The Sting (1973): Newman and Redford Reunited

the sting 3

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.

the sting 2.png

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.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

butch cassidy and the sudance 1.png

Despite my general reluctance to say that the Western in its classical form was on the way out, it’s hard not to make such an assertion looking at the landscape of the late 1960s. The Wild Bunch is a common marker of the seismic shift leading to the complete obliteration of the classic western mythology, but there are some related themes strewn throughout Butch Cassidy that make it equally representative of an era or so one could argue.

The times were changing historically speaking and that plays out cinematically in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bicycles are the future, destined to replace the old reliable horse. And the western hero as we knew him has long since gone, replaced instead by vengeful tough guys and in this case a pair of bank robbing antiheroes. Bonnie and Clyde were the new standards and out of that trend, we saw more like them.

So it’s not just the fact that the film takes place at the tail end of the Old West, slowly evolving into the modern, or New West, but simultaneously the genre would never be the same. There’s a bit of a wistfulness to it all. The legend is fun. The mythology is something to be thoroughly embellished, but it too comes to an end. It’s only a wisp of a memory made of sepia tones and silent newsreels. But Butch Cassidy and Sundance will be remembered fondly by the audience just as the West is. Maybe that is enough.

Unfortunately, Butch Cassidy as a film does have its shortcoming which became more apparent with time. It’s possible to be a dated period piece as this film is (although it’s hard not to love “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head). Still, it can be plodding and some would argue it’s about nothing substantial, nothing meaningful at all. Still, it manages to be one of the greatest western comedies of all time only eclipsed by its own heavy dose of cynicism.

It’s funny watching Butch and Sundance go through their motions. Butch (Paul Newman) is the brains who bemoans the fact that banks are getting upgrades and shipments are being made by trains. After all, they are constantly on the move and it becomes a constant guessing game. He’s given more grief by his gang that looks to overthrow him led by the hulking thug Harvey (Ted Cassidy).

And on top of that every lawman wants him dead. In such moments, being the idea man that he is he entertains thoughts of joining the army for the Spanish-American War or even going to a far off land like Bolivia. Content with his gunplay and letting Butch do the thinking, Sundance rides by his side, certainly his own man but also part of this comic duo.

William Goldman’s script is brimming with wry wit that’s almost inexhaustible. But Paul Newman and Robert Redford loom even larger as the titular stars in this epic buddy comedy. In the age where winning charm and star power still seemed like a genuine box office draw. You came to see actors and in 1969 there were few actors as commanding as Newman and Redford. They had looks and charm. Cool and comedy. Charisma goes a long way. For those very reasons it’s an impressive film and enduringly entertaining. If we cannot watch a film and enjoy it as pure entertainment at least on some level, it really is a shame because that’s one of the many joys of the cinema.

But there’s also something admittedly depressing in how their story evolves. It can no longer be about snide repartee and living the good life robbing banks, continuously augmenting their legendary notoriety. It’s light and funny for a time before slowly spiraling into a deadly cycle.

Perhaps my faith in Butch and Sundance wavered slightly but I will go on resolutely and maintain my immense affection for them that began as a boy. This is still a wonderful film. Outlaws do not have to be one-dimensional. They can be just as funny as they are depressing. That is their right and the legend of the Hole in the Wall Gang is exactly that type of story. We don’t have to see them die. Instead, we get the satisfaction to leave them in one last shining moment of triumph. One final triumph of the West as we once knew it.

5/5 Stars

Slap Shot (1977)

slap-shot-2

The question is, what to do with Slap Shot? It’s grungy, dirty, and foul-mouthed. Bloody and violent. Did I mention profane and boisterous? Loud and obnoxious? Yet somehow there’s still something idiosyncratically lovable about this board busting hockey film. Is it wrong to call it an adult version of The Bad News Bears? After all, the men that the film follows are actually real professional hockey players. Not some kid looking to play at their local gymnasium. Except hockey’s still not the biggest sport (not even today) and the Charleston Chiefs are a minor league club if I’ve ever seen one.

But it’s precisely that quality that keeps us around. Because we all gravitate towards the rejects and the bottom dwellers. The people we can easily feel sorry for and who simultaneously make us feel a little bit better about ourselves.

In bringing George Roy Hill back with Paul Newman and surrounding him with quite the cast of lug heads, epitomized by the gloriously violent Hanson Brothers, Slap Shot somehow became a cult classic.

Player-manager Reggie Dunlop is in the twilight of his career. It’s hardly a secret that the Chiefs aren’t doing so hot and it looks like this might be their last season. It’s a fairly abysmal existence for all involved then Dunlop has the bright idea to let go of any inhibitions. Soon he has his boys brawling with everyone imaginable. Opposing players, fans, referees, anyone who is living and breathing. The funny thing is that this new style of play actually elicits winning results and the public loves them for their brutality.

One perfect illustration of this chaotic pandemonium occurs when the opposing goalkeeper goes diving over the boards to continue his showdown with Paul Newman. They shared a few choice words beforehand. That’s putting it lightly.

But these are also the same group of guys who leave every battle bloodied and bruised. The same group of guys who wind up playing cards on the bus or get mesmerized by the latest corny soap opera on television at the local watering hole. They’re a sorry lot who also happen to be ridiculously funny at times.

It’s the rowdiest of films with at least a couple screws loose. If we were to be pretentious I guess who would chock it up to Slap Shot having “Character.” But I’m not sure if it would be too far from the truth to blame this film for leading the charge in legions of awful R-Rated comedies with no merit whatsoever.

Even with Slap Shot, there are some rather interesting tonal shifts. It’s as if Nancy Dowd’s script looks to get sincere once or twice. Or there were thoughts of getting dramatic. But then the gloves came off and the sticks were thrown aside and there was a collective “Nawww!” from all involved. Not surprisingly this was one of Paul Newman’s favorite roles because he’s not just a ne’er do well or an old crotchety wise guy, he’s a legitimate scuzzball.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Slap Shot’s soundtrack is now synonymous with the bouncy infectious notes of Maxine Nightingale’s 1975 classic “Right Back Where We Started From.”  The added addition of Fleetwood Mac doesn’t hurt it either. So, yes, I would hardly call this one a revered classic, and I’m still digging around for some redeeming qualities. I’ll let you know. But Slap Shot never claimed to be anything of those things.

It’s unashamedly crude. Gratuitously violent but so over the top as to be comic and there’s not even the slightest attempt to cover any of this up. It could be that Slap Shot is one of the more honest portrayals of human nature. Humanity loves sports. We’re often losers and outcasts with few redeeming qualities when you really get to know us. That’s by no means a promotion of Slap Shot but more of a qualification.

3/5 Stars

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Not that it matters, but most of it is true…

The film opens with some old sepia-toned footage of a notorious gang from the turn-of-the-century and that is when we meet our two anti-heroes Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). Butch is the brains behind the operation (I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals) and Sundance is the brawn, with the most accurate gun in the West.

They make a living robbing banks and trains, but due to their lifestyle, they seldom come out ahead. Life becomes more difficult with tumult within the gang, a crackdown by the authorities and a price tag on the heads of Butch and Sundance.
Soon it becomes evident that their life of crime will never be the same with a professional tracker on their tails and a posse formed to see them hang. They are chased through hills, rock, water, and the like before finally getting away in one final desperate attempt at escape.
With one last brilliant piece of inspiration, Butch decides they should head for Bolivia to lay low, and soon enough they pack their bags and bring along The Kid’s girl (Katharine Ross) to the promised land of South America. They get more than they bargained for thanks to the language barrier and a lack of decent plunder. However, even abroad, their legend grows, winning them the new moniker “Banditos Yanquis.” The pair takes a stint on the right side of the law for once, but it somehow seems bleaker than their early days as bandits. It is evident that the hourglass is running out on them. And so it does, but not without one final glorious battle to cement the aura around two legends of the West.
I will not go so far as to call Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a masterpiece because I have read too many reviews to know that there has been a great deal of division over the film. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that I quickly grew to love this story. This appreciation stems from the spot on chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Their outlaws are not your typical thugs but lovable buffoons you cannot help but cheer for through all their screw-ups and pratfalls. Paul Newman has his ever-present mischievous smile plastered on his face, and Redford plays the cool and collected Kid to the tee. Perfect casting for the roles and to think it might have been Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty.
 
They got together again in The Sting, which was another good film, although I will always be partial to their first collaboration. William Goldman’s script can only be described as a fun romp that accentuates the comradery of Butch and Sundance. The musical score by Burt Bacharach with the inclusion of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” is often at complete odds with what we have come to expect with classic westerns, but that suits the film just fine.
 
You see this is not your typical western by any means. It’s not supposed to be. Butch and Sundance are working in the twilight of the West. The horse is soon to be replaced with the future: the bicycles. Bank vaults are becoming more complex, fervor for the Spanish-American War is at its peak, and lawlessness is no longer going to be tolerated. Whether people realize it or not, this film is one in a final wave of classic westerns that finally petered out in the 70s. Now the western genre, just like the West before it, is dead. A dying breed of genre much like film-noir or even musicals.
 
That’s why Butch Cassidy works for me. People have criticized the constant change in tones, but this story never claims to be the absolute truth, and it would not be the same film if it did. This story of outlaws is not a history lesson but a legend about two infamous bank robbers. There are moments where we love these antiheroes and moments where we do not know quite what to think of them. They become disillusioned and beaten down by the changing times. Their ambush in Bolivia has only one apparent conclusion. It ended in a bloody and violent death. However, we do not have to see that for the sake of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In one mythical moment, they regained their previous status. They went out as they came in, and they will forever be remembered as Butch and Sundance of the Hole in the Wall Gang. They have since been replaced by superheroes on the silver screen, but in their day and age, they were the original supermen — tarnished as they were.
What is amazing is that the film has not only resonated with audiences for generations, but with the leads themselves who really identified with their roles. That is perhaps the greatest compliment to its characters. 

5/5 Stars