A few weeks ago in a Facebook post I encouraged readers to request reviews of films that I haven’t talked about in the blog yet. The first request I received was for Blue Jay, which I discussed a few weeks ago. I also received a request for The Sting, which I had not seen before and which is only streaming with a rental/purchase fee rather than currently being included with any of the major streaming subscriptions. I finally decided to purchase the film this week and was glad I did. Though I’ve decided to write this review after just one viewing, I suspect it’s a film that benefits from being experienced multiple times and I’m certain I’ll discover new aspects of it each time I watch.
The Sting tells the story of Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), who resides in Joliet, Illinois in the midst of the Great Depression. Hooker spends his days perpetrating cons with the help of his friend Luther (Robert Earl Jones), who abruptly announces his retirement. Luther doesn’t get to enjoy his retirement though, because the last person he and Hooker ripped off was a numbers racket for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Luther is murdered by Lonnegan’s men and Hooker flees to Chicago to join up with Luther’s friend and big-time con Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) in the hopes of taking down Lonnegan.
That summary is only the opening 20 minutes or so of The Sting, an intricately scripted buddy heist film that is often ranked among the best screenplays ever written. David S. Ward’s script doesn’t contain a single scene that’s unnecessary to move the plot forward. Occasionally, that focus on plot comes at the expense of character development. The dialogue and the action are so often focused on setting up the next hand that director George Roy Hill will play that I sometimes wished we had a little more time just to get to know Hooker and Gondorff. That said, Ward’s plot twists stand the test of time. It’s rare for most new films to deliver a surprise ending that works half as well as what Ward crafts here.
This is one of two classic films Hill directed that starred both Newman and Redford, the other being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Of the two, I enjoyed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid more. It is more satisfying in terms of characterization and letting it’s stars share screen time. As a viewer I felt more detached from Hooker and Gondorff, but still enjoyed the overall story their characters inhabit. Robert Shaw as Lonnegan is also perfectly cast. His is my favorite performance in the film.
Chicago’s presence in The Sting is incredible. Some of the best tracking shots and moments of action utilize the city’s iconic features, such as the “L” train platforms and Union Station, so that their features play a role in what’s happening rather than being mere set decoration or background. The way characters talk about surrounding towns is also impressive. It’s always a nice touch when characters talk about a city and region the way people who actually live there would.
My biggest technical complaint is that, because this film was released in 1973, it features a relentless utilization of wipes. I’m sure that editing technique was a cool novelty nearly fifty years ago, but my god, seemingly every transition in this film is a wipe. It gets tiresome very fast and it’s the one technical flaw in a film that is otherwise crafted with great care.