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The Sting (1973)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, John Heffernan, Dana Elcar, Jack Kehoe, Dimitra Arliss
  • Director: George Roy Hill
  • Screenplay: David S. Ward
  • Length: 129 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG

From the film’s outside, The Sting sets a mood. Its reliance on period music similar to that of Scott Joplin, brings the story of a Roaring Twenties grafter who beats a racketeer at his own game to the screen.

While the score is quite strong and authentic sounding, it isn’t the only part of the film that breathes the ‘20s. The film’s sets and costumes create a period feel that seems to be missing from a great deal of films. However, its rich tableau of color and style is also challenging as it neglects, despite having the opportunity, to truly capture the gritty underbelly of the city where some of its scenes are placed.

Robert Redford stars as Johnny Hooker, a small-time grafter who inadvertently cons a mob runner out of his weekly payoff. When the mob kills Hooker’s best friend and co-conspirator, he seeks out the legendary Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to help him get back at the mob boss who ordered the hit: Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Together, with several other grifters, they concoct a plan to get him where it hurts…his pocketbook.

Screenwriter David S. Ward takes the heist story and twists it to fit an unusual and interesting group of characters. While Newman and Redford aren’t at the top of their game, they still provide their roles with the needed indulgence required. The best performances from the ensemble include Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan and Charles Durning. They bring a much needed frivolity to the film that, absent, would undermine the entire project.

The Sting is not a slapstick comedy but it does have a number of lighthearted scenes. As we follow Hooker and Gondorff through a twisting series of plot developments that coalesce into a satisfying final product, the audience comes to appreciate this style of revenge. Hooker does try to kill Doyle. He’s a hero and that’s not within their nature. The film could easily have drowned in its theme of vengeance, creating an anti-hero out of Redford’s character.

Although the reality of gangland conflict is more realistically enshrined in films like The Godfather, The Sting sits satisfyingly on the other side of the spectrum. The film is fun and entertaining though pales in comparison to the films between which it is sandwiched in the history of Academy Award Best Picture winners (it was preceded by The Godfather and succeeded by The Godfather, Part II). It’s the kind of big screen diversion that satisfies the audience.