Dropping on Netflix UK to remind us all of the kind of wonderful cinematic experience that almost no-one is having right now, George Roy Hill’s multiple Oscar winner and massive hit (the biggest of 1974) has shown little staying power in popular culture beyond massive tv audiences for its first showings, and a B-team sequel in 1982. And there’s an obvious reason for that; although this caper-movie isn’t about race, there’s multiple used of the n-word that are problematic for today’s audiences, and trigger warnings should be adhered to.
That said, much of the music in today’s charts features the same language without considerably less context, so let’s dive in; we meet grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) on his beat, conning an unfortunate victim out of a larger than expected sum of cash. Unfortunately, the mark turns out to be a runner for Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a real shark and crime boss who promptly offs Hooker’s accomplice. This prompts Hooker to head for Chicago to team up with another charming con-man, Henry Gondorf, played in a successful comeback by Paul Newman. Fuelled by sheer 70’s megastar charisma, the two men concoct an elaborate plot to seek revenge on Lonnegan, and despite a few setbacks, it works like a dream…
The Sting’s heavy plotting and studio backgrounds are unfashionable now, and were something of a throwback in the 70’s, but David S Ward’s script is still sharp, and there’s some classic scenes, notably Newman’s fake-drunk act when he card-sharps Lonnegan on a train. Scenes like this go on for at Tarantino-length, but such largesse is justified when actors of this calibre are involved; Redford grabs the baton in a great follow-up scene in which he fools the wounded Lonnegan with a sob story that cleverly reworks true events into a deceptive fiction. Even better is the downtime; with inspired use of Scott Joplin piano, Hill creates wordless montages that capture Gondorf and Hooker in repose and in action, and these sequences still pop today.
I saw The Sting on its first tv showing on Christmas Day 1979, and it was old-school even then, harking back to the 1930’s and revelling in being out of step with the modern world. Watching it again, this is still a sophisticated story, hinging on a horse race we never even see, and garlanded with some lovely illustrated titles. There was once a time when movies were about stars, and it was the draw of Newman and Redford, together again after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that packed them in. Shaw also has a role to relish here, his threatening character adding genuine gravity and tension to the story. The Sting shouldn’t be packed away and forgotten; it launched a thousand heist movies, and even if it’s quaint by today’s standards, such Runyon-esque tales of moral con-men and justified revenge reflect something positive about the adventurous soul of America.