Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood to properly enjoy The Sting, or maybe it’s because I’ve seen far too many films that are heavily inspired by the classic film. The film is great, with an authentic look and feel, and amazing performances, but I think having seen other films that plagiarise so heavily lessened the impact of the film. It doesn’t help that this film is widely considered a classic, so I feel I will be rehashing what’s already been written, but let’s delve into The Sting.
Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a small-time con man who loses his partner over a debt. When Johnny teams up with a serious grifter named Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), the two hatch a scheme to ruin the life of wealthy gambler Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
My apologies in advance, this review was started awhile back so plot details may elude me. I honestly don’t feel I should be reviewing this film at all considering the plot is so intricate that it really requires a fresh mind. Director George Roy Hill creates one of the preeminent con man films with The Sting, and it is a masterpiece of cinema. I may not have praised it as highly after watching it, but I can’t deny it’s a legendary film that does find itself worthy of being watched. The 1930s setting is expertly conveyed through the sets, the costumes, and even the usage of the 1930s Universal logo before the film opens. The sets are colorful, but with a coat of dull grime and wear permeating the atmosphere. I can’t think of another film immediately that invokes the style of the time period it’s attempting to depict. You truly feel immersed in 1930s Chicago here.
The actual creation of the heist, and eventual payoff, propels the film through its over two-hour runtime, and any movie that analyzes the criminal underworld has borrowed from The Sting in some way. The shady backrooms, the bars, all of them tell the audience of the criminal underworld that is, in its own way, respectable. Doyle Lonnegan is a respected man despite his well-known reputation as a gambler and a cheater. He wins so much because he always rigs the game. That ends up being a major theme of The Sting, how one rigs the game and where is the line drawn in terms of being unfair.
The long con has been done in other films, but I can’t fathom one that goes to the lengths this film does. When you talk about big stakes, The Sting shows that the stakes have never been higher, and all manner of lengths will be gone to in order to pull it off. One scene even has them erecting an entire business to pull it off. A great scene has to be when they take over a betting operation to make it look like one of the con men works there.
When you’re not wrapping your head around the plot, the acting is just phenomenal, from Robert Shaw and Paul Newman in particular. Robert Redford is good, but I didn’t find him as charismatic as I did in Inside Daisy Clover. Here, he’s not the charming character you follow; that honor goes to Paul Newman. Newman is the cool cat, the King of Cool if you will, and he earns that title. When Newman starts shuffling the deck to get all aces you can’t help but find something sensual and soothing in his shuffling. He holds the deck carefully like a woman, and it shows that this is a man who appreciates the con above all else. When he’s up against Lonnegan in the poker game, one of the best poker scenes I’ve seen, both men are equally skilled and you’re left to ask who’s truly better? Robert Shaw is amazing as Lonnegan! I love Robert Shaw for a multitude of reasons, but here he is an intimidating force as Lonnegan. At any moment you expect him to up and kill someone.
In writing about The Sting, I can’t say I didn’t like it. There’s a lot to like, and I’d watch it again to better hone my thoughts. I definitely think it’s a film you need to be in the right frame of mind for since the plot is intricate (as many con film are). The acting from Newman and Shaw is top-notch as well.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.