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The Sting
Legacy Series Edition

The Sting
1973 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 129 min. / Street Date Septermber 6, 2005 / 26.98
Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, John Heffernan, Dana Elcar
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Art Direction Henry Bumstead
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music Scott Joplin
Written by David S. Ward
Produced by Tony Bill, Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips
Directed by George Roy Hill

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Sting is a favorite from 1973, a movie that showed that establishment Hollywood could co-exist with new talent, in this case writer David S. Ward, who wrote the perfect retro-hip vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman. When other big movies were giving us grim realism and existential endings, this show wasn't afraid to lighten its gangster millieu with a jaunty attitude and a happy ending. The Sting was sort of a middle-of-the-road champion at the Oscars, a hit that an Academy member could safely vote for instead of The Exorcist. Even the radio cooperated by suddenly playing 65 year-old Scott Joplin tunes. And Steven Spielberg surely saw this hit and knew exactly where he could get a great shark hunter for Jaws.


Talented but inexperienced grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) seeks revenge against mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) after the murder of his mentor, Luther Coleman (Robertearl Jones). Legendary 'long con' artist Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) takes Hooker under his wing, and in respect for their murdered comrade, the best grifters from across the country converge to pull off an enormous caper that involves creating an entire fake betting parlor. But Hooker doesn't tell Gondorff that a crooked Joliet cop named Snyder (Charles Durning) is on his tail for counterfeiting. He also doesn't let on that Lonnegan's hitmen have sniffed him out as well. If FBI man Polk (Dana Elcar) manages to corner Hooker, the result could be disaster -- but Hooker downplays the danger.

It took 1993's The Grifters to present a more realistic view of the sordid confidence lifestyle; before The Sting only the amusing The Flim Flam Man resided in recent movie memory. David S. Ward's deliciously complicated screenplay avoids a central romance to instead concentrate on the buddy-buddy criminal hikinks of the charming Newman-Redford pairing. Audiences previous to this were accustomed to having anything involving subterfuge spelled out for them. The con-games in 1968's The Flim Flam Man are carefully explained so as to leave no audience member behind.

Perhaps the puzzle-picture success of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth made it easier to float a screenplay idea that asks an audience to listen up and pay attention to details; surely the average Hollywood producer would have to pretend they could follow the story. Youthful producers Tony Bill and Julia and Michael Phillips were definitely new-breed but also hip to what was great about old Hollywood product, something that must have appealed to the two stars.

With exteriors shot on location in crumbling parts of Chicago, The Sting drips with nostalgic sets, decor and costumes, a grand Bonnie & Clyde production design assignment. The streets are carefully painted to have the look of old paint and Depression disuse, and the show cleverly creates an 'artificial realism' to contrast with the fake trickery of Gondorff's long con.

The script combines old-fashioned linear storytelling with jarring surprises. The film is arranged into chapters introduced with page-turn title cards painted in a Norman Rockwell style. Establishing shots are all matte paintings. Yet the story has no problem floating several layers of mystery and trickery on top of the tricks we're being shown. The viewer's attention is amply rewarded by resolutions that top our expectations and make us feel part of the game, even if we're being fooled. On a first viewing, it's unlikely that anyone but an Agatha Christie zealot will see through all of the levels of con.

One of the levels that The Sting wisely doesn't stress too strongly is that Henry Gondorff's long con is very much like a movie production, right down to the fake scenery and actors playing roles. It's all done to steer one chump (the audience?) in the proper direction to be fleeced.

The nostalgic feel is well-served by all the Scott Joplin ragtime tunes, arranged and played by the talented Marvin Hamlisch. It is no matter that for 1936, they're twenty years out of date. The only visual touch that doesn't seem right are the 30s style optical wipes and irises. The old original opticals in better pictures had a lot more finesse.

Newman and Redford get to play further variations on their established screen characters, with Newman acting slightly 'older' for perhaps the first time. The real joy is watching all of the character actors get a chance to do their stuff. Beetle-eyed Charles Durning was actually an actor contemporary of Robert De Niro. Robert Shaw finally got a role to put him in the spotlight; he'd been in movies for almost twenty years and should have been given accolades for The Luck of Ginger Coffey ten years before. Ray Walston downplays his con-man role in the spirit of the show. We could stand to see a lot more of him and Eileen Brennan -- in a perfect world they'd get to do drama together. Harold Gould is a cool hustler with breeding, Dana Elcar is a tough minded G Man and Robert Earl Jones provides a sentimental opening for the picture. Dimitra Arliss is the sloe-eyed waitress that Hooker picks up at closing time. Their doorway dialogue is perfect. "I'm just like you. It's two A.M. and I'm alone and don't know nobody."

Universal's Legacy Series edition of The Sting presents the picture in a dandy enhanced 1:85 transfer. Universal started out the DVD era with many indifferent flat transfers and it's good to finally see this picture in a decent presentation. Robert Surtees' delicate photography needs a good transfer to avoid appearing flat. The audio has been given a 5.1 remix.

The extras are all on a second disc. Actually, there are two extras, a solitary reissue trailer and a Charles Kiselyak-produced making-of docu called The Art of The Sting. It has full interview involvement from Redford, Newman, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, David S. Ward, Dimitra Arliss and Marvin Hamlisch, and is enlightens despite the fact that it's overloaded with clips and spoilers. Someone should invent a generic logo card warning people not to view featurettes and docus like this one before seeing the main show.

David S. Ward explains how he put his script together and the actors split their time evenly between solid information and back-patting fluff, but the only really bad part comes when it looks as if Universal told the producer to pad the last act out with more praise of the late director George Roy Hill. All in all, it's great when a docu has access to key creatives like this - even though the film's director, its star Robert Shaw and producer Julia Phillips have all passed away. Marvin Hamlisch's section on the music is also full of surprises - the reason the score works so well is that most of the ragtime piano tunes are heard in the clear, and not behind dialogue.

Although the docu is a full hour in length, the edition seems light on extras. The sturdy book-like disc case leads us to think there should be more treasures inside, especially with two discs to fill.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Sting rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0), English (DTS 5.1)
Supplements: The Art of The Sting - A Retrospective on the making of The Sting, Trailer
Packaging: 2 Discs in a "Little Golden Book" case
Reviewed: August 30, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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