The Sting (1973). Agh, easy to write about…and even easier having found out, thanks to this wonderful 31 Days of Oscars Blogathon, that it is winner of Best Picture Academy Award. But…hmmm…this is actually a tricky Oscar winner to choose because it means self control to avoid mention of the other win categories. Just have a look at this:
Academy Award Wins
Best Director – George Roy Hill
Best Writing, Original Screenplay – David S. Ward
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne
Best Costume Design – Edith Head*
Film Editing – William H. Reynolds
Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation – Marvin Hamlisch
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor – Robert Redford
Best Cinematography – Robert Surtees
Sound – Ronald Pierce & Robert R. Bertrand
The Players** are fantastic – both the actors and the characters they portray. Paul Newman and Robert Redford have such a great on-screen rapport and complement each other well. In fact, the entire ensemble seems to “gel”. I’ve read about different actors considered for the role but I’m sure that had anything changed this masterpiece would just not have been the same. Robert Redford definitely was deserving of that Best Actor nomination for his role as Johnny Hooker, the small-time con-man who teams up with Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), the big-time con-man, in an attempt to pull off a “revenge” con.
The Set-up is this: you have the audacity to cheat a cheat. Never mind the fact that he’s the big mob boss cheat, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) and knowing that he’ll take notice, in which case you need to plan and create the world of the con convincingly with trustworthy accomplices. The way this all unfolds is something I admire in storytellers. Everything, and I mean everything, flows and ties up and keep you guessing to the last frame. But how many movies manage to convince you on subsequent viewings that things will work out differently this time round? I’ve read that this was inspired by the written account by David Maurer of the real-life Gondorff brothers who pulled off a similar caper, albeit with a different outcome.
The Hook is when you put out that wriggly worm. The lure to get Lonnegan interested. And how better to bait that cheating mob boss’ hook than with a cheat he can’t cheat himself. I have watched that poker game scene over and over and, just like Lonnegan and his bodyguard Floyd (Charles Dierkop), I still don’t get the point at which those cards were switched (ok, yes it’s a movie so naturally I wouldn’t see it but still…). Paul Newman’s brilliant drunk-stint creates more than enough distractions. I suspect the switch was somehow carried out when he kept making those obvious shows of looking at his cards close up to his body and then casting that mistrusting look at whoever was behind him. (This together with the nudist scene in The Prize are two of my favourite Newman scenes.)
The Tale doesn’t only convince Lonnegan that “his” horse is going to win, it even convinces the viewer and in parts of this section I was sure Hooker was going to pull Gondorff down. In fact, every single person involved in the con is so in character that you can never really be sure who is playing whom. You never quite trust yourself. That’s how smooth it is. Even the betting parlor has you thinking it is legitimate despite having watched its creation.
The Wire is what I had to look up and as in the movie, is an outdated type of con where a unsuspecting victim (or, in this case, maybe not such a victim, depending on how you look at it) is fed advanced knowledge of the outcome of a race, being horse racing in The Sting. In this section of the movie, Lonnegan wants to meet the person running the wire at short-notice resulting in a clever office scene. Anyone, even today, would have been fooled by the painters who were in urgent need of yet another fake office. Brilliant execution all round.
The Shut-out is tops. With these guys trying to set up the perfect con, you’d think they’d give Lonnegan a second chance to bet his “test” money just to be sure that the wire is working. Exactly that’s where it comes alive…they plan the perfect outcome ensuring that he is seconds too late to place that winning bet. Possibly that’s what kept suspicion from setting in. At this point you start questioning what Hooker is up to. Those tiny seeds of doubt are sown. And you start thinking that he is, after all, just a “kid” and will blow the whole thing.
The Sting is my absolute favourite section but I won’t give it away. I just can’t – it would be so unfair. Let me just say that the sting of The Sting is one you don’t see coming. And, when you figure out what’s just happened, your smiling jaw will still be half-way open in both disbelief and wonder. At this point you’ll realise that you’ve been smiling right from the start, admiring this story where not a beat is out of place.And, you’ll be nodding in agreement that it is worthy of the multitude of Academy Award wins.
So, Best Picture is very well deserved in this great classic!
*I just can’t resist adding this: Apparently (source IMDB) on winning she said “Dressing the two handsomest men in the world and then getting this.” So lovely.
**The Sting is divided into sections (The Players, The Set-up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-out and The Sting) by means of title-cards.