Perfect Script," "Making a Masterpiece" and "The Legacy"). You also get a trio of the by-now-familiar Universal-centric featurettes making the rounds on assorted 100th Anniversary releases: "Restoring the Classics," "The Lot" and "The 70s." Finally, there's a trailer, a DVD copy, Pocket Blu, BD-Live and an attractive digibook package containing full-color pages with the usual supply of photos, behind-the-scenes info and more.
Nearly forty years after its initial release, The Sting is still a distinctive pleasure. An enjoyably twisty plot, fantastic period design, a terrific score, a rich supporting cast, and two acting legends at the top of their game—what more can you ask for?
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