George Roy Hill’s 1973 classic The Sting is a film laced with cinematic heritage. Yet despite winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film has been eclipsed by another of Hill’s films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When viewed next to contemporaries such as The Exorcist the film cannot be said to be pushing the boundaries of cinema; nevertheless over 40 years on The Sting retains a timeless quality which offers something for viewers of any age.
The Sting is a film of supreme style and by that we don’t just refer to the sharp suits and fancy waistcoats. It offers a masterclass in the art of subtle storytelling. On the face of it the story is a simple one. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, professional con artists Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) team up to pull off a ‘sting’ on the menacing and shadowy figure of Robert Shaw’s mafia boss Doyle Lonnegan. To achieve this aim the two crooks assemble a crack team of co-conspirators and set about laying a trap.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. The twists and turns are an intrinsic part of what makes The Sting so special. In a little over two hours it manages to pack in an intricately-woven story together with well-developed character arcs for all of the major players. The easiest modern-day parallel which can be drawn is with Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans films; the section of Oceans Eleven in which Danny and Rusty begin recruiting members for their team has its roots firmly in The Sting.
Like Oceans 11, part of the charm of The Sting is watching Newman and Redford play off each other. At times Hooker has to pretend to be the antagonist of Gondorff in order to secure the trust of Doyle Lonnegan. They do this with such consummate ease that the boundaries between real and pretend become blurred as the film progresses.
Viewed more broadly, the film is an unashamed homage to a bygone age. Like a classic storybook, the film is divided into clear sections, using still title cards to inform the audience what awaits in the next chapter – ‘The Players’ and ‘The Hook’ – a trope echoed from silent cinema.
Similarly, though set in the 1930s, the film also makes extensive use of the work of ‘ragtime’ composer Scott Joplin whose influence was at its peak around the turn of the 20th century. The metachronous music chimes perfectly with the cheeky and precocious nature of Redford’s character, who becomes embroiled in a number of scuffles throughout the film. In some instances the music seems to become a character in its own right, drowning out the characters’ dialogue yet still managing to communicate the underlying message.
Although the presence of ragtime is one the most memorable features of the film, it is equally adept – if not more so – when music is absent. During one scene on a train Gondorff is engaged in a tense game of poker with Lonnegan. Throughout the scene the sound of the train hurtling through the night creates tension far more effectively than mere silence could. Add to that Gondorff’s loveable tomfoolery and the result is a sequence that perfectly encapsulates the heart of the film.
The characters of The Sting radiate an effortless and sanguine cool. One can easily imagine Redford charming his way around the streets of 1930s Chicago while Newman quietly and patiently plots the downfall of a notorious bully. It is this quality which makes the film such an engaging watch. So magnetic are the two leads that it often feels as though the camera has just stumbled across the pair by chance.
When watching The Sting I am often reminded of the labyrinthine narrative quality which makes films of this genre so enjoyable – think The Departed or The Usual Suspects. Films such as these do not talk down to their audience. They play with your expectations of the genre and by the end you are left having to unpick the means by which the final conclusion arrived. It is a film which can be enjoyed again and again, particularly to see two greats of American cinema inhabit the screen as if it was made specifically for their sole use.