Monday, February 6, 2017

The Sting (1973)

Director: George Roy Hill                                  Writer: David S. Ward
Film Score: Marvin Hamlish, Scott Joplin         Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw and Charles Durning

The Sting is, quite simply, one of the greatest films of all time. Everything works in the picture, from the acting to the story to the photography to the music. Even the costumes in the picture were designed by the great Edith Head. This is one time when a film’s Academy Award for best picture is unarguable. One of the more creative and entertaining aspects of the film is that not only are the characters being swindled on the screen, but the audience continually finds themselves fooled as well. The effect is utterly delightful. The film opens with a sepia toned Universal logo from 1936, the time period in which the film is set. Behind the opening credits--beautiful Norman Rockwell type paintings that will also introduce each act of the film--is the unmistakable piano music of Scott Joplin. It’s difficult to imagine a time when “The Entertainer” wasn’t immediately recognizable, but Joplin’s ragtime music had been mostly forgotten when Marvin Hamlish decided it would the perfect accompaniment to the story even though it’s from a different time period. As the music speeds up and adds instruments the principal cast is shown in scenes from the film. As the rest of the credits finish, over a scene from a painting of the Depression, suddenly the painting comes to life in Joliet, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

James Sloyan is a money runner for the mob. After picking up a payment he runs into Robert Earl Jones being attacked in an alley. Robert Redford shows up and the two help him chase away mugger Jack Kehoe. But Jones can’t walk and he needs to deliver some money. Sloyan volunteers and Redford shows him where to hide it in his pants, but tells him he should hide all his money. When Sloyan rounds the corner with the cash he plans on keeping it, but it’s not until he’s in a cab that he realizes it’s his money that’s been stolen. Later, Redford takes his girl out that night and blows all of his share gambling. Mob boss Robert Shaw learns about the theft and orders Jones and Redford’s murder. When Redford learns from vice cop Charles Durning that the money they stole was mob money, he tries to warn Jones but he gets there too late and his partner is already dead. So Redford seeks out Paul Newman, a big-time con artist, to help him take down Shaw to get revenge for Jones’ death. He’s holed up at a brothel run by Eileen Brennan, and is aided by inside men Ray Walston, Harold Gould and John Heffernan. Through all the planning Redford is on the lookout for Shaw’s men, and Durning is on his tail too. They decide to get in on a rigged poker game that Shaw plays on the train from New York to Chicago, then get him caught up in a rigged horse racing scheme that he won’t be able to resist because he wants so badly to get even with Newman who humiliated him during the poker game.

Of course the bare-bones plot is just the beginning, there is also an entire sub-plot con--actually two--going on at the same time that catch the audience up and fool them. In fact, David Ward’s screenplay began as a story of confidence men and the original idea for the project had him directing. But some time later George Roy Hill became attached to it, and having directed the two stars together five years earlier in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get them both onboard. He did two weeks of rehearsal with the entire cast, and it became clear to the actors that because of his meticulous nature and his enthusiasm, that it was going to be a great film. Nearly every aspect of the confidence men’s world had been researched by Ward and put into the screenplay, and Hill was able to bring that world to life on the screen. In addition to the four stars, the cast of character actors is particularly good. Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan, in particular, are marvelous, and actors like Harold Gould and Dana Elcar really rise above their television work to the benefit of the production. Composer and pianist Marvin Hamlish was actually criticized for the use of ragtime because it was from a different time period than the Depression, but Hill, a pianist himself, was enamored of it and Joplin’s music lifted the film to another level of artistry entirely.

The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and took home seven of them, all of them absolutely well deserved. In addition to best picture, David Ward won for his brilliant screenplay, which is where it all began. Obviously George Roy Hill won for best direction, expertly bringing all of the elements together on the screen in a cohesive whole. Marvin Hamlish won for his adaptation of Joplin’s music, which is as much a part of the success of the film as the actors or director. Edith Head won again--her last of eight Oscars--for the costume design, as did the team of Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne, the production designers who created and dressed the sets with historical accuracy. And finally William Reynolds won an award for editing, which was very good, especially in the unique transitions he used. One of the ironies of the film is that Robert Shaw wanted a lead actor credit, with his name beside Newman and Redford’s. If he hadn’t, it’s almost sure that he would have won a supporting actor Oscar as well. And yet because he strained the ligaments in his knee before shooting began, he had been willing to bow out of the role. But Hill decided to use the limp and it became part of his character. The Sting is one of the all-time great caper films in cinema history and one of Hollywood’s all-time great movies in any genre.

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