The Sting is a fast-paced movie set in the Chicago area during the Great Depression. The movie follows Johnny Hooker, a con artist, or “grifter,” and his friend Henry Gondorff as they attempt to successfully execute a “big con” against one of New York’s most prominent mob bosses. A memorable, elaborate story, great dialogue and acting, artistic production design, cinematography, and music all contribute in making The Sting a movie everybody should see at least once in their lives.
Because this story is so special, I will only touch on a few basic elements in an effort to preclude any spoilers. Johnny Hooker and his friends, grifters operating in Joliet, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago, perform a con which yields $11,000. However, Hooker and his friends do not realize until later that the runner they robbed was a courier for a prominent mob. As a result, their con draws the attention of Doyle Lonnegan, the organized crime boss in New York. Because Lonnegan does not want other small con artists thinking they can rob his organization without repercussions, he decides to have his men pursue and kill Hooker and his friends in order to deter future robberies.
Hooker and one friend initially survive, but they lose one of their compatriots, Luther. Because Lonnegan’s men are in hot pursuit, Hooker decides to meet up with one of Luther’s friends, Henry Gondorff, in Chicago, so they can avenge Luthor and con Lonnegan on an even larger scale.
Due to the nature of the characters’ fast-paced, often short-lived lifestyles, it becomes very evident that nobody really knows who they can trust. This element is a contributing factor to both the pace and tone of The Sting. Friends can easily switch if offered the right incentive or money, and what looks like a crime in progress could possibly be a calculated operation by con artists to rob those only hoping to help. Additionally, Chicago in the Depression and prohibition era is chalk full of policemen, who could very well be crooked, mobsters, grifters, assassins, and G-men, or federal agents. This serpentine nature of the story and characters results in a very engaging experience that will keep you on your toes as you try to stay abreast of the details and developments.
All of the actors and actresses perform their roles with easy and mastery. The principals and supporting cast alike all deliver iconic and unforgettable roles. Robert Redford’s Johnny Hooker is convincing and you can see his development from small-time grifter to a more sophisticated artist under Gondorff's tutelage. Paul Newman’s Henry Gondorff is also well done and he does a terrific job of portraying an experienced, though somewhat retired con artist. His management of Hooker’s big con is fun to watch. The chemistry between Redford and Newman is still fresh and just as fun to watch as it was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan is a brutal and sophisticated mob boss. Shaw’s performance helps Lonnegan feel valid and unique when it comes to iconic mob boss roles. In an effort to maintain concision, I will not name the supporting cast specifically, though the great ensemble of grifters, lawmen, and hitmen are convincing and help contribute to The Sting’s immersive ambiance.
Though produced in the 1970s, The Sting is really produced like a 1930s film, which complements its 1936 setting and is vital to the movie’s authentic, entertaining, and dynamic elements. As such, The Sting has many attributes that were popular in “classical Hollywood narrative” films. The mechanism of cause and effect is expertly used throughout the story development. Nothing happens in The Sting that is not important. This is a testament to the film’s writing, direction, and editing. Similarly, closure is used with great effect. By the film’s conclusion, all the loose ends are neatly tied, bringing about an extremely satisfying ending.
Masterful editing by William Reynolds is also visible when watching The Sting. This speaks to the creative use of continuity editing. The mix of transitions maintain the story's thread of continuity when transitioning to different scenes or locations. This also supplements the use of closure as the final cut of the film is tight and perfected.
The film’s production design and wardrobe are all remarkable. The set pieces are convincing and the creatively designed speakeasy styled hideouts will make you wish you were one of the characters in on the action. The city of Chicago is depicted realistically. Having lived there, watching The Sting made me feel as though I were right back in the South Side or the Loop. The costumes poignantly convey the disparity between the “normal” citizens and the con artists or those connected to a mob. Most of the citizenry wear typical clothing, but the big con artists, racketeers, mobsters, and G-men wear stunning, expensive suits and accessories. This theme of disparity is also conveyed in terms of color. Most of the movie features a color palette of tans or Earth tones which are then offset by the flamboyant styles of the rich or criminally connected.
The music is another element that accurately reflects the setting of the movie. Marvin Hamlisch’s adaptations and Billy Byers’ arrangements of famous Scott Joplin compositions add to The Sting’s flare. Joplin’s ragtime music and its iconic, syncopated rhythms are great additions to the scenes. Additionally, The Sting uses title cards as transitions to state and illustrate the film's different sections. These are complete with great artwork and musical accompaniment. This creative choice helps the movie be unique and gives it a theater vibe as it is quite reminiscent of a theater playbill.
The Sting’s cinematography is simply wonderful. Robert Surtees’ effective and emphatic use of zooms, depth of field, over-the-shoulder, and subtle point-of-view compositions will make you feel immersed. Surtees is also careful to creatively include all of The Sting’s fine detail in his shots. This makes the movie re-watchable as you will notice additional nuances with each viewing.
George Roy Hill does a marvelous job in directing The Sting. The creative flare, authentic 1930s production aesthetic, masterful maintenance of continuity, and extraordinary performances all speak to his directing ability. The Sting is a multi-layered, fast-moving, and complex story and Hill maintains these elements and presents them in a fun and entertaining package.
Additional proof of Hill’s directing ability is the fact that The Sting won seven Academy Awards. They include: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation. All of these awards are strong elements that I have mentioned.
In conclusion, The Sting is a move that should not be missed. If you have seen it, chances are you have seen it more than once. If you have not yet watched it, then you are missing out on a terrific movie experience. The Sting is one of my favorite films and is proof that Hollywood rarely makes movies today that are as intelligent and entertaining. Even modern heist movies do not seem to capture the same charm that The Sting possesses. Because the film is fast-moving and has a multi-faceted, detail-oriented story, I recommend watching this movie with no distractions. You will not regret it.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Production: Richard D. Zanuck David Brown Production (Zanuck/Brown Productions); Universal Pictures
Director: George Roy Hill
Producer: Tony Bill; Julia Phillips; Michael Phillips
Screenwriter: David S. Ward
Director of Photography: Robert Surtees
Editor: William Reynolds
Music: Marvin Hamlisch (Music Adapter); Scott Joplin (Composer); Billy Byers (Music Arranger)
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead
Set Direction: James Payne
Special Effects: Kaleidoscope Films; Bob Warner
Budget: ca. $5,500,000
Release Date: December 25, 1973 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Laboratory: Technicolor, Hollywood, CA
Copyright Holder: Universal Pictures
Cast: Paul Newman; Robert Redford; Robert Shaw; Charles Durning; Ray Walston; Eileen Brennan; Harold Gould; John Heffernan; Dana Elcar; Jack Kehoe; Dimitra Arliss; Robert Earl Jones; James Sloyan; Charles Dierkop; Lee Paul; Sally Kirkland; Avon Long
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Running Time: 2 hours and 9 minutes (129 mins.)