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: Jaws (1975)

JAWS_Movie_posterAlfred Hitchcock once was quoted as saying, in typical Hitchcockian fashion, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” A young Steven Spielberg channeled this type of sentiment when he directed the smash hit and archetypal summer blockbuster Jaws in 1975. It’s still a cultural phenomenon and for good or for bad, it has forever instilled a fear of great white sharks in the general populous.

The film is a man-versus-beast type of story. It starts off on Fourth of July weekend on a New England resort town named Amity. After a girl is found the beach chewed up, it starts a frenzy. Well, not quite initially because although police chief and mainlander Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to shut down the beaches, the local mayor will have nothing of it. Really, the first half of Jaws is very much political, as the mayor attempts to do anything he can to keep the masses flocking to his town because Amity gets all their revenue from the summer months. Meanwhile, Brody has the beaches monitored, but that does not stop a young boy from getting attacked. Up until now, we have only seen the handiwork of the beast, but in a brief instant we can catch a glimpse of him and it is shocking.

The vacationers flee the shoreline, and Brody is left to answer to the boy’s mother since he did not close down the beaches. She holds him responsible. However, Brody’s hands are still tied, especially when local fishermen catch another shark that they assume is the culprit that has terrorizing the town. He is met by a young marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who also realizes the gravity of this shark problem. No one will take him seriously except Brody, and Hooper labels him the only other sane man on the island.

Because all the precautions that are taken cannot avoid still another shark attack from going down. And it is at this point that Brody and most certainly the Mayor, have to change things. At a tense news conference, they must walk a fine line in order to assuage the locals and the business owners. Ultimately, Brody convinces the mayor to let him go out with the salty veteran seaman named Quint (Robert Shaw) who agrees to take the shark down for a fee.

For most of us, the second half is what we all remember or at least equate with the film (probably for the iconic line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” It is this part of the story that breaks the adventure down to three men, our stars, going off on a mission to take on the terror of a great white (ie. “Bruce”). It feels very Captain Ahabesque, thanks to the addition of the grizzled fisherman Quint, but if he is a stabilizing force it soon becomes obvious that not even he is fully ready to take on this behemoth creature. It seems like no amount of barrels, harpoons, or even a “shark-proof” cage can humble it.

What we end with is utter destruction that spirals out of control. That’s what makes this shark such an intriguing foe because we certainly cannot really call it evil, but it certainly is an overpowering force of nature. Brody stands in for many of us who have an innate fear of the ocean and what lies underneath the surface. For all the plucky young adventurers they have a stand-in in Hooper. I am struck by how tense this film is even to this day, and Spielberg never seems to show is hand too early and he never gives us too much of the shark. Otherwise, it might look faker, and it would lose that heightened anticipation. Above all, John Williams lent a great deal of potency to Jaws, single-handedly, with his ominous score. Without his score, Jaws is nowhere as scary and certainly not as memorable.

5/5 Stars

Review: From Russia With Love (1963)

fromrussia1To Love it, To Love it Not… Sean Connery is back as Bond and so there is plenty to enjoy with From Russia with Love (1963). Out of personal preference, my top three favorite films in the franchise would have to include Goldfinger (1964), Casino Royale (2006) and this beauty, all packed with quintessential Bond.

Sean Connery is arguably the best Bond. Some of that resulting from being the original and also simply because he was made for the role with dashing good looks, an impressive physique, and one smashing accent. Next, comes arguably one of the best so-called “Bond” girls in Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) who plays the beautiful Russian opposite the handsome Brit. They’re a match made in heaven beginning with steamy encounters, followed by violent escapades, and topped off with playful romance. There’s not more you would want, except action and villains and gadgets, which we also get along with some ubiquitous Cold War sentiment.

In this installment, the Soviets are pitted against the CIA and MI6 with the nefarious SPECTRE manipulating both sides. They have received the aid of one of the Soviet’s highest officials in Rosa Klebb, who puts their plan into action. She, first and foremost, recruits deadly assassin “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw), followed by the pawn Tatiana Romanova, who works at the Soviet consulate in Istanbul. She is to be the siren to lure Bond into a trap with the tantalizing promise of a Lektor device (which MI6 desperately wants).

Thus, as any good spy would, Bond goes after this presumed admirer and first meets with station head Ali Kerim Bey. One man is dead and the Soviets suspect the Westerners. Bey’s office is bombed and the Soviets are the obvious culprit. However, the whole time it’s Grant working incognito.

Bond is taken by Bey to a gypsy camp for refugee and after an evening capped by ambush, he has his first meeting with none other than the beautiful Romanova. The new accomplices ultimately steal the Lektor without a hitch and board the train as “newlyweds” with Bey. However, the ever lurking Grant is waiting for Bond and his companions. Without getting into all the gory details, it sets the stage for a great fighting sequence.

007 gets away with a recently drugged Romanova and puts a helicopter as well as a fleet of motor boats out of commission single-handedly. Number 1 of SPECTRE is very displeased, and Klebb has one last time to make things right. She has a wicked pair of kicks. That’s over soon enough.

What’s left is a romantic gondola ride with our two lovebirds and the notes of Matt Monro playing over the kisses. Talk about a first date, this one was a great one, even for all us third-wheelers.

Goldfinger maybe the apex of Bond viewing, but From Russia with Love is a close contender for that title. Its action does not look half bad even after 50 years, and Sean Connery is quite the hero. What more is there to say about Daniela Bianchi except God was very good to her. Very good indeed. It’s a great adventure with everything you would want and expect in a spy thriller. It’s from Russia with love.

4.5/5 Stars

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

a4d49-a_man_for_all_seasonsSir Thomas More had the misfortune of getting in the way of perhaps one of the most notorious kings in history, and it proved costly. It is the early 1500s in England, and the Reformation has shaken the world but Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has his own plans for the church in his country. He is bent on getting his marriage annulled by the pop,e because young Anne Boleyn will be much more likely to give a healthy heir to the throne.

A Man For All Seasons focuses on the position of More who at the time was Lord Chancellor of England. First, in talking with Cardinal Wolsey, More resolves not to sign the letter to the pope on the king’s behalf, because it goes against his conscience. Later, in his dealings with Thomas Cromwell, More resigns rather than to sign an oath making Henry VIII the supreme leader of the church in England.

Except there is more to it than that. More certainly was not a dissident or a rebellious political figure. Far from it. At least in the film, he is portrayed by Paul Scofield as a constantly even-keeled and gracious man in all circumstances. When a young man named Rich (John Hurt) sold More out for a high title, in a Christ-like response More has only pity for the fellow. Selling his soul for the world is worse enough, but Rich did it for Wales.

Not even the pleading of his newly-wedded daughter (Susannah York), or his strong-willed wife (Wendy Hiller) can change More’s conviction as he wastes away in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas went calmly to his death confident that his faith in his Lord would give him eternal peace. He died there for a seemingly trivial reason at the hands of men who used to be his friends. But he died with his conscience intact.

As I acknowledged, Paul Scofield is such a serene force during the storm of this film. The portly Orson Welles and Leo McKern seem to fit their roles well, and Robert Shaw has enough bluster to pull off Henry VIII. A young John Hurt turns in a fine performance as the Judas of the film and Nigel Davenport is commendable as More’s exasperated friend the Duke.

Adapted from a stage play, here is another highly acclaimed film from director Fred Zinnemann. Perhaps it is the period drama, but this film strikes me as very English and it did very well for itself. I suppose because it’s a tale that is universal and audiences love to identify with men such as Sir Thomas More. Zinnemann was always superb at capturing the inner struggles that humanity is often forced to confront, and he did it once again here.

4/5 Stars

From Russia with Love (1963)

This James Bond film starring Sean Connery as 007, finds Bond being thrown together with a beautiful Russian agent in an attempt to steal a Lektor coding device which the woman is willing to take from the Soviets. It began as an obvious trap for Bond but he gathers his briefcase and heads to Istanbul. There he is assisted by Kerim Bey who helps him spy on the Russians, hides him with a group of gypsies, and after escaping he knocks off a Russian agent. There is a small mishap at the hagia Sophia but the infiltration goes as planned and they escape with the Lektor aboard a train. Little do they know what danger they are in and all too soon Bond is fighting for his life against a trained assassin. Only then does he realize the British and Soviets had been manipulated by SPECTRE. Before they can get away completely Bond must stave off a helicopter and a fleet of SPECTRE speed boats. Finally in Venice it looks like Romanova has gotten the best of 007 and yet together they fend off a foe with deadly kicks. All that is left to do is a romantic gondola ride after a job well done. This film has the combo of action and romance that has become the expectation for Bond movies. The supporting cast includes Daniela Bianchi, Robert Shaw, and Pedro Armendariz.

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

Jaws (1975)

This is arguably the first great modern blockbuster and it had such a tremendous cultural impact. Who knew a rogue shark, a wonderfully chilling score, and an isolated setting off the east coast could send so many shivers up the spines of audiences. Jaws is the classic man vs. nature story and proves how deadly it can turn out.

*May Contain Spoilers

The movie that kept millions of people from going in the Ocean in the 70s, Jaws tells of a shark terrorizing a tourist trap off the coast of Massachusetts. The policeman (Roy Scheider) must team up with a marine scientist (Richard Dreyfuss), and a hunter (Robert Shaw) to bring down the monster. Together they embark to try to hunt down and kill this menace of the deep. Little do they know how dangerous this creature is. When they finally meet they are in for a few unpleasant surprises. It is evident that either man or best must win or die. There is no compromise when man goes up against shark. This early Speilberg film was a glimpse of good thing to come and successfully began his great career.

5/5 Stars