Oscar: Best Picture–Sting (1973)

the_sting_posterAfter the British period comedy “Tom Jones” won the Best Picture, in 1963, it took a whole decade for another comedy to win the Oscar.  However, by choosing George Roy Hill’s “The Sting,” a light Depression-era comedy, the Academy found itself under severe attack from its more severe critics, holding that the top award should go to a more significant picture.

Cashing in on the previous success of his comedy Western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” director Hill reteamed stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a 1930s comedy set in Chicago about the conceits of two con men against a big-time racketeer (Robert Shaw).

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, “The Sting” won 7, including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Scoring (see complete list below). Among other achievements, “The Sting” is the first Oscar winner to have a female producer, Julia Phillips (along with her then husband Michael Phillips and Tony Bill).

the_sting_5_redfordConsidered to be one of the greatest con artist-heist movies, “The Sting” also features a glorious ensemble of supporting actors, including Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston. Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, and Dana Elcar.

The clever, intermittently funny picture is available on a two-disc DVD, with new bonus material that include: The Art of The Sting, a Retrospective on the Making of the Movie with comments by Newman, Redford, and other cats members, The Legacy, Director George Roy Hill and the Hollywood of Yesteryears Remembered, and others.

the_sting_4_newmanThe plot is rather complicated, sort of a string of shrewd vignettes and playful adventures. When the mentor of budding con artist Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford at its most handsome) is killed by coldhearted mob boss Doyle Lonigan (a terrific Robert Shaw, just a year or so before his other great performance, in “Jaws”), Hooker turns for help to Henry Gondof (Paul Newman at its most charming and handsome), a one-time master conman, who has recently fallen on hard times. Together they seek revenge of Lonigan with the elaborate sting, which stands as one of the greatest double-crosses in movie history, complete with an amazing surprise finish.

the_sting_3_newman_redfordSet in 1936, The Sting captures both the ragtime and the gangster pictures of the 1930s, a synthetic period compounded of Scott Joplin’s rags. The movie is full of crooks but they are of the sweet and soft not the menacing kind. The film is directed in a rather impersonal by George Roy Hill. Too diffuse, David S. Wards disjointed script feels like a pastiche of Damon Runyon tales.

 

Detailed Plot

the_sting_2_redfordIn 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Johnny Hooker, a grifter in Joliet, Illinois, cons $11,000 in cash from with his partners Luther Coleman and Joe Erie. Before Luther retires, he advises Hooker to seek out an old friend, Henry Gondorff, in Chicago to teach him “the big con,” as their victim was a numbers racket courier for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. The corrupt Joliet police Lieutenant William Snyder confronts Hooker, demanding part of the cut, and Hooker pays Snyder in counterfeit bills. When Lonnegan’s men murder Luther, Hooker escapes to Chicago.

the_sting_1_newman_redfordHooker asks Henry Gondorff, a conman hiding from the FBI, to help him get Lonnegan.  Initially reluctant, Gondorff relents and comes up with an elaborate scam, “the wire,”, which relies on con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor..

 

Aboard the 20th Century Limited, Gondorff, posing as Chicago bookie Shaw, buys into Lonnegan’s high-stakes poker game. Shaw cheats Lonnega, winning $15,000. Hooker, posing as Shaw’s employee Kelly, is sent to collect the win, and he reveals that his partner is Les Harmon (con man Kid Twist) in Chicago Western Union office, which will allow them to win bets on horse races by past-posting.

v3fcwt0nqz3Snyder tracks Hooker to Chicago, but he is summoned by undercover FBI agents led by Agent Polk, who orders him to assist in arresting Gondorff.  Lonnegan, frustrated with the inability to kill Hooker (he’s unaware Kelly is Hooker), demands that his best assassin Saltino be assigned to the job.

Harmon provides Lonnegan with the winner of a horse race and the trifecta of another race. Lonnegan agrees to finance a $500,000 bet at Shaw’s parlor to break Shaw. Snyder captures Hooker and brings him before FBI Agent Polk, who forces Hooker to betray Gondorff by threatening to incarcerate Luther Coleman’s widow.

 

Hooker sleeps with Loretta, a waitress of a local restaurant, but the next morning, a mysterious black-gloved man shoots her dead as she was Lonnegan’s hired killer, Loretta Salino, and the shooter was hired by Gondorff to protect Hooker.

Lonnegan makes the $500,000 bet at Shaw’s parlor on Lucky Dan. As the race begins, Harmon is shocked at Lonnegan’s bet, explaining that by saying “place it” he meant that Lucky Dan would “place” (finish second). In panic, Lonnegan demands his money back. Agent Polk, Lt. Snyder, and FBI officers storm the parlor, and Polk confronts Gondorff.Reacting to the betrayal, Gondorff shoots Hooker in the back. Polk then shoots Gondorff and orders Snyder to get Lonnegan out of the crime scene. It turns out that Agent Polk is actually Hickey, a con man, running a con atop Gondorff’s con to divert Snyder. Hooker refuses his share of the money, claiming “I’d only blow it,” and then walks away with Gondorff.

Released to mostly good reviews, “The Sting” grossed an immense amount of money, ranking high on Variety’s List of All-Time Film Champions. Admittedly, the film has some charm, and its music, Scott Joplin’s piano rags, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, became immensely popular throughout the country. Still, many felt that such commercial blockbusters should not have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in the first place, let alone win.

Both Redford and Newman were at their prime and sexiest in the 1970s, and both look younger than their biological ages. However, given mostly banal dialogue, Newman and Redford almost let their period hats do their work for them.

The Sting joyously strings together chapters in the manner of a Saturday-afternoon serial, each with its own cliffhanger. The narrative is divided into chapters, each with a jokey or literal title. The audiences were invited to wait around to see what the happy couple of Newman and Redford do next. The stars show strong chemistry that almost camouflages the fact that there are no women in their lives

The critic Pauline Kael noted that the absence of women was really felt as a lack in this movie. The device of giving the heroes unimportant women characters for romance or bedmates, such as Eileen Brennan, reflect one of the worst sexiest eras in Hollywood’s history.

“The Sting” is a roguishly charming entertainment about big-time cardsharps and swindlers. But visually the movie is mechanical and impersonal, and you feel as if the music is meant to do the job of the story. The overlong movie (130 minutes) drags on, section after section.

The choice of a “frivolous comedy” as the Oscar winner caused many controversies. Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) found itself under severe attack from its more serious critics. Eyebrows were raised and questions asked: Is “The Sting” Oscar-caliber  Is that the kind of film that should be honored with the most prestigious film award in the world

Oscar Awards:

The Sting won 7 Oscars out of its 10 nominations:

Picture: Tony Bill, Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips, producers

Director: George Roy Hill

Story and Screenplay (Adapted): David Ward

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Henry Bumstead, James Payne

Scoring (Original or Adapted): Marvyn Hamlisch

Editing: William Reynolds Costume Design: Edith Head

Oscar Context

The film lost in 3 categories: Actor Robert Redford, Cinematography Robert Surtees, and Sound by Ronald K. Pierce and Robert Bertrand

Cast

Paul Newman as Henry “Shaw” Gondorff

Robert Redford as Johnny “Kelly” Hooker

Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan

Charles Durning as Lt. William Snyder

Ray Walston as J.J. Singleton

Eileen Brennan as Billie

Harold Gould as Kid Twist, aka Les Harmon

John Heffernan as Eddie Niles

Dana Elcar as FBI Agent Polk, aka “Hickey”

James Sloyan as Mottola

Larry D. Mann as Mr. Clemens

Sally Kirkland as Crystal (“Hooker’s hooker”)

Jack Kehoe as Joe Erie

Robert Earl Jones as Luther Coleman

Dimitra Arliss as Loretta Salino

Joe Tornatore as Black-gloved gunman

Charles Dierkop as Floyd, Lonnegan’s bodyguard

Lee Paul as Lonnegan’s bodyguard

Leonard Barr as Leonard (burlesque comic)

Jack Collins as Duke Boudreau