In the small town where I grew up, in the BFE borderlands of Virginia and N.C., I lived within walking distance of a downtown cinema that opened and closed a few times in my childhood, giving up the ghost completly at about the time I headed off to college.
By the early ’70s, I was walking to it on my own for the first time as my parents had aged out of going out to the movies, the way so many do. I’d see “Vadlez is Coming” or “The Getaway,” “The Three Musketeers” or “American Graffiti,” sometimes on weekends with friends but most often by myself because they weren’t as into cinema as me, and I had a paper route and pocket money.
“The Sting,” which opened on my birthday, Christmas of ’73 in much of the country, didn’t arrive until shortly thereafter. Well before the Oscars, as I remember it. It was a life-changing experience, a movie that made the long walk home a giddy skip-to-my-lou that I can picture to this day. Roger Ebert would later talk about “out of body experience” movies. This did that for me.
Over the years, meeting fellow critics — mostly contemporaries — at film festivals and press events, whenever we’d swap notes on the movie that changed the course of our ambitions. “The Sting” came up a lot. It wasn’t just me.
It’s a movie that made one invest in watching the Oscars, to make sure the Academy “got it right.” Seven Academy Awards? That’s pretty close to what was deserved.
Watching it anew makes one appreciate the clockwork screenplay that David S. Ward devised, far and a away his best script, although he’d go on to adapt “Cannery Row,” have a hand in “Sleepless in Seattle” and the comedy blockbusters titled “Major League.”
But its the arcana, the production designed near-perfection of its period detail, the total immersion that George Roy Hill’s jaunty direction, the production artist Jaroslav Gebr’s Norman Rockwellian title cards denoting chapters — “The Set-Up,” “The Hook,” “The Sting” — and the glorious Oscar-winning Marvin Hamlisch adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime that bowls one over, even today.
Hill, reuniting his “Butch” and “Sundance,” Paul Newman and Robert Redford, surrounded them with faces — a Who’s Who of character actors of the day. I’d started noticing the stand out work of guys like Slim Pickens in his chewy cameo in “The Getaway,” and a other colorful bit players before this film. But here Ray Walston and Harold Gould as dapper confidence men recruited for “The Big Con,” and Eileen Brennan and Charles Durning and Jack Kehoe and that mug’s mug, Charles Dierkop, left me amazed.
Robert Earl Jones, James Earl Jones’ dad, gave his most endearing performance in a movie that made everyone in it — even players with just a scene or two, like Jones — immortal, because few pictures, especially Oscar winners, have aged as well as “The Sting.”
The Depression Era milieu, contrasting down-and-outers with the crooks and high rollers who thrive in any economy, reinforces the cinematic memories of the era laid out by “Paper Moon,” which came out in May of ’73, and prefigures the “Gatsbymania” that would arrive when Redford’s take on “The Great Gatsby” premiered in March of ’74.
“The Sting” came out in the middle of the Watergate meltdown, an upbeat piece of pure escape that left crooked politicians and Vietnam and cynicism at the window where you bought your ticket. And watching it now, I can see Ward’s screenplay as an extension of what people had seen in recent years during the long run of TV’s “Mission: Impossible!”
Hard to remember that was a television show before Tom Cruise came along, isn’t it?
The “Sting” story — a simple bait and switch cons a runner, transporting Joliet numbers and off track betting cash back to the Big Boss, out of thousands.
Luther (Jones) and Erie (Kehoe) figure they’re setfor life as they split up the take later. But Hooker, “the Kid,” has already blown his on a big bet on a fixed roulette wheel.
Their grift gets Luther killed, chases off Erie and sends Hooker to Chicago, to look up an old pal of Luther’s, the master of the Big Con — Henry Gondorff (Newman).
The goal is revenge on the Five Points native (“Gangs of New York”) Irish mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, a year away from “Jaws”). Gondorff and everybody else loved Luther. Everybody’s in, with the Kid getting a makeover and a quick lesson in Big Con caper comedies.
These set-up scenes make the middle acts a pure delight, with this or that speciality pursued and hired. There’s a veritable guild of Chicago con artists, with a “sheet” of “who’s in town.” That’s how the so-dapper-he-must-be-gay Twist (Gould) selects their huge crew.
The Kid? He’s got Lonnegan’s goons after him, and a brutal, corrupt Joliet cop (Durning) determined to grab him to shake him down and avenge himself on a hustler who tried to pay him off with counterfiet cash.
Shaw played a lot of burly heroes in his too-short career. But Lonnegan is a masterful study in menace. When Doyle tells you how it’s going to be, his finishing phrase lets you know that’s just what he expects to happen, or else.
We see this brutish bear of a man poked, repeatedly, by Newman’s Gondorff, play-acting a rich bookie named Shaw, as a drunk who keeps besting the big man at cards, and mangling his last name every time he taunts and insults him.
The bait is taken, “The Hook” is set, and we’re off on a leisurely romp through the least depressing Great Depression tale of them all.
Walston, Gould, Durning and Dana Elcar — in the first of his No Nonsense authority figure roles — sparkle. Brennan, fresh off “The Last Picture Show,” brings her trademark working class gravitas to a madam who runs a brothel upstairs from a carousel.
Redford literally sprints through a lot of scenes, and Newman takes his sentimental, cynical and amusingly boozy (when he needs to fake it) mentor-protege thing with his pal to the bank.
“The Sting” became a cultural phenomenon, sparking a ragtime revival, renewed appreciation for illustrator Norman Rockwell (even though Gebr did the title cards, now Rockwell) and making Hamlisch a star composer in its wake. I interviewed him some years later when he was touring Florida’s “blue hair circuit,” the performance halls in seniors-heavy cities along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. We had a lot to chat about (he won multiple Oscars), but chatting by speaker phone from wherever I was reaching him, when I mentioned “The Sting,” that was the one he started picking out on the piano, an acknowledgment that this was the work that made him.
The movie because a benchmark for me, for good and ill, especially when it came to Oscar nominees. Rare is the Oscar winner that’s a feel-good film, a caper comedy or a wildly popular hit. “Schindler’s List” and “Twelve Years a Slave,” movies of import, are the goal and that at least is defensible.
But “How will it/does it hold up?” has figured permanently into how I rate movies in reviewing them.
Nobody’s talking up “The English Patient” today, and “Crash” wasn’t the only Oscar winner that the Academy, and those who love movies, wish they could take back. Is anybody tracking down “The Artist” (the true fate of “Babylon”) these days, or “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” “Parasite,” “Nomadland,” “CODA” to rewatch for pleasure and edification?
Is “Everything Everywhere all at Once” destined to have an afterlife, to “hold up?”
Maybe. But not the way “The Sting” has. I’ll take that bet all day long.
Rating: PG, violence, a little burlesque nudity courtesy of Sally Kirkland.
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar, Charles Dierkop, Jack Kehoe, Dimitra Arliss, Harold Gould and Robert Earl Jones.
Credits: Directed by George Roy Hill, scripted by David S. Ward. A Universal release on Amazon, Netflix, etc.
Running time: 2:09