THE STING (1973)

StingredfordnewmanThe first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the film we just watched for our blog (The Sting) is how fun it was. It was engaging and light in a way most of our other films haven’t been. Kind of had a whodunit feel. This was also my first time seeing a young Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The film won in 1973, and it basically tells the story of a young con man named Johnny Hooker (Redford) who sets out to grift a corrupt banker named Lonnegan to avenge the death of his longtime friend Luther. He partners with Henry Gondorff (Newman), renown con artist now wanted by the FBI, in order to pull this off.

Like Newman and Redford’s previous pairing, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting takes a lighthearted approach to the subject of career criminals. It does stick out among winners from its era with its absence of pessimism or morose worldview. The past reconstituted on screen here is not the blood-soaked, MacBethian underworld of Don Corleone. It’s something a little easier to digest.

And the filmmakers obviously did put considerable effort into recreating the Depression era city, with numerous street scenes and various settings. Still, the film left me with the impression of a stylized, fictional 1930s, one where the amazingly elaborate confidence scheme the characters create actually seems plausible and one where the twisty plot works well enough that I may be willing to overlook a plot hole or two.

Speaking of plot holes, I want to talk about one strange part of the storyline. Hooker gets to know a woman Loretta, a waitress at a local diner. He hits on her a few times and asks for her help when he needs to hide in the bathroom to avoid being caught by folks who are out to kill him. Eventually he visits her apartment at night and they share a romantic evening together. It seemed as if they had no real chemistry leading up to this – but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is he is meant to be a tumbleweed, not really attached to anything. She happens to just be there.

Later, though, we see that she was planted by his foes and very nearly takes him out. When she is about to shoot him in another scene, she is shot herself by a man with a black glove who has been hired by Gondorff to protect him. As yet another part of this caper, the con artist himself has been conned – through romance, no less! I found this particular plotline to be interesting enough but fairly unbelievable. I think it could have been strengthened if the development of a relationship between the two characters had been more established. Even a conversation or two more might have gotten my buy in.

Yeah, so a professional killer canny enough to track down her quarry, land a job in the cafe where he hangs out and entice him to her bedroom must put off killing him until they pass in an alley a day later because there were witnesses? Presumably for some reason she didn’t have the resources- despite being hired by a major racketeer- to buy off witnesses or get out of town or whatever. Maybe I just missed something, but the subplot did seem a bit superfluous. Anyway, I’m probably missing the point if I overexamine these things. Does the plot need to be airtight? Whatever Newman and Redford are selling, I’ll buy it.

It is a requirement when writing about The Sting to discuss the music. Ragtime, once America’s popular music, unfailingly connotes bygone times, sometimes to a point of silliness. But Scott Joplin’s music really is a delight, and befits the tone of this film perfectly, so perfectly that no one seems to care that ragtime music had been out of the culture for almost as long as the time elapsed between the film’s setting and its making.

The funny sentence like the one immediately preceding this is a large part of why I married my husband here. He has a very specific wit, and I deeply appreciate it in moments like the one I just had reading that. Ahahaha. Talk about a hole in the plot! Regardless, I wanted to join a ragtime band watching this film. Newman and Redford are both such dapper fellows. I wish this film had a follow up – it was such a pleasant and engaging watch I’d be happy to see a sequel!

Well Katy, the good news for you is that The Sting II was released in 1983. The bad news is that none of the original cast are in it. Doesn’t that sound a little like a movie wherein the rest of the gang robs a train when Butch and Sundance aren’t around?

What is your favorite 1973 movie about Depression-era bunko schemers? The Sting is pretty swell for sure, but I may have to go with Paper Moon, which didn’t get the nomination. What is your favorite Best Picture-nominated 20th Century period piece from that year? Again, The Sting is good, but I’m going to say American Graffiti. I almost wish that were our subject of discussion, as it made Star Wars possible, got things going with the 1950s nostalgia craze of the time, and is a great movie in its own right.  Hey, maybe we can do a faceoff of The Sting II vs More American Graffiti to fight for the title of Least Remembered Sequel To a Beloved Movie.

Also nominated in 1973:
American Graffiti
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist
A Touch of Class

Next film: IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

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