George Roy Hill’s ‘The Sting’ (1973) is both a tribute and a sort of reimagining of the American Depression years, where conmen and wise-guys could be found on every street corner trying to get by using their wits, charm, and in the case of the latter, their homicidal tendencies. Comprising of a terrific cast, a scrupulous eye to detail, and some anachronistic ragtime music, Hill’s ‘The Sting’ is a piece of light entertainment that, while not the deepest or most emotionally resonating film to be produced, has a certain charm to it that’s utterly undeniable.
The film stars (or rather, co-stars) Robert Redford as Johnny Hooker, a small time grafter who unknowingly steals from Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a big time crime boss, when he pulls a con with his partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones). After his partner Luther is killed on Lonnegan’s orders, Hooker flees to Chicago and seeks the help of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), one of Luther's past contacts, who is a master of the long con.
Hooker wants to use Gondorff's expertise to take Lonnegan for an enormous sum of money to avenge Luther, since he admits that he "doesn't know enough about killing to kill him", leading the two men (as well as some fellow con-artists) to put together one of the most convoluted and ridiculous cons to ever captured on film.
Previous to George Roy Hill’s ‘The Sting’, Redford and Newman teamed up together in Hill’s other famous work, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969), but unlike their first pairing wherein their platonic chemistry was at the forefront of Hill’s work, and arguably a great help to the film’s success, in their second pairing together the actors’ comradely almost seems to play second-fiddle to the con, which is far more complex and deep than the characters portrayed by Redford and Newman (and almost everyone else in the film for that matter).
Robert Shaw, playing the film’s villain Lonnegan, seems to be one of the few actors in ‘The Sting’ to break free from the caricature their stuck playing, adding a touch of vulnerability to the character that, while making it believable that he might fall for Hooker-Gondorff’s con, doesn’t affect our perception that he is a dangerous and intelligent criminal.
But while ‘The Sting’ is a film that, at times, feels entirely plot-driven, with “caricatures” in lieu of actual “characters”, this particular criticism against the film quickly fades away beneath the other aspects of the film, which show a great deal of development and attention to their construction.
The sets and scenery succeed perfectly at capturing the look and feel of Depression-era America, so much so that it’s almost impossible to believe that the film was made as late as 1973, so believable and tangible is the film’s evocation of the 1930’s. And while Scott Joplin’s ragtime music might be a bit out of place in a film set in the ‘30’s, the music (featuring the now ubiquitous and smile-inducing tune, ‘The Entertainer’) seems to fit almost perfectly, magically even with the story, and adds yet another layer of depth to Hill’s film.
Finally, the con itself is a wild and complex scam that might require multiple viewings before its audience fully comprehends the sheer ingenuity (or insanity) of it. While the characters of ‘The Sting’ might not be the most well developed, there’s no denying that "The wire scam” that Hooker-Gondorff pull off is one of the most convoluted, byzantine, and yet strangely satisfying cons to ever be captured on screen, and is a sheer joy to see play out before our eyes.
To say that George Roy Hill’s ‘The Sting’ is “light entertainment” would be only be half-right: The characters aren’t the most three-dimensional, and the emotional impact of the film isn’t anywhere near as potent as other films, but Hill’s ‘The Sting’ easily draws in our attention and keeps it, its’ witty dialogue, face-paced action, and impressive attention to detail helping to overshadow the film’s other, less inspiring elements. Although lacking in emotional resonance, ‘The Sting’ more than makes up for it in intellectual stimulation: clever, dense, fun and funny, Hill’s ‘The Sting’ manages to entertain, and proves that while it might not be the most profound of films, at least it’s one that’s a lot of fun to watch.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.