Sting, The: Revisiting Oscar Winner

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, “The Sting” won 7, including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Scoring. Among many distinctions, it’s the first Oscar winning film to have a female producer, Julia Phillips, alongside with her then husband Michael Phillips and Tony Bill.

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

The clever, intermittently entertaining picture is now 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 Yesteryear’s Remembered”; and others.

The film’s plot is rather rudimentary, sort of an excuse for linking a string of vignettes and adventures. When the mentor of budding con artist Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford at his 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 his most charming), a one-time master conman, who has recently fallen on hard times. Together, Hooker and Gondof seek revenge of Lonigan with the elaborate “sting,” that stands as one of the greatest double-crosses in movie history, complete with an amazingly surprise finish.

Set in 1936, “The Sting” captures both the ragtime music and the gangster pictures of that decade, a synthetic period piece compounded of Scott Joplin’s rags. The movie is full of crooks, but they are of the sweet and soft kind, not the menacing or scary.

Cashing in on his previous success, the comedy Western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), director Hill re-teamed its stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, in a Depression-era Chicago-set comedy about the conceits of con men against a big-time racketeer. Unfortunately, the film is directed in a mechanical, impersonal by George Roy Hill.

Released to mostly good reviews, “The Sting” grossed an immense amount of money, ranking high on Variety’s List of “All-Time Film Champions.” The movie has charm, and its music, Scott Joplin’s piano rags, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, became immensely popular throughout the country. Still, many felt that commercial blockbusters like “The Sting” 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. Given mostly banal dialogue to rehash, Newman and Redford almost let their period hats do the work for them.

Too diffuse, David S. Ward’s disjointed script feels like a pastiche of Damon Runyon tales. “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. Audiences are invited to wait around to see what the sexy duo would do next. The stars show strong chemistry that almost camouflages the fact that there are no women in their lives

The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael noted that the absence of women was really felt in this movie. Indeed, giving the heroes unimportant female characters for romance or bedmates, such as Eileen Brennan, reflected 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. Overly long (130 minutes), the movie drags on, chapter after chapter until it reaches its anticipated climax.