This was a fun one! Last week I watched The Sting, the 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, for the first time. I’m a big fan of David Mamet’s con-man films (like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner – click here for my thoughts on those films and several more by the great Mr. Mamet), so it was fun to go back and watch this terrific Best Picture-winning film.
Robert Redford plays Hooker, a street-tough grifter who, one day, working with his partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones — and yes, I did recognize his voice so I wasn’t surprised to look him up on-line and discover that he was James Earl Jones’ father!) scam a mob runner out of a lot of cash. This, of course, brings all sorts of heat down on the pair. Hooker winds up in Chicago, and tracks down a man he’s heard is the master of the long con: Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Together, the two hatch down a scheme to take down one of Chicago’s major gansters: Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
It’s easy to see why the pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman made this film such a hit back in 1973. The two movie-stars are in top form, and the film gives these two charismatic and handsome actors plenty of room to play. There were a few moments when I felt Mr. Redford laid it on a bit too thick in his portrayal of the young, stubborn Hooker, but for the most part he’s an engaging lead, and his charisma is potent. Mr. Newman is an absolute pleasure to watch from start-to-finish, absolutely smooth as silk as the seasoned confidence man. Mr. Newman is able to convey enormous intelligence and cunning behind Gondorff’s poker-face, and the first time we see Gondorff in action (during the poker-game on the train), it’s clear that he’s a master at his trade, played by a real master of his trade!
Robert Shaw is probably most famous for playing Quint from Jaws, but I’ll always think of him as Donald Grant from From Russia With Love (click here for my review) and also as Mr. Blue from The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (click here for my review). He is absolutely fabulous as the mean, take-no-prisoners gangster Lonnegan. Mr. Shaw puts on an Irish brogue that might not be entirely convincing, but which I loved nonetheless. This man plays the bad-guy like nobody’s business, and he presents a real, credible threat to Hooker and Gondorff.
Hooker and Gondorff surround themselves with a cadre of fellow con-men in order to pull off the scheme, and I particularly enjoyed the performances of Ray Walston as J.J. and Harold Gould as Twist. I think I first encountered Ray Walston as Starfleet HQ groundskeeper Boothby on one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I’ve subsequently discovered his enormous wealth of film and TV work. He’s a hoot as the attentive J.J., the man who Gondorff sends to get all the necessary background details on his marks. He’s a riot to listen to when his fast-talking skills are called into play as a fake racetrack announcer. Harold Gould’s fabulous moustache carries a lot of the weight of his performance, but there’s a delightful sparkle behind his eyes and his smile that makes Twist a character one knows to pay attention to.
Any con-man movie really rises or falls on the strength of the cons shown, and in this case The Sting gets solid marks. The film knows when to slow down and take its time showing us events as they unfold, and we get to see several cons (long and short) over the course of the movie. The film takes the time to show us the details of the various cons and scams as they unfold, which gives the story a depth of detail that I appreciated. This isn’t one of those a-twist-every-minute type of film, but it does carry some fun surprises up its sleeve for the first-time viewers.
There are some moments of simplicity which date the film somewhat (the ease with which Twist can stroll into a bar filled with waiting-to-be-employed con men and whistle up 50 or so eager con men to help with the scam is pretty preposterous, and one also might begin to wonder just when Lonnegan is going to get wise to the scheme), but over-all I think The Sting still works today as an energetic crime picture. I’m glad to have finally seen it!