Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the duo ended up being a match made in heaven for 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Could the pairing work again? Oh, you bet. Teaming up again for 1973's The Sting, Newman and Redford again show off an impeccable chemistry, a great back and forth, and a whole lot of talent in one of the 1970s best movies and one of my all-time favorites.
Working in 1936 Joliet just outside of Chicago, con man Johnny Hooker (Redford) pushes too far on one con when he and his partner, Luther (Robert Earl Jones), steal some $11,000 from a money runner working for big-time New York mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). The mobster hears about it and in the aftermath, Luther is killed. On the run and always looking over his shoulder, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff (Newman), an infamous con man himself who's now on the run from the F.B.I. after a con of his went south. Hooker teams up with Gondorff, hoping to run a long con on Lonnegan to exact some revenge. With countless thieves, con men and grifters working their magic, a long list of things need to happen to pull the job off, but Gondorff and Hooker go to work knowing if the con fails, they may pay for it with their lives.
The Newman-Redford pairing -- along with Butch and Sundance director George Roy Hill -- is clearly one that works and is a key reason for the movie's success. I don't say this often because I don't want to overdo and/or overuse it, but The Sting is one of those rare perfect movies. All the scenes work without any extra fat on the bone. Even at 129 minutes, it flows effortlessly. The script (which won an Oscar) is one of the all-time greats. On first viewing, it might be a little difficult to keep up with everything, but in the end it fits together like puzzle pieces clicking into place. Smart, funny and well-written, the script helps bring this criminal underworld to life....in a nice way. It's the 1930s "criminal" underworld that the movies presented.
A period piece like this depends on a couple different thing. The first and usually most important? Does it look and feel authentic to the period it is set in? That's a safe answer here. The look of the movie ends up being an additional character. You genuinely feel like you're watching 1930s Chicago from the sets to the bad-ass suits to the cars zipping around the downtown streets. Much of the film was shot in California backlots, but several scenes were filmed on-location in Chicago, including LaSalle Street Station, Union Station and the Penn Central Freight Yards. What most people will remember from 'Sting' though is the music, starting with Scott Joplin's whistle-worthy theme, The Entertainer. It gives the story a light-hearted touch -- almost a goofy feel -- but it ends up working perfectly with the tone. The locations, sets, costumes, and music all contribute to a great retro style -- along with title cards introducing the scenes -- that is hard to replicate.
So Newman and Redford, pretty cool, huh? They just don't make stars like this anymore. Watching talented actors of this caliber on-screen, it's just fun. Their chemistry never feels forced. It's just two guys playing off each other like they have been doing it their entire lives. While both actors play prominent roles, more focus is given to Redford's Johnny Hooker, a talented if younger grifter looking for some revenge. He learns the ropes from Newman's more experienced, somewhat grizzled con man. Redford was even nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but both have their moments. Newman especially gets some laughs in his scene where he meet Shaw's Lonnegan, posing as a drunken but rather lucky poker player who throws the hook out there so the crew can reel in their target. Putting on a big, boisterous entrance, Newman (entering with "Sorry I was late, I was taking a crap") hits all the right notes in a part that allows Redford most of the spotlight.
In one of his most memorable roles before his death at the age of 51, Shaw is a great villain to counter Newman and Redford's very likable crooks. His Lonnegan will kill anyone who gets in his way and isn't picky or squeamish about doing so. As for the rest of the cast, Charles Durning is appropriately double-handed as Lt. Snyder, a Joliet cop with a grudge against Hooker. Putting together a team of thieves, Gondorff assembles Kid Twist (Harold Gould), the smooth-talking organizer, J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston), the veteran con man with a knack for investigating, Eddie Niles (John Heffernan), the numbers specialist, Billie (Eileen Brennan), his madam of sorts, and Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe), Hooker's former partner who's down on his luck. Dana Elcar has a small part too as F.B.I. agent Polk, hot on Gondorff's trail.
What I love most about The Sting though is how it all comes together in the end. We're given all these clues, characters and situations early on, but we're never quite sure how it fits together. The title cards sort of help -- The Hook, The Set-Up, The Sting -- but it's great to see the con come together so smoothly. Gondorff has hinted that it's not always the job that's the toughest. It's the aftermath and getting away alive. With that in mind, the last 30 minutes throws a handful of twists our way, all of them working, some working epically well. It's a great finale full of twists, surprises and some laughs. A great movie from start to finish.
The Sting <---trailer (1973): ****/****