The Sting: Our 9th Movie from the 1970s

When Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather came out in 1972, the movie changed the game in Hollywood. For one of the first times in history, the product on the big screen was very artistic, deep, and meaningful. From the lights, to the characters, to the cinematography, and the compelling story of the Corleone family, The Godfather set the new course for cinema in the years to come. I’ve gone over all of this when I wrote about it.

 

But what The Godfather did, too, was change the crime genre. For the first time, crime movies could have all those things that I mentioned above and have terrific artistry. Truly, The Godfather set the standard for beautiful crime movies with meaning.

 

Two years later, The Godfather Part II came out and it was also a stroke of genius. It featured many of the same things that I mentioned above and it was the greatest follow-up to the perfect movie that you could imagine.

 

Without a doubt, 1972 and 1974 stand out in cinema history as two years that saw incredible cinematic achievement from the mind of Hollywood’s great directors, Francis Ford Coppola. But what about the middle year, 1973? Well, The Sting is what happened. The 1973 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture is the middle film in a string of five movies about crime (The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and punishment (The French Connection) that started off the 1970s. The first four of these film were all very good, to be sure. I’ve written about each of them. But The Sting is something different.

 

The world knew that in 1973 that Hollywood could make great movies about criminals, most notably The Godfather. And it’s certainly no secret that The Godfather’s success at the box office helped more movies to be made about criminals. The Sting, however, is what happens when too much greed takes over Hollywood and The Godfather almost begs to be copied so the Tinseltown suits can cash in on that puppy.

 

The Sting, directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, tries too hard to be edgy, smart, and engrossing. Instead, the film is confused about itself, its tone, and has rather flat acting. But it’s not all bad: The Sting is genuinely infuriating to write about because there are parts that I do not like, and there are other parts that I love. That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie. It’s certainly not on par with The Greatest Show on Earth or Driving Miss Daisy, but it just wasn’t a great one; a terrific film that I expected to come out of the first half of the 1970s. Therefore, The Sting will probably get a lower score than it deserves.

 

Now, for the rest of the movie:

 

Plot/Writing

I’ve decided to combine these two categories going forward. It’s possible that one category can, in fact, stand apart from the other, but the two are so intertwined that it’s easier to keep them together. Don’t worry, though, I’ll still give the narrative and the writing their own fair shakes and each category has a chance to earn the point.

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David S. Ward wrote The Sting and the script was inspired by the true crime book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The effort won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

 

Robert Redford stars as Johnny Hooker, a degenerate con man on the streets of 1936 Joliet, Illinois, a working-class suburb of Chicago. The film begins with Hooker pulling a scam of a local book maker who works for Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a vicious crime boss. When Hooker’s good friend Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) is killed by Lonnegan’s men, Hooker decides to get even with the mobster by looking up one of Coleman’s old friends, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to get it done.

 

The pair decide to con Lonnegan out of millions by setting up an elaborate scheme to entice Lonnegan to bet big on horse races. Along the way, we’re teased by Gondorff’s brilliance as a con artist, and Hooker’s raw criminal talent that it keeps the story interesting. The narrative starts slow but it picks up steam slowly, becoming gradually more complicated and compelling as the plot’s details come to the light. Full of great twists and turns, including an excellent twist at the end, the narrative helps me to overlook the fact that everything seems to fall right into place for the protagonists as they really encounter no significant problems along the way.

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From a writing front, the film fully embraces the style and vernacular of the 1930s. It’s written in much the same way that a movie from that era is written: full of great quips and one-liners. The best things about good writing is what it doesn’t tell you, and the script has plenty of that. You learn the finer points of the plot when it happens. No clues to the plot are given. You have to figure it out when you see it and that’s the mark of a well-written script. 1. 1.

 

Sound/Set Design

Why not combine these two categories? They’re normally pretty short.

 

The score for The Sting is one of my least favorite scores thus far. Featuring a mostly ragtime selection, particularly Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, the music is sudden, too happy, and out of place throughout the film. I’m all for an unconventional approach to sound (The Big Short is a perfect example unconventional music during a film, and it’s one of my favorites), but the noises have to mesh. The ragtime wasn’t the right choice for the film. The nature of ragtime is that it features an upbeat kind of tune, the same kind that play over your grandfather’s old shaky home movies. Ragtime does not set the right tone for a serious movie about criminals involved in a high stakes con. The best part about the music is that there wasn’t a lot of it.

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The set design is the opposite, though. The Sting, which again takes place in Joliet and Chicago, Illinois in 1936, perfectly captures the era of the 1930s throughout the movie. I’ll put this movie alongside The Artist, which I reviewed last week, for having a great historical set. The great attention to detail was evident from the cars all the way down to the costumes. This truly was the 1930s in the suburban midwest. The Sting won Oscars in both of these categories, one for Best Music, another for Best Art Direction, and yet another for Best Costume Design. It was nominated for Best Sound.  0. 1.

 

Cinematography

Capturing The Sting on film was Robert Surtees, the director of photography and the effort earned him a Best Cinematography nomination. William H. Reynolds won an Oscar for Best Film Editing.

 

This is probably the most difficult category to write about in this film. On the one hand, The Sting does zooms and tracking very well. In fact, this film is the first one I’ve seen on the list that has such liberal use of great zooms. So I do have to give it credit for that, I think.

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But there is so much not to like in this film. First of all, The Sting features very harsh lighting. The lighting, an area that I may not write much about (or enough about) is intense in this film. I have no problem with lighting your scenes. But I can’t live with a washed out appearance in this film. A year after The Godfather set a new standard of how to light a film, The Sting seems to have been the anti-Godfather with the lighting.

 

Second, a probably most importantly, the cinematography has very few special moments. It’s not artistic. Sure, the zooms are a neat effect, but what’s put in front of the screen just isn’t that interesting to me and I have to knock it for that. It’s not the worst shot movie I’ve seen, nor is it the most rudimentary (I’ll mention both of Frank Capra’s winners that I’ve reviewed here: You Can’t Take it with You and It Happened One Night) but it almost seems as if Surtees didn’t try. I’m a big fan of artistic movies as I’ve written, but this one didn’t do it for me. 0.

 

Acting

This film, like most others, features a wide cast of characters, but most notable are the performances of Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

 

I’ll start with Redford, who received a Best Actor nomination for his work, plays Johnny Hooker. Hooker is an idealistic con artist whom we meet at the very start of the film. He’s the one that helps to pull the first con we see.

 

Shortly into the film, Hooker is harassed by the police, but pays the detective in counterfeit money. His life then gets turned on its head with the murder of Luther Coleman, his buddy and business partner, at the hands of Lonnegan. From there, Hooker is on the run.

After running into Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), the pair decide to get Lonnegan back by robbing him blind in a ponzi scheme. He’s the moral compass of the pair, always trying to be noble.

"The Sting"
Robert Redford, Paul Newman
1973 Universal
**I.V.

Gondorff is the seasoned veteran of a con man, but he’s washed up, out of the game and scraping pennies off the bottoms of his shoes to get by. He’s intelligent, but cynical. It’s his plan that helps lure Lonnegan into the trap, and it’s the plan that unfolds beautifully as the film goes along.

 

I didn’t care for either of these performances from Redford or Newman. It’s interesting, I loved one performance and didn’t care for the other.

 

Hooker has a fine motivation for running the con of Lonnegan: he’s trying to avenge his friend. The same is true for Gondorff as he and Coleman are long-time friends. As I examined in Braveheart, revenge is a powerful, flawed, destructive, and all too relatable motivation for a character to do what he or she does. I get it and I kind of like it.

 

Where I differ is in the character of Hooker himself. Sure he’s likable by being noble, idealistic, intelligent, and supremely talented in the con game, he seems to almost be too good for this kind of film. He’s not a flawed character to me. Hooker rides into the film like a white knight on the back of a valiant steed and the director George Roy Hill expects us to just go along with it. I can’t.

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Gondorff on the other hand, saves this category for me. Henry has his issues. When we first meet him, he fell off the side of his own ramshackle bed in the back of a bar, passed out drunk. He’s broken and beaten, a man down on his luck.

 

Gondorff gets a jolt of energy when a man shows up, Johnny Hooker in this case, mentioning that he’s good friends with Luther Coleman. The pair are fast friends. Throughout the film, Newman showcases a wide range of acting talent, moving from a serious business partner, to a “drunk” poker player. He’s a skilled thief who stole my attention during the film. Newman is dynamic in his portrayal on Henry Gondorff and it is he who should have received the Oscar nomination. 1.

 

Directing

George Roy Hill directed The Sting who was a very accomplished director. His efforts with The Sting earned him his second Best Director nomination and his only win in the category. He was also nominated for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and he directed other films, most notably the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

 

As I mentioned above, The Sting can, at times, try too hard to be the next great crime movie, riding on the heels of The Godfather and The French Connection. In my weekly film-centered brooding, I tried to get to the bottom of why there was so much emphasis on crime in the early 1970s. And while I wouldn’t be born for about another 20 years, I think I found the answer: Richard Nixon. “Tricky Dick” and the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974 captivated the nation and sent large-scale crime (sponsored by some very powerful people, nonetheless) to the front pages of newspapers, and the lead story on newscasts, all over the world for years. As the tension escalated throughout 1973, it seems to reason that Hollywood directors would attempt to capture some portrait of the current times through their work. Although The Godfather, The Sting, and The Godfather Part II take place decades before, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the message is still the same. These string of films intended to focus on the seedier side of life in which Americans were used to seeing across their newspapers. The loss of innocence of the nation, and the great cultural upheaval that began with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 was continuing in Hollywood all the way through the 1970s.

"The Sting"Robert Redford
1973 Universal
**I.V.
“The Sting” Robert Redford 1973 Universal **I.V.

But when it comes to The Sting, specifically, I have theorize about the film’s purpose on at the 46th Academy Awards. In general terms, the film is cheesy at times and over the top. The good things I’ve highlighted are just fleeting glimpses into a film that had a lot of potential but suffered from a lack of the kind of quality execution that I would have expected out of a film sandwiched between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Many critics at the time believed the film was the best of 1973 and they may be right. I however, am not quite convinced. The easiest comparison to make is that this film is like Driving Miss Daisy; the Academy simply got it wrong in my book. It’s not like The Greatest Show on Earth which won only to appease the McCarthy monster coming out of Washington, D.C. No, the film is better than that. Now that I’m sitting here wrapping this review up, I’m just not sure as to how I feel definitively about this film.

 

I’ll never criticize a director for making me think, and I won’t do that now. So, a 1.

 

Bonus Points

None.

 

Final Score: 5/10

 

Oscar Facts

The Sting won the 46th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 2, 1974 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, and A Touch of Class for Best Picture. The award was presented by Elizabeth Taylor and accepted by Tony Bill, Julia Phillips, and Michael Phillips, producers. Julia Phillips became the first woman to win a Best Picture Oscar. The Sting was nominated for 10 awards, winning seven.

 

Other notable winners that night included Jack Lemmon winning Best Actor for Save the Tiger, Glenda Jackson winning Best Actress for A Touch of Class, John Houseman winning Best Supporting Actor for The Paper Chase, and Tatum O’Neal winning Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon.

 

The ceremony featured several notable moments. Perhaps the most puzzling was when Robert Opel, an American photographer, streaked naked across the stage flashing a peace sign as host David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor. Niven quipped after the incident, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen… But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” Some believe that the stunt was for publicity. Tragically, Opel was murdered five years later at his home in San Francisco during a home invasion.

 

Also notable was the appearance of Katharine Hepburn for the first time at the ceremony. Hepburn, the only performer to win four acting awards, always sent someone to accept the award in her place.

 

Finally, the largest age gap between two acting winners, John Houseman at 71, and Tatum O’Neal at 10, occured that night. O’Neal is also the youngest person to win an acting Oscar.

 

Next Week

Next week on 89 & Counting, I examine Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, Rebecca, from 1940. After that, it’s The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Chariots of Fire, Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Moonlight.

 

3 Comments

  1. I have seen this movie and didn’t care for it so I agree with your review on this one for sure. But you pointed out way more than I remember, great job!

    Like

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