The Sting (Special Edition) Review

The Sting isn’t so much a film as a very elaborate, beautifully furbished plot machine which is far less concerned with characters than it is with the mechanics of its own narrative. Although this is certainly a limitation, I don’t mean it to sound like too harsh a criticism. There are very specific pleasures to be had from this kind of movie and when it’s well done – as The Sting most certainly is – then it can be richly entertaining. Having said this, you might have to pour some strong coffee, throw a glass of water in your face and bash yourself about the head when you recall that this clever, pretty bit of fluff won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 1973.

Set in 1936, the film deals with two con-men – Henry Gondorff (Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Redford) – who are determined to teach Irish-American gang boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw) a lesson after he has a mutual friend killed. They collect together a motley array of small-time grifters – J.J. Singleton (Walston), Kid Twist (Gould), Eddie Niles (Heffernan), Erie Kid (Kehoe) – and devise a labyrinthine scheme to first reel Lonnegan in and subsequently clean him out. Matters are complicated not only by Lonnegan’s suspicion and genuine physical threat but also by the dogged, if not overly bright, presence of corrupt cop Lt. Snyder (Durning).

The twists and turns of the complex plot are very involving and David S. Ward, the screenwriter, proves himself a master of bluff and double-bluff. His particular brilliance in this screenplay is to place us, the audience, in a position which is only partially privileged. We’re one up on Lonnegan in our knowledge that he is being conned but Ward keeps certain plot points from us in order to spice up the second half of the film. That we are never confused – or never more so than he wants us to be – is a tribute to his careful structure. The director, George Roy Hill, takes his cue from this, laying the film out methodically and ensuring that we’re involved without being too relaxed.

The use of ‘episode’ cards – “The Hook, “The Tale” and so on – allows us to keep our bearings but the fact that the whole con is based on antiquated concepts such as ‘the wire’ means that we’re never too confident that we’ve got everything straight. The fun of con game comedies lies in our awareness of the con and our desire to be surprised. It’s a fine balancing act, one which Ward and Hill walk with immense skill, right from the opening ‘taster’ which involves Hooker with Lonnegan after he inadvertently steals twelve thousand dollars from a delivery man.

I don’t intend to go into the plot in any more detail. To do so would be very unsporting but it would also render the film null and void. The reason for it to exist is its plot and once you know the twists and turns then it starts to fall apart. The same is true of other ‘plotty’ movies - Sleuth, The Usual Suspects - and what saves them is the same thing that saves The Sting and that’s the acting. It was obviously packaged as a vehicle for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, about whom more in a moment. But the best performances come from the supporting cast. It’s a wonderfully eclectic ensemble, matching actors who have already had their name in lights such as Ray Walston – best known for Damn Yankees and The Apartment - with brilliant character actors like Charles Durning and the elegant, witty Harold Gould. Charles Durning particularly shines as the kind of cop who is more of a menace to society than the minor hoods who he spends his time rolling. It’s a role which Durning clearly relishes and the result is one of his signature parts – he later guyed the stereotype in Robert Aldrich’s hugely underrated The Choirboys. Walston and Gould are also splendid and the latter is the kind of actor who carries himself so well that he would look like a European aristocrat in a two-dollar suit - you may remember him as the cuckolded husband in Woody Allen’s Love and Death. Best of all is Robert Shaw as the surprisingly threatening Doyle Lonnegan. It’s the part which made him an international star and he triumphs by deliberately playing it straight.

Everyone around him is playing light comedy and he is playing an outtake from The Godfather. It should be jarring and inappropriate but it works because it establishes that Lonnegan is a man to be reckoned with. In a film full of likeable crooks, he is the real article and he is often very scary indeed.

However, the film seems to have been designed as an excuse to reunite Robert Redford and Paul Newman with their director from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill. This is where my reservations begin. I am a huge fan of Paul Newman. He can give performances which are so painfully true that you can’t quite believe he’s performing so effortlessly – think of his work in The Verdict or as Fast Eddie in The Hustler and The Color of Money. He can also be so completely likeable that he makes a crude comic-strip like Slap Shot seem like the wittiest thing you’ve ever seen. But he can also coast along on his charm and looks and that’s what he does in The Sting. I think it was Pauline Kael who pointed out that he was a bit young in 1973 to be playing a one-time great coming out of retirement for a final score and she’s right. Henry Gondorff isn’t a character, he’s a collection of lazy tics and if Newman weren’t so charismatic then we’d be justified in throwing things at the screen. The same goes for Robert Redford. He’s fine as far as the role of Johnny Hooker goes but it doesn’t go anywhere and he could play the part of a young buck conning the big man in his sleep. I want to be very specific here. I am not saying that Newman and Redford give bad performances in The Sting. The problem is that they don’t give performances at all because they’ve nothing to work with and consequently fall back on their established screen images. It’s lazy and a bit insulting to the audiences who, once upon a time, loved them beyond all reason. David S. Ward is a wizard at construction and his dialogue isn’t bad either. But he can’t create believable characters and tends to rely on stereotypes – you may groan when you first realise that Luther is the black friend of the leading man has no reason to be in the film apart from to be martyred, especially once he’s said that he’s giving up the grifting game.

Another limitation of the film is the imbalance between male and female characters. Indeed, were it not for the delightful presence of the great Eileen Brennan as Billie, Henry’s old flame, then the film would seem to take place in a world where men never grow up and remain little boys playing silly games with each other. In a way, it would be better to have no women in the film at all because then we might not notice that they only appear in order to establish that the leading men, however much they might flirt with each other, are strictly heterosexual. There is also that horrible music score, anachronistic ragtime music filleted by Marvin Hamlisch. Millions of people loved it so I’m obviously out of step.

If I seem to be taking The Sting, which aims to do nothing more than give the audience a good time, a little too seriously then that’s got something to do with those seven Academy Awards. I know we’re not meant to take the annual LA charade as a guide to cinematic excellence but the public, as a whole, probably do and one gets the impression when growing up that the ‘Best Picture’ really is the high watermark of cinematic excellence during any given year. The Sting is a very well made film. George Roy Hill maintains a light touch, the art direction by the great Henry Bumstead is often remarkable and the editing from William Reynolds is often quite brilliantly sharp. But the film has no contemporary resonance at all and it doesn’t cut remotely deep. Nothing wrong with that in itself. But in a year when the American cinema produced Mean Streets, American Graffiti, The Long Goodbye, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, Badlands and The Exorcist, along with edgy, unusual movies like Sisters, Slither, Charley Varrick, Payday, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Save The Tiger, it seems perverse that it should hold up something so fluffy and innocuous as The Sting as the jewel in its crown. The reason, however, is pretty obvious. At a time when Bertolucci and Friedkin were taking images further than had ever been allowed in mainstream cinema, The Sting offered traditional family entertainment made with genuine skill. It’s hardly surprising that Hollywood would choose a film like this as its public face, bedecked with glittering prizes.

The Disc

The Sting has long been a candidate for the special edition treatment. The first American release in 1998 was panned and scanned while the widescreen replacement in 2000 offered a poor transfer. The original UK release, although in the correct ratio, was also disappointing. In September, Universal released a new R1 edition of the film with a new transfer and an hour-long documentary and it is this which we now get in the UK.

The 1.85:1 transfer looks very nice indeed. The lighting by Robert Surtees is deliberately muted to provide a period look and this leads to a fragile look to the film. The DVD transfers this very nicely with strong colours and the slightly brown tinge to the film faithfully reproduced. The picture is a bit too grainy but, it seems, not as much as the R1. I haven’t seen the film look as good as this since my experience of the original theatrical release.

The bad news is that the only English soundtrack we’re offered is a remix of the original mono into Dolby Digital 5.1. The US version also had the original track and this, sadly, is missing. It’s not a particularly obnoxious remix – the surrounds are filled in by the music and some ambient effects while dialogue remains generally monophonic – but I would still prefer to have the original. Consequently, I haven’t given a mark for the audio quality.

The main extra is a documentary put together by Charles Kiselyak, It’s divided into three parts which can be accessed either individually or combined into a whole. It’s not bad at all with contributions from most of the key participants including Redford, Newman, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, David S. Ward and Marvin Hamlisch – the director, George Roy Hill, is no longer with us. The level of intelligence is high and there’s genuine affection shown towards Hill (although I’d rather see him get credit for his lesser known movies like The World of Henry Orient and the messed-up but fascinating adaptations of Slaughterhouse 5, The World According to Garp and The Little Drummer Girl.).

Along with this making-of piece, we get the re-issue trailer from a time when most movies still weren’t available for home viewing in full until the first TV showing three or more years later. There are also some brief production notes.

Several subtitle options are available for the film and also, refreshingly, for the documentary. This is something which Universal are fairly consistent at providing and other DVD companies should take note – it really does make a difference which enables people who are hard of hearing to enjoy a special edition.

If I’ve been hard on The Sting, that’s because it’s a film which is touted as a masterpiece when it patently isn’t. It’s a well made con game comedy which has a good screenplay, some likeable performances and a great look. Sometimes, in a world where most films are pretty mediocre, this is enough. But that’s not necessarily something to be proud of.

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