Films We’ve Watched: The Sting (1973)

6 Feb

I recently enjoyed one of the myriad worthwhile and under-attended Alamo Drafthouse events, wherein a particular film (often pre-1980) is celebrated for its cinematic renown. These events tend to center around a theme which loosely ties the series together. This particular series is titled “Man Crush” and contains a collection of films which commemorate the men of the silver screen who have captured the admiration of male and female alike. As Paul Newman and Robert Redford more or less defined that genre, The Sting was a perfect and natural selection for this month’s screening.

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First, I must admit I am predisposed to like any film which opens with ragtime being played over hand drawn old-timey credits. There is an inescapable charm to a strongly set narrative work, and visual and aural synchronicity such as this only serve to further delight. Each section of this movie is presented to the audience through the use of an illustrated title card beneath dancing piano keys. The drawings recall the fireside calendar artwork of one Norman Rockwell and serve as a terrific moral contrast to the ambiguous ethical framework in which we lay our scene.

Released in 1973, The Sting takes place in 1930’s Chicago amidst the fiscal peril of the Great Depression. Employment is scarce, but a fellow’s got to earn a living somehow. And so we meet our protagonist, Johnny Hooker, the wide-eyed goofball grifter who would gladly risk his life to help a friend (and regularly does). Robert Redford’s authentic portrayal of Hooker is altogether beyond reproach. His unmistakable wit and charisma light up the screen with every turn. Our inciting incident leaves Hooker bereft of his dearest friend and companion in crime, Luther Coleman (played by Robert Earl Jones). A deeply personal need to avenge the loss of his friend, along with the strength of his word to move onto bigger and better capers with a new grift partner, lead Hooker in search of famed Chicago con man Henry Gondorff. Paul Newman’s Gondorff is about as far a cry from his tough guy / leading man persona as one can imagine, as his signature debonair gives way to washed-up wayward in this elaborate crime comedy. Newman’s performance thoroughly matches his character’s elegant manipulation in tone and subtlety. Hooker remains the audience’s focal point throughout the film, as his stellar performance and character’s exuberance steal the show. That said, Newman’s delicate portrayal of Gondorff evinces he is actually the one cleverly pulling both narrative and felonious strings throughout the story.

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The unlikely duo sets their sights on a most ambitious mark in the form of loner Irish mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Jaws‘ Robert Shaw). Lonnegan is the man they hold responsible for Luther’s demise and as such becomes the key to their deliverance. In the most elaborate long con of either career, Hooker and Gondorff attempt to swindle Lonnegan out of half a million dollars. Needless to say, hilarity and cunning ensue in equal proportion.

The film’s inherent strength of performance and allure of atmosphere are remarkable, but The Sting stands apart for its genuine depth of character and complex narrative style. The discourse remains light and the plot moves quickly, unencumbered by tireless exposition, yet somehow we develop a keen sense of who these men are. Their pasts and presents are revealed through deliberate action, brilliant dialogue, and unequivocal imagery. Presented to the audience as one of the true greats, we first encounter Henry Gondorff passed out drunk on the floor, wedged between his bedpost and the adjacent wall. This single shot provides comic relief from the mounting tension of Luther’s passing, as well as establishes Gondorff (by all accounts) as a man out of practice. The stakes are raised as his character becomes further exposed. Through such masterful specificity we come to understand each character, where they have been, where they are now, and why any of this should matter in the first place.

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Precise, economic storytelling is employed throughout The Sting. A little information goes a long way to advance a tale in which every detail is working toward a common end. Like the gears of a clock, every moment interlocks with the next to propel time forward. And this film does not miss a beat. As a testament to the caliber of writing herein, I walked out of the theater with a single confusion and a simple review of the facts cleared it up in good form. Gondorff asserts of Lonnegan, “You have to keep this con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.” And so this film achieves with its audience. Any seeming loose ends are intentional. You predict the plot twists you are meant to predict, and you doubt those intended to make you wonder. It is a rare film that can conduct its audience like an orchestra, informing our every reaction, allegiance, and speculation. And the best part: you exit the film imagining you really figured it out! You may fail to realize that this film took you for exactly the ride it set out to take. An adept form follows function if ever there was one.

A bright, hilarious, truly unique piece of cinema, The Sting is at its core a real blast to watch. I heartily encourage all who have not seen it (and even those who have) to do yourself the favor of this two hour respite. Do enjoy!

– Laura Yates

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One Response to “Films We’ve Watched: The Sting (1973)”

  1. Underneath The Elder March 19, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    This is actually my favorite Robert Redford movie. I used to watch it with my father all the time. Also, you’re right – any soundtrack with so much Scott Joplin wins.

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