Movie Review – The Sting (1973)



Winner of seven Academy Awards, The Sting reunites Robert Redford and Paul Newman in George Roy Hill’s masterful caper.  The film opens with shots depicting the Great Depression and we immediately realize that in these tough times conning others will be tougher than usual.

Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a con artist, a confidence man whose sole purpose is to make others believe his lies and ultimately pay him.  The con works this way: the con artist invests a bit of cash in the mark (the person being conned) to gain his trust, and then the mark will eventually “invest” much more than that in the con artist.  Hooker and his mentor Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) scam money from a man delivering lottery “numbers” payoffs and inadvertently steal $11,000 from a dangerous Irish banker/gangster, Doyle Lonnegan.  Luther is found and murdered and Hooker flees to Chicago to meet with a famous con expert Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  There Henry, discovered drunk, will teach Hooker everything he needs to know about The Big Con and everything that Luther hadn’t had a chance to teach him already. Their plan seems simple but is very intricate, has to do with illegal betting on horse races and involves many people.

What makes this film a classic and a masterpiece is that every element is properly in its place and is, quite frankly perfect.  The lead performance by Redford is great; we see him play a cocky young con artist who needs a good lesson in patience. However, the performance in the film is Newman’s.  His performance as Gondorff has the qualities that made his earlier performances great and the ones to come great as well: conviction and that twinkle in his eyes.  As Gondorff he starts as a drunk, cleans up within minutes and then plays it to perfection to the end.  Redford had all the charisma in the world and it assisted him in molding Hooker, but Newman carried the look of experience and we notice early on the teacher/student relationship.

The cinematography is shot like that of a classic film with lot of camera tracks and some deep focus.  But because this film was shot in the 1970s the zoom lens is also used a lot.  There are more zooms in this film than I’d like but I really can’t complain because they accomplish their purpose. A good example is a shot looking into a Chicago apartment and seeing Hooker in bed with a woman, and then the camera zooms out and we find ourselves inside of the apartment opposite where a black gloved hand is positioned low within the frame.

We see old-fashioned rusting cars and disgusting back alleys, we see empty bottles strewn all over the streets; there are a lot of brown hues that support the aesthetic of better days gone sour.  There’s lot of contrast in the shadows and the shadows even carry a green tint which reminds us that this film takes place during the Depression; there is an effect of realism that contributes to the feel of the film.

There is a strong similarity between this film and director George Roy Hill’s preceding masterpiece Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  In both films, Newman and Redford are anti-heroes but more so in Butch Cassidy.  There they rob from trains and banks breaking many federal laws but we support them, here they con a bad guy out of his money without breaking the law.  There, they are equal partners to the bloody end; here Redford plays the pupil to Newman’s mentor but is still the star of the show (with Newman stealing that star at every chance that he gets).  Both films are heavy in detail of their periods and the brilliant one-liners never cease to put a smile on my face.

There is little to nothing to criticize about this film and I really can’t think of anything wrong or bad, in the traditional filmmaking sense.  There is so much that is good. Robert Shaw proves again that he plays an outstanding bad guy, always with a hard look and being condescending to everyone around him.  The opening song “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin is so famous that if one was to play it to anyone they’d recognize it immediately, whether or not they could place why they know it.  Finally this is one of the greatest caper films ever made because the audience is in on the con.  Whether or not we keep up with the plot, attempting to second guess everything that happens, we are having a great time watching everything in this film go right.


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