Thursday, February 10, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #46: The Sting (1973)
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw
Why is it that, as moviegoers, we are about to be treated to Martin Lawrence’s third outing in a fat suit but only had two opportunities to enjoy the collaboration between director George Roy Hill and actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford? It’s just not right. The Sting is the second of those collaborations (the first being the also excellent Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the winner of 1973’s Best Picture, and a smart and stylish film that hasn’t lost an ounce of spark.
Set during the Depression, The Sting centers on Johnny Hooker (Redford), a small time grifter who can’t manage to get ahead without immediately blowing his winnings at the gambling tables. His former partner, Luther (Robert Earl Jones), encourages him to track down Henry Gondorff (Newman), a legendary con man who can teach him how to run “the big con” and finally make a score so big that even he can’t run through it in a day. Before Hooker can find Gondorff, however, he discovers that his last mark was a courier for Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a fierce crime boss whose goons murder Luther, and that Hooker is next on the hit list. This also puts him on the radar of crooked cop Snyder (Charles Durning), who wants a cut of the money Hooker scammed from Lonnegan.
While dodging all kinds of nefarious characters, Hooker finds Gondorff, who reluctantly agrees to try to scam Lonnegan using a con known as “the wire,” which involves a large number of con artists and a fake betting parlour. Hooker and Gondorff go about setting Lonnegan up, which requires Gondorff to pose as a bookie named Shaw and Hooker to pose as an unhappy underling named Kelly and then gain Lonnegan’s trust by convincing him that together they will scam Shaw (Lonnegan, having never met Hooker, doesn't realize that Hooker and Kelly are the same person). Though Lonnegan throws a few curve balls that force the team to make some quick shifts to their plan, things proceed on track until Snyder drags Hooker into a meeting with the FBI, who convince Hooker that it would be in his best interest to help them arrest Gondorff. As the story approaches its climax, Lonnegan is on track to lose a ton, Gondorff is set to get busted, and the mysterious assassin Salino is determined to kill Hooker.
There are films that you can watch without completely playing attention and there are films that you have to watch with a keen eye. The Sting is the latter type, not only because of the elaborate nature of the central plot but also because there are so many subplots woven into that main plot; the story is something of a juggling act but nary a ball gets dropped. The screenplay by David S. Ward (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) is really strong, breaking the con up into chapters which denote each phase of the scheme and laying things out in such a way that you can follow what’s going on, but without simplifying it so much that you can’t believe the mark would fall for it. There are plenty of twists and turns, some you can detect before they’re revealed, but others that are kept well enough under wraps that there’s an element of surprise. I think the scene in which the identity of Salino is revealed is particularly well constructed and executed and indicative of the level of craft at play throughout the film.
Of the actors only Redford received an Oscar nomination for this film (to date his only acting nomination), but Newman is equally excellent and both deliver performances that find the right medium between drama and comedy to help set the tone for this tightly plotted caper. As the mark, Shaw renders a terrific supporting performance, crafting Lonnegan so that he’s menacing enough to be believable as a crime lord, but also so openly greedy that it’s believable that he can be taken. To be a good con man, one must possess the ability to read people and the film itself is a great observer of the characters and does a great job at breaking down their weaknesses and showing how those weaknesses can be turned into weapons against them. It isn’t simply a slick film; it’s a very smart one and though it’s arguably not quite as good as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it’s definitely in the same rarefied league.