The Sting is a perfect movie.
If, for whatever reason, I were put in a position to do it all over again, there's not a role I'd recast, not a line of dialogue I'd tweak, not a note of music I'd change, and not a shot I'd reframe. This 1973 period piece about a couple of ambitious Depression Era grifters and their elaborate hustle of an ice-blooded crime boss doesn't need any revisionist fiddling. It's perfect as it is.
A few years removed from the unparalleled box office success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting reteamed director George Roy Hill with Paul Newman and Robert Redford for the second and final time. The Sting trounced Butch Cassidy's already colossal box office take and netted seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Don't take my heavy-handed praise and that mantle full of statuettes the wrong way, though. The Sting isn't some ponderous melodrama; it's a sharp, witty caper flick with an edge that's still razor-sharp and gleaming nearly three and a half decades later.
Much like a con man's hustle, the setup is deceptively simple. Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a two-bit con artist working the streets of Depression Era Chicago with his mentor (Robert Earl Jones) when they unexpectedly land a hefty payday. It's enough money for the aging Luther to leave the hustle behind, not that he has time to enjoy his newfound fortune. They've inadvertently lifted from the coffers of Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), and the unflinchingly brutal crime boss quickly sets out to make an example of these low-rent grifters. Luther is brutally murdered, prompting the brash Hooker to seek revenge the only way he knows how. Not knowing enough about killin' to return the favor, Hooker turns to drunken, washed-up Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) for a crash course in pulling off the long con. With a small army of Luther's pals lending a hand, Gondorff and Hooker put the "art" in "con artist" as they engineer an elaborate scheme to use Lonnegan's greed against him, fleecing the murderer for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Admittedly, The Sting isn't the gritty, profound sort of film that instantly springs to mind when most think of the state of cinema in the '70s, but it's too well-made a movie to shrug off as light entertainment. There's really not much that The Sting doesn't do extraordinarily well, but one of the aspects of the movie I find particularly impressive is the unique tone it strikes. Luther's murder casts a dark shadow over its first act, and a combination of nimble, economical storytelling and an exceptionally strong cast quickly gets the audience where we need to be. Luther may only have been on screen for a few minutes, but he's so instantly likeable that we want to see his death avenged. We buy that his mentor's murder would drive Hooker to such a risky, gargantuan undertaking. Lonnegan rarely is seen so much as raising his hand yet exudes menace. As the movie becomes jauntier and the perpetual smirk of its convoluted scheme gets underway, the shift to a lighter tone is handled so adeptly that I barely noticed it happening. This is owed in large part to the bouncy, buoyant, Academy Award winning score by Marvin Hamlisch, largely a reinterpretation of Scott Joplin's ragtime from even earlier in the century. I doubt most people think of a score as amounting to much more than background music these days, but The Sting would not have been nearly as effective if not for Hamlisch's arrangements.
Much like a grifter pulling off his hustle, The Sting immediately earned my confidence and yanked me in hook, line, and sinker. The Sting deftly manipulates the audience in much the same way that its hustlers string Lonnegan along, with a slight of hand revealed in its final few minutes that's both surprising and wholly earned. The hustle itself is cacklingly complex but easy enough to follow, so sharply written, bolstered by such eminently quotable dialogue, and so flawlessly delivered by an exceptionally strong cast that I had a goofy smile plastered across my face for the better part of two hours. Infectiously fun and masterfully crafted, The Sting is the type of movie that's instantly appealing at first glance but demands multiple viewings to fully appreciate. Readers who overlooked The Sting on DVD should consider rediscovering this timeless and tremendously entertaining classic with this new high-definition release.
Video: The Sting's 1.85:1 high-definition presentation doesn't rank with the best of '70s cinema on HD DVD, but it's hardly a disappointment. The disc's production notes delve briefly into the intended look of the film, attempting to reproduce a sense of the thirties through period lighting and a palette heavy on browns and maroons. Those aren't hues prone to popping off the screen, and it follows that its colors aren't particularly eye-catching. Even given that, though, the color timing is a bit dodgy, with saturation varying greatly from shot to shot at times. Clarity is even more erratic. Many shots are crisply defined and brimming with detail while others are a soft, smeary mess, the worst of them looking more like I fished a Ken Films 8mm reel out of a K-Mart cut-out bin than a shiny new HD DVD. The Sting is a fairly grainy movie as well, a look that fits the film's aesthetic but can be somewhat distracting at times, especially during some of the optical transitions. On the upside, there's very little wear in the source material, and the VC-1 compression doesn't buckle under the weight of the ample film grain.
I've been spoiled by some of the truly outstanding HD DVDs of classic films that Warner and Universal have issued, and The Sting doesn't approach those heights. I'm sure many of these flaws can be attributed to the original photography, and even though the high-def visuals fall short of greatness, they're certainly good enough.
Audio: Two of the most instantly engaging elements of The Sting are its sharp dialogue and its bouncy ragtime score, and both of those come through wonderfully in this Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack. It's easy to mistake for a plain-jane stereo track at first listen, though. There's a good bit of stereo separation across the front channels, but the rears are sparsely used aside from some periodic light ambiance, and there's rarely enough heft to the music and sound effects to coax much of a rumble from the subwoofer. The modest roar of the El Train is about as far as its lower frequencies dip. It's a fine effort, though. The mix stays true to The Sting's monaural origins and accentuates some of the strongest features of the film, and that's really all I went in expecting.
It's worth noting that the film's original monaural audio is offered alongside the six-channel remix. The HD DVD's other audio options include a 5.1 Spanish dub, a 2.0 French track, and the usual assortment of subtitles.
Supplements: This HD DVD features the same set of extras as the 2005 'Legacy Edition' DVD, offered a second time in standard definition. Considering The Sting's enormous box office success -- adjusted for inflation, its nearly $600 million take makes it the fifteenth highest grossing film of all time -- it's surprising that there's really only one extra of note.
Despite the 2005 date stamped on the tail end of the hour long documentary "The Art of The Sting", its interviews were apparently compiled over quite a long stretch of time. Nearly all of the key actors reminisce about their work on the film -- Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Charles Durning, Dimitra Arliss, Eileen Brennan, and the late Ray Walston -- as well as writer David Ward and composer Marvin Hamlisch. The documentary opens with a runthrough how the project came about and why the three principals behind the astonishingly successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reteamed a second time, along with detailed comments about the way Hamlisch's interpretations of Scott Joplin's ragtime music were used in the movie. Nearly every remaining moment of its hour runtime is devoted to one story after another: a briefly stolen Porsche, an unexpected limp that Robert Shaw was convinced would torpedo his role but instead became a character trait, and that hardly a word of dialogue was changed during filming even though the movie owes so much to decisions made on the spot, to rattle off just a few. "The Art of The Sting" isn't deep or particularly revealing, and even if it's wholly deserved, the overwhelming praise directed towards everyone and everything could stand to be dialed down a notch or two, but it's a really fun documentary and is well worth setting aside an hour to watch.
Rounding out the disc's extras are a considerably above-average set of production notes and a weathered, letterboxed reissue trailer.
Conclusion: A film doesn't have to be a sprawling, epic triumph of the human spirit to be great, and the unrelentingly witty The Sting still oozes charm even more than three decades after taking home an armful of statuettes at the Academy Awards. The Sting is one of my all-time favorites, and especially for those who missed out on the 2005 Legacy Edition release, this HD DVD is essential viewing. Very, very Highly Recommended.