The Sting
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The Sting

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There are certain movies that seem to come out of nowhere to become classics. The plot may be simplistic, even somewhat silly, but the synergy between writer, director and cast propels the film into lasting greatness. In 1973 one such film came to the attention of the public, The Sting. Over the years there have been many flicks about con men and the elaborate ploys they use to separate a mark from their money. Con men are among the top strata of the criminal element, they donít take the money by force; they depend on the greed of the victim so that they are willingly handed the money. The story, as involved as the con it depicts, starts off simply enough. Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) are a fairly successful team of con men. In a routine job they pull a switch on a numbers racket in Joliet Illinois which was not appreciated by the mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who controls the racket. Lonnegan reacts violently, throwing Colman out a window to his death. Hooker swears vengeance on the mobster; he wants to take him for everything he has. To this end Hooker enlists the services of Yoda of con men, Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), using a small band of con men to help Hooker and Gondorff start one of the most complex cons possible in motion. It appears that Coleman was highly regarded in the world of the con and old associates gather round to help in the scheme. J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston), the Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe) and Kid Twist (Harold Gould) each is assigned specific tasks, each one with a vital part to play to make Lonnegan fall for their ploy. First the team entices Lonnegan with a carefully rigged poker game. The stakes are not high enough to rune the mob boss but it does serve as the basis for the bigger plot, the real sting, and a horse race that promises the greedy Lonnegan a fortune. Naturally, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. The police, in the form of Lt. William Snyder (Charles Durning) and his crooked cops, join Lonneganís men trying to track down Hooker, resulting in FBI Special Agent Polk (Dana Elcar) also being drawn in. All of this works throughout the film heading for the climatic showdown at the race track. Complex, sure but in a strange way it works better than most films ever could hope.

There is something undeniable about this film, people are drawn to it. There is a likeable quality about every aspect of it from the sets to the costumes and the stellar cast. Set in 1936 affords the Sting the opportunity to display a flamboyant time in American history, the great depression is over and the tumult of World War Two had not yet begun. Fashion reflected that glee that pervaded the country and the costume designers took this to an almost satirical height. The script is full of little plot twists and turns that keeps the audience always wondering about what will come next. The cast does appear to be having a lot of fun doing the film; there is an exuberance to the performances that makes this film such a classic. One thing is note worthy about the music that scores the film. Many of the works of Scott Jplin are featured. His rag time style is joyful and a perfect fit for the flick. The thing is the rag time craze died out some quarter of a century before the film takes place. It did, however, make rag time popular again if only for a brief time. Marvin Hamlisch took the works of Joplin and fit them so well into the feel of the film that the audience really doesnít care that it is not historically accurate.

This film had a lot of advance hype in1973 because it was the on screen reunion of one of the great acting teams, Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Many felt that what they had in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was just a fluke but this film demonstrated to all that they are able to combine there talents and again make film history. Redford has the look of a con man down pat, confident, always ready with an explanation, a man that will pat you on the back while picking your pocket. Newman with his famous blue eyes gives us a man that has become a legend among con men, at the pinnacle of his nefarious trade. Together they form an outlaw team that even though we know this is a crime we cheer for their success. Few actors had the stage presence of the late Robert Shaw. He commands the screen every time he appears. Here, he can play the mob boss with flair and distinction like few could.

It is doubtful that any director other than George Roy Hill could have delivered a film of this lasting credit. First of all he was familiar with the leads; he did direct them in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He also showed he was willing to take chances on strange little films like Slaughterhouse-Five. Hill paces this film to absolute perfection. Just when you think you have a handle on what is happening the plot takes an expected twist and the fun starts up anew. He takes the style of the time not as it was but how we would like to remember it. He is able to infuse such sheer energy into the film that it remains a timeless classic, as fresh and entertaining today as it was when it was released.

Universal has been releasing its many classics in special two disc editions and thankfully they included the Sting. The restored anamorphic 1.85:1 video is absolutely the best around. There is no a hint of defect or artifact to be found, just the brilliant colors of the sets and costumes. The audio gives the choice between Dolby 5.1 and DTS. I found the DTS a little more robust with a better back fill. Both give a new perspective on the wonderful soundtrack but is mixed so it never over shadows the witty dialogue. There are other releases around but do yourself a favor and stay with this ultimate edition. As with the other films in this release series the extras go above and beyond. The Art of the Sting includes interviews with Redford and Newman on the making of the film from a very personal perspective. The Perfect Script goes into the pre-production chores necessary to bring this tale to the screen. Making A Masterpiece chronicles the actual ploys used in the film with a retrospective of great cons in film. The Legacy is a tribute to George Roy Hill. In all this is a film for the whole family, one that will brighten the worse day. It is an absolute must have film and this DVD set is the proper way to enjoy it.

Posted 9/9/05

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