To my mind, there’s never been a dream team quite like Paul Newman and Robert Redford — a perfect one-two punch of camaraderie and cool — it comes so easy. All the ladies wanted to swoon over them, and all the men wanted to be like them. Because what they have together is something envied by us all.
Butch Cassidy was, of course, the breakout success helping to redefine the western in 1969 while also cementing the burgeoning buddy genre. It’s amazing we only ever got one other picture in the storied partnership. Thankfully it was The Sting.
Let me be candid. It’s not as great as its predecessor. I never had the same fondness for its narrative diversions and yet even on subsequent viewings, it assuredly plays to its strengths.
The period crime film captures a strain of nostalgia that feels even more euphoric seen through a second lens. This is Scott Joplin, ragtime, old-time title cards, wipe transitions galore, fine threads, better hats, and an ode to the past — twofold. This is prohibition reintroduced by way of the 1970s.
The world of Chicago gambling rackets fits somewhere in between a James Cagney & Edward G. Robinson’s Warner Bros. gangster flicks and John Garfield’s roles over a decade later (ie Force of Evil). However, while the world is similar, director George Roy Hill has blessed The Sting with a playfulness. It lacks a cynical even brooding edge which would have been so easy to ascribe to. This is the 1970s after all. It would have been in vogue.
But in dealing with the depression years and corruption with a jocular edge, Hill has won himself an audience. He’s made it a game rather than a drama and as such it’s a welcome vessel of entertainment. This is no Godfather or Chinatown, French Connection or Dirty Harry. The Sting gives itself license to lighten up a bit. The delightful opening gambit is a taster for coming attractions introducing grifter extraordinaire: Hooker (Robert Redford), and the old vet who’s taught him everything he knows.
Luther spins tales of “The Big Con” which in their line of business is the big leagues for every man who has ever swindled someone aspires to. He urges Hooker to shake off the dust of their crummy town and make something of his unique talents. If the young drifter got his way, he would have stayed put. Still, he has crossed someone very powerful in local racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). There’s no recourse but to shove off and begin the next stage of his training.
He must meet the man Luther spoke highly of The Great Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). In their first encounter, he’s completely swacked only to utter his first words under a showerhead raining water down on his hungover noggin. When Newman’s grouchy voice finally rings out it’s another form of wish fulfillment we’ve been waiting for. He even soaks his head a la Harper (1966). The anticipation is beginning to set in.
The Hollywood landscape has changed in 4 years. Now Redford is the worldwide megastar. Newman is still a big draw and as good as ever. Regardless, it’s a real hoot to have veteran pros like Harold Gould and Ray Walston. Somehow they feel like television actors to me and that’s by no means a dismissal. In fact, it’s actually a seal of approval; they make The Sting more colloquial even familiar.
Things pick up aboard a train as Gondorf sinks the hook into their pray so they can begin the task of reeling him in for the catch. It’s about keeping the mark off-balance, never letting them know they’re not in control, and making a whole lot of fun for the audience because we’re in on the whole shebang.
He makes a late entrance to a gentlemanly poker game by apologizing, “Sorry I’m late guys. I was taking a crap.” It’s a portent for the entire showdown. Newman hamming it up as the steely-eyed Robert Shaw looks on as if he takes every iota of the other man’s being as a personal affront. It’s a very calculated charade getting under his skin quite effectively. The brilliance of Newman is not taking himself too seriously. He has a good time with every beat and the movie benefits.
It’s a pleasure to watch him walk all over Shaw because Newman might be smug, but we’re in his corner and that comes from his long, hard-fought badge of loyalty. He’s one of those actors we relish playing the scoundrel. Harrison Ford might be the other.
As they look to hook Lonnegan by first getting his ire up and then conveniently setting him up with an ambitious inside man (Redford), we have a game on our hands. Meanwhile, the other boys assemble the crew with a makeshift gambling joint being renovated as they speak.
Hearing Ray Walston’s voice over the action, calling the races, is somehow comforting a bit like having My Favorite Martian reruns on in the background. The film is weak in the female character department but fortuitously Eileen Brennan is able to bring something hardy to the world with her mere presence.
And yet it wouldn’t be a story without a few wrinkles would it? Shaw throwing his weight around in order to play by his rules. They must acquiesce to his demands in order to make him feel secure. Then there’s a nagging cop after Hooker for some prior infraction. Soon even the Feds (led by Dana Elcar) get involved as the whole charade continues to crumble precariously.
Through it all Redford keeps his cool and looks equally fine streaking around town in his suit — usually to keep from getting the book thrown at him. He might as well be channeling the free-and-easy charisma of Steve McQueen from The Cincinnati Kid. Fittingly, The Sting is an apt descendent of not only that film but Newman’s own stellar vehicle: The Hustler.
Aside from just creating a world of smoky nostalgia, Hill is brave enough to have wordless interludes. The music is robust enough, not to mention his stars and his setting, allowing us to appreciate everything. Sometimes more is said in these moments than in any bit of filler dialogue. We get the privilege of picking up the pieces for ourselves and sitting back to bask in the thrills. The last few minutes are the grand payoff, and it’s lightning-quick but never better.
The Sting is short of a monumental artistic achievement, but it is an experience as only movies provide. It gives laughs, payoffs, and twists in a manner that is wholly satiating. To be a part of a communal event like this is something familiar and warm.
The ultimate joy of The Sting is its ability to play the audience as much as the mark and yet still giving us the relish of feeling like we’re in on the joke. It’s a movie that willingly provides the best of both worlds. And of course, we have Newman and Redford. I’ll stand by it. There was never a better pair.