#613) The Sting (1973)
OR “The Wrath of Con”
Directed by George Roy Hill
Written by David S. Ward
Class of 2005
The Plot: Depression-era grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) successfully con a passerby (James Sloyan) out of $11,000. Unbeknownst to either of them, their victim was en route to deliver the money to crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who has his goons track down and murder Luther. Hooker escapes, teaming up with one of Luther’s former associates Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to pull an elaborate con on Lonnegan involving a fixed horse race. There are many twists, turns, and double-crosses along the way, but this movie’s only real objective is that you have a good time watching it.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly a rundown of the film’s plot and Oscar tally, but they do take the time to shout out Marvin Hamlisch’s “unforgettable” score as well as the film’s “strong supporting cast”.
But Does It Really?: This is another “minor classic” on the list. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is the natural choice for a Newman/Redford/Hill pairing, but “The Sting” is remembered well enough that an NFR designation isn’t too farfetched. On the whole, “The Sting” is still an entertaining movie, never taking itself too seriously, with an airtight script elevated by Hill’s lively direction and Newman and Redford’s natural chemistry. A pass for “The Sting”, appropriately joining the Registry two years after “Butch Cassidy”.
Wow, That’s Anachronistic: Despite composer Marvin Hamlisch’s effective use of ragtime music (especially Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”), that genre had its peak 20 years before the events of the movie. Today it would be like setting your movie in the late ’80s with a soundtrack of Beatles music.
Title Track: Within the context of this movie, the sting is the moment when a grifter completes their con and takes the mark’s money, ideally without the mark realizing their money is gone.
Seriously, Oscars?: Second only to “The Exorcist” at the box office, “The Sting” tied “Exorcist” for most Oscar nominations (10) and went on to win seven, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Score. Co-Producer Julia Phillips became the first woman to win the Best Picture Oscar, and Edith Head took home her eighth and final Oscar for Costume Design. Also worth noting: it was just before the Best Picture category announcement that artist Robert Opel streaked across the Oscar stage, still considered one of the most unexpected (albeit possibly staged) moments in Oscar history.
- While working on the screenplay for “Steelyard Blues”, David S. Ward was writing a scene involving pickpockets, and quickly fell down the research rabbit hole of con artists. Out of this research came “The Sting”, which was finally purchased by Universal after sitting in a slush pile for a few years. Ward was initially set to direct but waived this right in order to attract Robert Redford as the star. Redford got his former “Butch Cassidy” director George Roy Hill on board, who in turn brought in Paul Newman to play Gondorff, a supporting role subsequently expanded to give Newman more screen time. Hill gave “The Sting” a lighter tone than initially written, opting for a feel-good homage to the Hollywood gangster movies of the ’30s.
- Oh yeah, this movie makes it very clear from the get-go that this is a love letter to ’30s studio films. From the period-appropriate Universal logo, to its presentation of the cast during the opening credits, “The Sting” announces its intentions loud and clear: “This is all pretend, folks. Just enjoy yourself.” Shoutout to Jaroslav “Jerry” Gebr, who designed the poster and the film’s interstitial cards in the style of The Saturday Evening Post, which explains why every drawing looks like if Norman Rockwell became a courtroom sketch artist.
- Robert Redford strikes out with a beautiful woman? Clearly this is a work of fiction.
- I’m enjoying Robert Earl Jones as one of my favorite tropes: the character that is killed off immediately but is mentioned in reverence for the rest of the movie. Fun Fact: Robert is the father of James Earl Jones, who inherited his father’s warm yet commanding tone.
- Like Butch & Sundance before, Newman and Redford achieve the impossible and make lowlife criminals approachable and likable. It helps that they’re both charming as hell, and have that indefinable star quality that makes you believe even the most outlandish scenario. Side note: Hooker was written to be 19 years old, which explains why everyone keeps calling 37-year-old Redford “Kid”.
- Get out your scorecards everyone, it’s time for another round of “70s Character Actor Bingo”! The NFR is right to single out this supporting cast; between Charles Durning, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, and Harold Gould, there really isn’t a weak link in this chain. Brennan in particular shines as the quintessential ’30s dame. Where’s her spin-off?
- I realized during my viewing that I have never seen Robert Shaw in any movie other than “Jaws” (I fell asleep attempting to watch “A Man for All Seasons”). Obviously Quint is and will continue to be Shaw’s legacy, but anyone looking for an alternative won’t be disappointed in his Lonnegan. Shaw does a flawless Irish accent, and manages to convey his character’s weight and menace through moments of stillness; the tiger waiting to pounce if you will. Not Necessarily Fun Fact: Lonnegan’s limp in the film was real, added after Shaw injured himself on a handball court prior to filming.
- The poker game between Gondorff and Lonnegan is the highlight of the movie, Newman in particular getting a chance to flex his rare comedy muscles. I was surprised to learn that “The Sting” was a comeback of sorts for Newman, whose last few films had been expensive flops, which explains why this is the rare Newman film in which he doesn’t play the lead.
- Half the fun of watching “The Sting” is accepting that this movie is always one step ahead of you. Just when you think you can guess where it’s going, there’s another twist that pulls the rug out from under you. Eventually you accept the movie’s one-upmanship, and just relax and go along for the ride.
- Shoutout to longtime character actor Dana Elcar as FBI Agent Polk, the only character who gets to say “the sting” in “The Sting”.
- The upside to covering movies I deem “minor classics” is that their endings aren’t famous enough to be spoiled in our popular culture. I genuinely did not know how this movie would end, and while it packs a lot in during its final 10 minutes, it does not disappoint. My note for the finale simply read, “Wow”.
- “The Sting” opened on Christmas Day 1973 and was a runaway hit with critics and audiences. This all came to a head in late 1974 when writer David S. Ward was accused of plagiarizing his screenplay from the 1940 book “The Big Con” by David W. Maurer. While Ward confirmed that “Big Con” was one of many books he read while researching the script, he remained adamant that his script was wholly original. Both the Writers Guild of America and the Writer’s branch of the Academy concluded that Ward did not plagiarize his screenplay, though by that point Universal had already paid Maurer a settlement, which led to bad blood between Ward and the studio. Side note: There is also a claim that “The Sting” lifted its plot from a 1951 episode of Orson Welles’ radio drama “The Lives of Harry Lime“, or possibly a 1958 episode of the TV series “Maverick“. Let the record show that Ward would have been 6 and 13 years old when these shows aired.
- David S. Ward has continued working as a screenwriter and occasional director to this day, penning the scripts for such films as “Major League” and “Sleepless in Seattle”. Ward also wrote the 1983 sequel “The Sting II”, which featured none of the original cast (Newman and Redford were replaced by Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis) and was a critical and financial disappointment.
- After the success of “The Sting”, Newman, Redford and Hill expressed interest in a third collaboration. Although Hill would go on to direct both stars separately (Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper” and Newman in “Slap Shot”), and Newman and Redford continued to search for a suitable project following Hill’s death in 2002, the proposed third film never came to fruition.
- Producer Richard D. Zanuck enjoyed working with Robert Shaw so much in this film that he recommended Shaw to Steven Spielberg during the casting of “Jaws”. And now you know the rest of the story!
- Surprisingly, the person who got the biggest career boost from “The Sting” had been dead for over 50 years. Although a revival and appreciation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music was already underway in the early ’70s, “The Sting” propelled Joplin’s music into the mainstream, with Marvin Hamlisch’s soundtrack reaching #1 on the US Billboard chart. Among Joplin’s posthumous honors was a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and a 1977 biopic starring Billy Dee Williams!
Listen to This: Scott Joplin is represented on the National Recording Registry twice: his ragtime compositions for piano roll in the 1900s, and a reorchestration of his opera “Treemonisha” by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976.