Sunday, March 18, 2012
I nitpick in this review, but I want to emphasize up front that I like this film a lot. It isn't quite the classic that it could have been with a slightly better script, but the performances and the direction by George Roy Hill are outstanding and the period atmosphere is terrific and convincing. One must suspend belief a lot, but it's a fun ride and well worth your time.
Classic films have it all, great sound, great cinematography, great actors with chemistry, and an involving plot. "The Sting" qualifies. Paul Newman and Robert Redford light up the screen. Redford carries the picture, while Newman orchestrates the proceedings. Newman, in fact, in places wonderfully echoes his "Fast Eddie" character from "The Hustler" of a decade before. The film also has one of the best supporting casts in film history, led by Ray Walson, Harold Gould and Charles Durning. Old pros, every single one of them.
The visuals of old Chicago are gorgeous, and the plot and visual clues (note the gloves holding the steering wheel, then later turning out the light on the night stand) reward repeated viewings. The soundtrack is one of the classics of all time, up there with the zither music from "The Third Man" and the themes from "Jaws" and "Psycho." So, everyone should see "The Sting." I can't imagine many people would fail to enjoy it. But I have some reservations which you may notice, too.
First and foremost, it strains credulity that the mob boss who first appears running his organization by remote control from New York, Doyle Lonnegan (brilliantly played by Robert Shaw), would get involved directly in the shady scheme that is at the heart of this film. I could see him participating in high stakes poker games on trains, that was something gentlemen did in those days. But then to get swept up into idling around spartan coffee shops waiting for phone calls, just to make a few bucks and get revenge on someone he barely knows? Come on. I know you can build justifications for this - he really, really wanted to take down Paul Newman's Gondorff character, and that was the way to do it - but that bothers me every time I see the film. It seems odd that a mob boss as big as Lonnegan would not find it, um, curious to suddenly find a big racketeer like Gondorff operating in his own territory. Lonnegan seems awfully naive about a wire con that, according to the scam artists themselves, became obsolete years before. And isn't it awfully convenient that Lonnegan is coming to, or at least returning to, Chicago just when Newman needs him to?
Second, the plot is a bit too slick at times. Every possible source of problems is anticipated and eliminated, even highly remote ones. Geez, these guys should work for NASA! People who aren't part of the team, like Detective Snyder (what is he even doing there, shouldn't he be back in Joliet? Oh yes, he's on "vacation"), unwittingly are used to carry out crucial parts of the scam (in this case, escorting Lonnegan out of the scam premises). I like a good con, but if these guys are that good, knowing exactly how strangers will react to everything, they should be solving the theory of relativity or something. And all the locations and people hired must have cost a bundle, who was financing all this during the Great Depression?
Third, I find it odd that Lonnegan should be consorting with Redford's Hooker character at the same time that he has someone trying to kill him. It is overly confusing and unrealistic. If Lonnegan's killer knows all about Hooker's whereabouts, why wouldn't Lonnegan be told that Hooker actually is the guy Lonnegan wants killed? That's a giant assumption, that the hired killer is not going to communicate with Lonnegan, and also won't see Lonnegan and Hooker hanging out together like old chums (which happens often, right in the open).
I could go on, but I'm sure you get my drift. I just want to point out that the script, while outstanding, is not airtight. All risk of the con going wrong is eliminated in some areas, but not in others. The con itself, which is the heart of the movie, thus leaves me cold and is a bit of a let-down.
Now you probably think I dislike the film, or at least don't sufficiently appreciate it. But I do appreciate it, and love the film. Everything else about the film is wonderful, and more than makes up for the somewhat lightweight plot. This easily is one of the best films of the 1970s, a wonderful decade for film. See it!