Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Sting (1973)

The Sting (1973)

Heist / caper movies are fun - I really enjoyed the first two Ocean's films and am looking forward to Ocean's Thirteen. There's something outrageous about the whole idea of them, a bunch of people pulling off an improbable and convoluted scam that requires many different people to do very specific things at specific times, all the while ignoring or working around capricious happenstance. I think the Ocean's films acknowledge that by not taking an overly serious approach. The Sting is also a heist movie - a classic that won a boatload of awards in its day and reunited Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and director George Roy Hill. The Sting is quite different however; while Newman, Redford, and Robert Shaw bring it that larger than life quality that Clooney and friends bring to the Ocean's series, it has a much more serious tone to it.

Set in the 1930s, the story begins with small time con-man Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford, playing a character who presumably has no relation to the one played by Bill Shatner) and his mentor and partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones) unknowingly conning a crime boss's courier out of thousands of dollars. The crime boss, Doyle Lonnigan (Robert Shaw) decides to make an example out of them; Luther winds up dead, and Hooker winds up on the run from both Lonnigan's assassins and a corrupt cop (Charles Durning). He seeks out a man named Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), one of the all time great con men now seemingly no more than a washed up drunk. Hooker convinces Gondorf to help him pull off a major con - he wants to avenge the death of Luther by scamming Lonnigan. Gondorff, enticed by the challenge, agrees and assembles a massive crew to pull off a massive scam. Gondorff becomes something of a mentor figure for Hooker, and in an ironic twist, part of the scam involves Hooker becoming something of a protégé figure for Lonnigan as they draw him into their trap.

The plot is actually really quite good; it's surprisingly tight and the con isn't as outrageous as those often seen in modern films. It's apparently inspired by real-life cons, so perhaps that has something to do with it. There's no high tech stuff on display, just good old fashioned deception and manipulation, and it's all very inventive and entertaining, and there're a couple of nice (though not so surprising) twists. The script builds up the con as well as the relationships between Hooker and both Gondorff and Lonnigan. Most of the film revolves around Hooker as he works the biggest con of his life while keeping his desire for revenge in check. It works primarily as a great piece of entertainment, but it's also a character piece that deals with themes of friendship, loyalty, corruption, and revenge. As a period film it's very atmospheric, thanks in large part to the distinctive score. Like with Butch Cassidy, director George Roy Hill made the film a mixture of light-hearted playfulness and seriousness, a formula that succeeds on this occasion as well.

There are three performances of note in the film. I'm going to start with the terrific Robert Shaw, the man immortalized as Quint in Jaws. The guy's dispassionate, ruthless, and greedy, and Shaw does a great job of showing us how an intelligent guy like Lonnigan could slowly succumb to temptation and fall for a clever con. Robert Redford is excellent as the roguish and impetuous Hooker, a character completely unlike the cool headed and taciturn Sundance Kid. And then there's Paul Newman - there aren't too many stars who can be as charismatic while doing virtually nothing (Toshiro Mifune was one), but a lot of the time, that's what Newman does here. He mostly just smiles and says a few words, with the exception of one brilliant scene where Gondorff plays poker with Lonnigan. It's easy to buy him as not just a great con-man, but also a leader that others would readily follow.

The Sting features great performances and a good solid script and direction, and it's very entertaining. It's one of those films where it's easy to get behind the protagonists despite the fact that they are technically bad guys, because they're so cool and because they're stealing from even badder guys. It's an expertly crafted piece of entertainment with a bit of depth.

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