Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Sting

 The Towering Inferno, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Coogan's Bluff, are all films that I have reviewed earlier on this blog. If you have been a regular reader, and have read those particular reviews, then you will be aware that I referred to the fact that these were films that were regularly played on NZ telly in the early 1980's. I vividly remember the last time I watched The Sting. It was 1983 and I was 12 or 13. I recall talking about it with friends of mine who had also watched it on a Monday back at school.

 Well after nearly 30 years I watched it again last Wednesday.....twice, back to back! And then again last night before I sadly returned it to the library. After those 30 years I could remember virtually everything, but what really hit me was the fact that at 12 I didn't understand the complexity of the plot. And yet I just instinctively knew, even back then ,what a truly great film it was. So when my first watch the other night was over it was fantastic to re-live those boyhood memories, and also appreciate the same film as an adult. The wonderful thing to was even though it wasn't visually new, the complex plot with the twists and turns were. And I must admit I was thrown, as was the point! In other words it got me! Suffice to say I had quite forgotten just how much I loooooovvveeeeeeeeeee this film!!

 The Sting is a 1973 caper film that deals with a pair of professional grifters. Confidence men might be the better known term ,but the producers of the film really went out of their way for accuracy/authenticity. It is based on real life grifters, Fred and Charley Gondorff, and written about in, The Big Con : The Story Of the Confidence Man, by David Maurer. The surprising thing about the film is that all involved in its script and research were relatively young. For instance David S. Ward the screen writer was born in 1945. So it was an incredible feat for such a young man, with virtually no experience, to write one of cinema's finest ever scripts. ( Robert Redford states he knew it was a great script from the moment he read it. But he also realised it needed an extremely accomplished director to make it work ).

 The script was only the start though. Apparently work on the film was a lot fun. In some of the biographies I've read lately a crew and cast can tell by the spirit on set whether a film is going to be good or not. On The Sting the feeling was high and it shows in the final product. The disc I had had several interviews with some of the cast and they all comment on this spirit. They just knew that they were involved in something very special. Redford called it almost 'spiritual'!

  First the script, and then there is the score. I had quite forgotten just how good it was. Honestly from the moment that main melody started my face split into the biggest grin imaginable! ( I kid you not, hearing it for the first time in 30 years I felt goose bumps ripple up and down my spine! ). You all know it ,and I'm sure you can hear it in your minds right now. Entitled 'The Entertainer', it became a top ten hit single in the States at the time. It is such a simple tune, and yet it is one of the most recognisable film themes ever.

 Actually the music is an almost uncredited actor here because it is the icing on the cake to the film. But there was a bit of controversy surrounding it as it is Ragtime, which was a style that had faded out by the Depression era. Yet the producers felt it fitted the film perfectly, and I don't think anyone can argue with it. It really is something very, very special! It was so special it was awarded one of the film's 7 Oscars, of the 10 it was nominated for.

 Over the years I've never felt Hollywood was very good at period type films. For me the English are the best in the world at them ( David Lean as a fine example ). And yet The Sting is an exception. The 1930's Depression air and feel is perfectly replicated. I just wonder why Hollywood has rarely been able to achieve it. Honestly if you look at photos from Depression era America you can see so much that is in the film. As an example, at the very start of the film as the theme is mesmerizing you, just watch the Joliet, Illinois street scene. For me it is epitomised by two images. One the guy rummaging in the trash can, and two, the guy leaning at an acute angle in a shop alcove.Very much images from the Depression.

 But it went even further with this Depression detailing with the very famous and unique way of introducing each new part to the sting. Of course I refer to the individual seven sections that start with a title card. The Players, The Set-Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-Out, and the fianle The Sting. My favorite scene has always been The Hook. Newman , as Gondorff, walks in to the poker game, apologising for his lateness, due to his 'taking a crap'! A superb scene that has stayed in my memory since boyhood, and one I enjoyed immensly watching again. A funny thing though comes out of the term 'sting'. In confidence tricks it was a term of conning money, and yet it has been turned on it's head and is now a law enforcement term!!

 And then the sets themselves! In my review of Doctor Zhivago I made it very clear that I believe hand built props cannot be beaten in a film. Modern CGI just cannot begin to replicate them ( I made this observation about the CGI imagery of San Francisco in, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes ). The sets were built on Universal Studios back lot and are quite simply, brilliant. Certain scenes were filmed in Pasadena and on Santa Monica Pier, but the rest is hand built. 1930's Joliet and Chicago of the Depression really came to life. Add it to that musical score and the film just keeps getting better. The whole Depression era has been meticulously replicated, and for me personally it is one of the very few times a Hollywood production was ever able to do it. When you realise the detailing that went in, it is no surprise why the end result was as close to perfection as a film could possibly achieve.

 So everything was there. A superb script, a brilliant set, and a magical musical score. All that was needed was a cast. And we all know that this is a very,very good cast. There isn't a weak link or performance anywhere. I believe everyone who worked on the set held director George Roy Hill in very high regard. He apparently had exceptionally high standards and a sharp eye for detail. Newman and Redford both state that Roy should take most of the credit for the film's success. He took an acknowledged great script and made it work.

 This was the second, and last time Newman and Redford acted together. As in my Butch Cassidy review I think Newman lifted Redford's acting. I like Robert Redford but I don't think he is in the same league as Paul Newman. But put the two together and there is an undoubted chemistry, that produced two of the greatest films ever in, The Sting and Butch Cassidy.

 But as much as this is a Newman Redford film, for me the stand out was Robert Shaw as Irish mobster, Doyle Lonnegan. For me his gangster performance is the most under rated one ever. I think it must rival Brando's in The Godfather, surely?? Shaw is absolute chilling as Lonnegan. He has the meanest look and a coldness very few actors have ever achieved on screen. He is ruthless, mean, vicious, vindictive, and down right bloody scary. He is not a man to fuck with at all, and Robert Shaw is almost too believable in the role. 'Ya folla?' is about as absolute, chilling, and scary, as 'We made him an offer he couldn't refuse'.

 The interesting thing about Shaw is that his on screen limp was real! He had torn his knee ligaments playing handball, and actually proposed pulling out of the role because of it. Suffice to say it stayed and added an added sinister air to the role. I have read somewhere that Shaw didn't want the role unless his name appeared on the opening billing above that of Newman and Redford's. He also supposedly wanted to be paid a huge amount of money. It is said this was the reason he wasn't nominated for an Oscar. I'm not sure how true this was but fortunately for posterity Shaw played the part. It really is hard to imagine anyone else pulling of the cold hearted sinister lonnegan as Shaw did. I believe Shaw is hideously over looked as Doyle Lonnegan when great performances are talked or written about.

 Of all the ingredients are were there, put together, and the end result speaks for itself. A perfect flawless film. It has defied greatness and gone into the realm of masterpiece .Very few films, even the true greats achieve the flawlessness of The Sting. What is there to criticise, or heaven forbid, dislike?! It has it all, from visual appeal, a score that you can't help but love, superb acting from the entire cast, and above all there is that script. How good is it? After 30 years it sucked me in as I thought the FBI was real, and Johnny Hooker was going to rat out Henry 'Shaw' Gondorff. But then that twist ending!! My god, it was perfection, and one of the great endings to a film ever. But like all films of the type there was just enough clues provided for the observant viewer to figure it out. But the true enjoyment really is to be sucked in. But even after multiple viewings, and knowing how it ends, this is a film that can be watched over and over again. Simply because it is just so damn good.

 I suppose 10 Oscar nominations says it all as well. Best Picture, director, screenplay, art direction, costume design, editing, and music. Redford was the only actor nominated for an award though. But in many respects the Oscars won are the testament of what I have alluded to. Every aspect of the film is detail personified, and in many respects the actors are almost an after thought!

 I just love this film. I had quite forgotten how much I did. For me it is one of the very best films of the 1970's. It is hard to believe that a film that is just flawless isn't in the AFI's top 100 list. It should be because The Sting is a film that got EVERYTHING right. There isn't a weak link in the film, and it must rank as one of the greatest films ever made. The Godfather is considered flawless, and I think The Sting rates the same platitude. It is flawless, and it is not only a great film but it is fun, entertaining, and quite simply a film that should be on your 'favorites' list!

A very, very, very special film.

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  1. They play it a lot on UK terrestial TV especially lately and I always watch it, great, great movie.

  2. it's brilliant isn't it. infinitely watchable. primarily responsible for me watch butch cassidy and sundance just to see these guys again.

  3. Ah my Irish friend it sounds as if UK Terrestial TV are doing what TVNZ did 30 years ago. You are right a 'great, great movie'.

    BLAHblah...'infinetly watchable'...couldn't have put it better myself. Honestly I found I couldn't express enough my love for this film. Just so watchable and hideously under rated by the AFI. This is easily one of he greatest films ever made in my opinion. PERIOD!!!

  4. Cracking film, saw this recently as I've been making my way through the New Hollywood era of films (early to mid 70s) and it was a pleasure to watch, Paul Newman was terrific in his role and the twist was clever.

  5. 'Cracking film' is right!! It is one that you never forget and can watch time and time again. Certainly one of Newman's best.

  6. One the best classical film I've seen. It one of Newman's best acting performance I've even seen. Good review as always.

  7. Thanks James...it is certainly a fine film, just flawless. One of the real greats.