Monday 17 September 2012

Movie Review: The Sting (1973)

A slick caper movie, The Sting brings together a stellar cast, a clever premise and an inspired music score. The result is an all-time classic, one of the few magical moments where all the elements required to create an exceptional cinematic experience come together in a perfect package.

It's the 1930s, the Great Depression is lingering, and small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) operates in the Chicago suburbs with his friend and mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones). Unintentionally, Hooker and Luther swindle ten thousand dollars from ruthless big-time crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Not used to being challenged, Lonnegan has Luther killed, while Hooker finds himself pursued both by corrupt cop Snyder (Charles Durning) and a team of assassins.

Hooker takes refuge in Chicago proper and teams up with legendary con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Having fallen foul of federal authorities, Gondorff is depressed and inactive, hanging out in a brothel run by Billie (Eileen Brennan). But the opportunity to outwit Lonnegan and seek revenge for Luther's death revitalizes Gondorff, and he assembles a large crew of friends and con men to lay an elaborate, high-stakes trap for Lonnegan centred on illegal horse race gambling.

Despite the subject matter of con men conning other con men, The Sting is brimming with class. The clothes, the sets, and the confidence with which the characters carry themselves create a fashionable environment where the underworld celebrates its existence in a parallel universe away from the mundanely legitimate world. The alternate yet grim reality gives The Sting an invincible and surreal aura, a setting where the rules of life and death are set by men whose main obsession is to separate marks from their money as cleverly as possible.

The undercurrent of The Sting is that in the world of con men no one wins, and there will always be a more clever ruse to fall for. It's only the most recent score that matters, because neither the money nor the satisfaction will last. Hooker manages to lose his surprising initial windfall faster than he ever obtained it, and Gondorff is long past believing that any score will fill the emptiness left by a lost friend. In this world the details of the plan and the friendships made along the journey are the victory; the outcome a fleeting moment to justify starting the next devious adventure.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play along, creating in Hooker and Gondorff two enduring characters applying all their smarts and charm to all the wrong pursuits. Redford was nominated for his only acting Academy Award, his portrayal of Hooker combining boyish enthusiasm, street smarts, and determination to seek justice. He is the one character in The Sting to face complex dilemmas, including keeping the assassins a secret from Gondorff, playing a dangerous game with the FBI, and chancing a delicate romance with the new cashier at the local eatery. Newman's role is more straightforward, Gondorff weathered by the stresses of a life spent conning others, but still in command of all the necessary tricks and an army of contacts to organize a final gambit.

Robert Shaw makes for a worthy adversary, hissing through an Irish accent as Lonnegan manages his empire of corruption with a ruthless streak. Charles Durning is the perfect flatfoot, a Lieutenant not even trying to hide the grime of corruption clinging to his trench coat.

George Roy Hill directs with a nimble touch, revealing enough of the plot to maintain clarity as the complex sting unfolds, but holding back a few  surprises to expertly prolong the deliciously building crescendo. Dividing the movie into chapters complete with title cards, Hill evokes old-fashioned film-making, eschewing awkward transitions in favour of neat announcements. The script, a debut effort from David S. Ward, wastes no scenes, keeping the momentum with the convoluted plot, and slipping in character development in precise increments.

Marvin Hamlisch adapted Scott Joplin's ragtime tunes for The Sting, particularly The Entertainer, and in the process of creating one of the most famous movie soundtracks revitalized interest in Joplin's repertoire. The music is a perfect match for the light-hearted yet melancholy mood of the film, men like Hooker and Gondorff enjoying flirtations with success but recognizing the overall bleakness of fate in the depressed underground world that they occupy. When the only certainty is that one game will follow another, it's ultimately the elegance of the play rather than the prize that matters most.

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