Frankly, I didn’t understand “The Sting” when it opened in 1973 and I was 10. What with the movie’s manifold tricks and streetwise double-crossings, I grasped only the basics. In 1930s gangland Chicago, two handsome, sneaky crooks (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) were swindling another handsome, far more sinister crook (Robert Shaw). This they do by trying to fleece him of half a million dollars in a bogus betting parlor, populated by a mob of their associates. What I liked most were the mustaches.
Time passed, and by the time I had my own mustache, I was captivated by the film’s special craftsmanship. When “The Sting” came out, audiences were packing theaters to see the jarring violence of “The French Connection,” “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist.” By contrast “The Sting” was a rascally, old-fashioned caper flick, immensely inventive and dressed up in ’70s Technicolor. Yet it was a smash in its own right.
Recently, as I was convalescing at home (not from Covid but from a drop foot), I caught “The Sting” by way of tonic. (It’s streaming on Peacock.) The medicine worked. Here’s why:
“The Sting” won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, director (George Roy Hill) and original screenplay (David S. Ward).
Another Oscar went to Edith Head for costume design, and she deserved it. I can’t recall the last time I saw so many sharp, three-piece suits or equally classy men’s hats. Harold Gould as Kid Twist (with a great mustache) wore the best Homburg in recent memory, and Redford always kept his fedora atilt at just the right, rakish angle.
There was more to appearance than cloth and felt. The period detail, like candlestick telephones and Eileen Brennan’s clanging cash register at her whorehouse (or, as Charles Durning called it, a “joyhouse”), was spot on and colorful without being cartoony. The phony bookie joint was posh-perfect, while the byways of Joliet and the Windy City were appropriately grimy.
Even the illustrated intertitle cards, with teasing hooks like “The Tale,” “The Set-Up” and “The Shut-Out,” turned over by an invisible hand to reveal a new scene, were comfortably bygone. So was the Art Deco logo of “A Universal Picture” orbiting a glistening globe, surrounded by sparkling, faraway stars.
Another worthy “Sting” Oscar went to the composer Marvin Hamlisch. He contributed a couple of original numbers, including the upbeat, night-clubby “The Glove” and the bawdy striptease “Hooker’s Hooker.” But it was his updated take on Scott Joplin’s piano rags that captured myriad ears.
Hill, the director, knew he was taking an aural risk. Joplin’s turn-of-the-century ragtime was at least 20 years out of date for the movie’s Depression-era setting. But Hill embraced it. “I don’t much care whether the music is in strict period or not,” he wrote in the liner notes to the soundtrack album. “If I thought a jazz band would give me the feeling I wanted for a Roman epic, I’d use it.”
Like the con men’s sting, Hill’s gamble paid off. Juiced up by Hamlisch’s strings, horns, winds and percussion, Joplin’s rags were a perfect, playful accompaniment to the onscreen cat-and-mouse shenanigans. “The Entertainer” became a staple of radio and ice cream trucks; Hill wrote that his personal favorite was the “lyrical, haunting ‘Solace.’”
“The Sting” knows what it’s doing. The gang of con men has a sly recognition code: brush the side of your nose with your pointer finger. It’s a signal that we, too, are in on the exactly executed secret.
Except that we’re not. “The Sting” is full of surprises. Viewers are constantly being hoodwinked.
Early on, Redford, Jack Kehoe and Robert Earl Jones (James’s father) dupe a numbers runner by swapping his $11,000 in cash for worthless tissue paper. Aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, Newman wins $15,000 by playing his poker cards so literally close to the vest that he can substitute his four 3’s with four jacks. The dialogue is rife with snappy slang. Some of it is readily deciphered (“I’ll square it with the fixer”) and some of it is not. (Did you know that “jake” means “fine” or “OK”?) The Newman-Redford exchanges are practically love-hate, as they were in Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Newman tells Redford, “Luther didn’t tell me you had a big mouth.” Redford shoots back, “He didn’t tell me you was a screw-up, either.”
At one point, a derby-wearing character consults his “sheet” to check on potential grifters in town: “Let’s see. Horse-Face Lee, Slim Miller, Suitcase Murphy and the Big Alabama in from New Orleans! Cryin’ Jonesy and the Boone Kid from Denver, Daffy Burke and Limehouse Chappy from New York.” It’s a roundup of old friends with slick nicknames.
Finally, the actors simply know how to handle themselves, physically. Redford quite literally sidles his way into Shaw’s inner circle. Shaw himself, suffering from a leg injury, incorporated his limp into the film at Hill’s suggestion to connote a special kind of threat. A shadow-shrouded Ray Walston (“My Favorite Martian”) lifts his eyebrows, strikes a match and lights a cigarette with choreographic grace. And who knew that the bulky Charles Durning, as a corrupt detective, could run so fast?
It was with this self-assurance, friendly swagger, neat resolution of so many loose ends, and sheer smartness that “The Sting” cheered me enough to actually help me back on my feet.