The Sting (1973): Newman and Redford Reunited

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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.

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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

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

KissMeStupidPosterWhile a less heralded picture, this Billy Wilder film is a minor classic built around a contrived comedic situation. Dean Martin opens playing a parodied version of himself as Dino the boozing, womanizing, but altogether good-natured playboy who makes a short pit stop in the gas station of the small town of Climax, Nevada following his latest Las Vegas circuit.

The beauty of his performance, though it may be exaggerated, there is no sense that this is a thinly veiled caricature. It’s blatantly obvious that “Dino” as he is called in the film is really only playing his “Rat Pack” persona that was known the world over.

That sets the groundwork for the film’s self-reflexive nature that is keenly aware of its cultural moment and the preoccupations of the general public as with many of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s best scripts.

Truthfully I’ve always been fond of Ray Walston ever since my first viewing of My Favorite Martian and before this picture, he cropped up in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Although I do adore Peter Sellers (who had to bow out due to a heart attack) and he’s often an ad-libbing genius, somehow Walston seems to more aptly fit the bill here.

That doesn’t mean I don’t regret that Jack Lemmon couldn’t take the role because he really was Billy Wilder’s greatest comedic counterpart, portraying every bit of neuroses that manifests itself in the middle-class everyman. He just gets it and putting him opposite his real-life wife in Felicia Farr would have been another delightful ironic layer to this comedy with its roots in infidelity.

No matter. It was not to be and what we are left with is still some fairly hefty star power. Walston audaciously takes center stage as Orville Spooner, a small town piano teacher with a paranoid fit of jealousy in relation to his gorgeous wife (Felicia Farr). He believes everyone from his teenage pupil to the local milkman is out to pluck his bright-eyed, loving bride away from him.

That’s of the utmost importance when his buddy (Cliff Osmond) dreams up a plan to get themselves a contract deal with Dino. It involves hosting the conveniently laid up pop singer, getting rid of Orville’s wife, and employing the services of one of the main attractions at the local watering hole The Belly Button — the one and only Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak). It seems simple enough to get her to masquerade as Orville’s wife just for the evening so she can make Dino feel at home.

You can see already that the narrative is entangled with bits and pieces of The Apartment (1960) and The Seven Year Itch (1957). Miscommunication and four parties involved means all sorts of foreseeable consequences. Kiss Me, Stupid is also fully aware of the contemporary Hollywood framework much in the same way of Sunset Blvd. Thus, it’s not above satirizing the ways of the entertainment industry — especially the movie stars — with the Rat Pack placed front and center thanks to Martin.

The small-time piano man and gas station attendant also have dreams of being the next Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer dynamic duo with aspirations for The Ed Sullivan Show no doubt.

Even in its throwaway lines about churchgoers, there’s something starkly sobering being acknowledged as there are in many of the things that Wilder finds time to take a jab at. The owner of the Belly Button, Big Bertha, has all her girls attend the local church because she thinks it’s good for public relations.

It passes like a blip but the suggestion seems to be that these lines of dialogue and what we see on screen might point out some kind of hypocrisy and although it’s played for comedy, instead what I see is the inherent brokenness.

The film spins in such a way that the infidelity somehow ends in a kind of loving understanding that feels like utter absurdity but maybe Wilder has done that on purpose. Still, in spite of myself, I found some humor in this film in ways that I never could in The Seven Year Itch or The Apartment.

The first was too empty with little to offer of substance and the second is often too stark and morose to be funny. This film is raucous and utterly insane in a sense but that’s the way Wilder likes it from Some Like it Hot (1959) to One, Two, Three (1961). Kiss Me Stupid isn’t such a spectacular comedy with some misfires but there’s no doubt that Wilder still has his stuff.

He always seemed to take a very basic concept that was wacky and far from allowing it to fizzle out, he sees it to completion, finding an ending that derives laughs while simultaneously providing wry commentary.

In another screenwriter’s hands or another director for that matter, the romantic comedy aspects would be endangered of becoming trite and uninspired but no such issue here. Wilder would never allow it.

The punchline of Kiss Me, Stupid is that both spouses were deceptive and unfaithful but they do it out of love — that final touch of trenchant Wilder wit. Ultimately, the film’s title is reminiscent of the famed quip in The Apartment (1960), “Shut up and deal.” You get the same sense of the relationship.

The men are essentially cads — spineless at times — and lacking much of a moral makeup (even if Orville plays the organ at church) but their women seem to give them some substance whether they be barmaids or plucky housewives. It’s still slightly mindboggling that Wilder pulled this movie off and got away with it no less.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Apartment (1960)

The_apartment_trailer_1What has always stood out to me about Billy Wilder’s films and the writing behind them is that you can almost always observe cynicism paired with wit. They are continually sharp, often funny, but they also are underlined by more serious topics altogether. This quality is what allowed him to make films as diverse as Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. There’s a subversion of the norm that sometimes is dark, sometimes is funny. His second pairing with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment seems to fall somewhere in between.

The legend is that this story formed in Wilder’s mind after watching a Brief Encounter, about a tryst between an English man and woman. What interested him was a very small detail indeed. What type of person would allow his place to be the location of such a rendezvous? And in such a question came the inception of C.C. Baxter a man who was unwittingly funny, but also pitiful as played by Lemmon.

He’s a man trapped in the bureaucracy, attempting to climb the corporate ladder of a  company. He’s fighting in this game of survival of the fittest and trying to get ahead the only way he knows how. Lending his flat out to higher-ranking executives who are looking for a place to take their dates and have a good time. Baxter is somewhat of a hapless stooge though. He’s far from shrewd and his high ranking pals like him for it. He follows their requests. Does what they want. He’s a perfect cog in their plan. He’s one of them. Even Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss and his landlady get the impression that he’s a real high flyer since there’s always music emanating from his suite and bottles piling up outside his door. But he lives the charade and spends many a frosty evening waiting for his customers to clear out. It’s certainly a sorry existence, but he doesn’t mind at first since it pays off handsomely as he moves up the ranks.

One of the more personable employees in this mass of humanity is elevator gal Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine), who is always friendly with Mr. Baxter since he is a true gentleman. However, she is also caught in an affair with top exec Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and she is actually in love. It’s a messy situation made even more complicated when Sheldrake asks Baxter for the use of his flat. He enthusiastically agrees, but he has no idea who else will be there. That’s one of those painful moments of dramatic irony where our opportunistic nonetheless lovable protagonist gets hurt. Lemmon is good at playing the drama movingly and filling his scenes with organic humor (much like the late Robin Williams).

At this point, C.C. Baxter becomes the general scapegoat for his colleagues and even his neighbors. Everyone gives him a hard time for things he has not done or does not really deserve. Sheldrake leaves his wife and looks to solidify things with Fran, and this moment is paramount because Baxter finally mans up. He may have lost his job, but he got to finish the best game of gin rummy of his life.

I must admit the themes of The Apartment are not always my favorite. I am much more partial to Some Like it Hot or even The Odd Couple, but Lemmon makes the film for me. Whether he’s straining spaghetti through a tennis racket or trying on his new suave business bowler for size, it’s hard not to like him. Ray Walston, Fred MacMurray, and about every other character is a cad. Shirley Maclaine is pretty good, but then again she’s never been the most captivating for me actress-wise.

When it’s all said in done, this is not Wilder at his absolute best, but teaming up with IAL Diamond elicited another classic vehicle with Jack Lemmon. Now shut up and deal!

4/5 Stars

The Sting (1973)

Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw, the film follows a small time con man (Redford) as he joins forces with an old pro (Newman) to pull an elaborate Sting on a shady banker (Shaw). The two meet after the death of a mutual friend and they set up a complicated plan. With the help of their friends, the two of them make contact and thus begins the adventure. Soon the con man gains the trust of the victim. However, the plan gets even more complicated when a heartless cop and the feds come onto the scene. The double-crossing con is then forced to cross his partners he and faces the consequences. Then, one final twist and you have the worlds greatest Sting. With its ragtime music, 1930s setting, and ensemble cast including Ray Walston, Harold Gould, and Dana Elcar, this film is full of excitement and certainly worth seeing.

4.5/5 Stars