This review contains minor spoilers.
The Sting is a 1973 caper film starring Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Robert Shaw, about the antics of Johnny Hooker (Redford), a grifter from Joliet, Illinois who rips off the wrong man. Set in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, the film opens when Hooker and two of his partners rip off a courier for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw), whose goons exact revenge on the gang. This costs Luther Coleman (Johnny’s mentor and one of the three who conned the courier) his life.
Following Luther’s last advice, Hooker seeks the wisdom of Henry Gondorff (Newman) to teach him the “big con” in effort to get back at Lonnegan. At first, Henry is reluctant, but eventually the two of them devise a plan that plays to Lonnegan’s weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. They will sucker him in with a rigged poker game, then get him in on a faux horse racing operation, a foolproof plan that they know will work brilliantly.
Gondorff poses as a boorish bookie named Shaw, while Hooker poses as his disgruntled employee Kelly. After losing a particularly high stakes poker game to Shaw, even after cheating, Lonnegan is livid, and Kelly comes by to collect Shaw’s winnings. When he does, he confides to Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaw’s operation, and that he needs a powerful man like Lonnegan to accomplish the task. Lonnegan agrees to test the waters, but he isn’t too trusting of Kelly. The initial test works, and Lonnegan gets in up to his waist, then up to his neck before the ultimate con is pulled off in the very satisfying end.
THE GOODThis movie’s screenplay is based on real-life capers committed by brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff, so the characters are in some ways based on real people. This is one point of the movie that I have no complaints about whatsoever. The main characters are all very convincing, especially because they have such great people behind them (namely, Redford, Newman and Shaw).
The plot is rich and detailed, and it plays right to my inner intellectual. Once I was able to noodle the whole plan through, I found it to be deliciously ingenious. The whole time, oblivious Lonnegan is Gondorff and Hooker’s plaything, and their revenge on him for Luther’s death is sweet indeed.
I have few complaints about this movie, but no movie is without sin. First, I want to say something about the pacing. Oh my word, the pacing. The first half of the movie is some of the slowest paced cinema I have ever seen, outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have to wait an hour before anything really exciting happens, and even then, the exciting parts are drowned out by the absolute banality of everything that surrounds them. Rather than two hours, the same story could have been told in an hour and a half, maybe even an hour and fifteen, and it would have been just as good a movie. But this is just my opinion.
Second, I want to contrast the preceding with the last half hour of the movie, which is paced way too fast. You spend all this time trying to think through this incredibly complex plot, and then all of a sudden, a wild Plot Twist appears! And it’s not even a good one, either! It was contrived from the very beginning, when Lonnegan sends his best hitman after Hooker (whom he has never seen and doesn’t know is also Kelly). This hitman’s identity, aside from his name, is purposefully obscured throughout the entire movie, and for what reason? To justify the existence of a plot twist. I mean, this film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But it wastes a perfectly good plot twist on crap!
Also in the last half hour of the movie, we see Lonnegan’s downfall and the second plot twist of the movie, which is actually a pretty good one once you understand it. But that’s the problem. You have to really think about it to understand what happens there at the very end. And in this era of mind-imploding plot twists, this one is mediocre at best. They should have stuck with just one rather than trying to cram two into the last quarter of the script. Seriously, I’m still grumpy at the total randomness of the first twist.
CONCLUSIONHonestly, I watched this primarily because the WWU Drama Department is putting on an stage adaptation of this film in the spring. I wanted to know what I would be signing up for, were I to audition (and I probably won’t, considering how busy I’ve been). I’d heard of it, but it wasn’t something I would have rushed out and seen. Maybe that’s why it’s been sitting in its Netflix sleeve for almost the last two months (I got it on October 10th).
Yes, the film was entertaining. It had a rich and complicated plot, which I love. It had great characters and great people giving them life. It even had its comedic moments, most notably the poker game that gives us a glimpse of just how good a conman Gondorff really is. (Seriously, it’s the best scene of the entire movie, and it goes to show just how great Paul Newman was.) But these great moments are tarnished by the slow-moving plot and the contrived hitman identity plot twist in the last quarter.
That being said, I give The Sting four out of five. It is at its core a shining example of a caper film, and while it isn’t my favorite ever, I say that you should definitely watch it if you can. You can find it easily on Netflix.
This film takes place in an era when the n-word was bandied about like just another term. It’s used several times when referring to Luther Coleman, who is a black man, and at one point somebody calls Hooker a “g******ed n***er lover”. The movie is also from an era before PG-13, which is the modern-day rating it should have received. The language used is far above the PG level, with “sh**” being uttered several times, but it is thankfully free of F-bombs.
Also, there is one scene near the beginning of a movie that gives a peak at a burlesque act at a Vaudeville show. Two women are shown wearing tasseled pasties and lingerie. Aside from brief shots of the two main characters in bed with their women (no nudity, and sex is only implied), this is the only sexual content in the movie, and while it isn’t nudity in the canonical sense, anybody at the MPAA would consider it such, and so should you.
There is some violence, but in my experience, this is somewhat of a given for caper films. There are several fist fights. One character is killed off screen, thrown out a window. Another character is shot onscreen by Salino the enigmatic hitman. Yet another character is shot in the forehead, but considering the era, this isn’t too graphic. Finally, in the last scene of the movie, two characters are shot, one in the back, and one in the stomach. Any blood shown in the movie is obviously just red dye.