In these days of gazillion-dollar blockbusters, sometimes you just long for a movie with a solid story and real movie stars. 1973’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Sting delivers the goods.
After the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it was inevitable that a movie would re-unite director George Roy Hill (who also won an Oscar here) with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. (To those who now know this duo mainly as moguls of salad dressing and independent movies, let’s just say they were the Brad Pitts of their day.) Since sequels weren’t as prevalent back then, they were re-teamed for a fresh effort scripted by David Ward (another Oscar winner for this one, and deservedly so).
Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a wet-behind-the-ears grifter who sees his partner killed after the two of them score a con that trails back to a ruthless high-stakes gambler (Robert Shaw). Eager for revenge, Hooker enlists the help of experienced con man Henry Gondorff (Newman).
Their initial meeting involves Hooker sticking Gondorff under a cold shower to wash off a hangover. But where Hooker is eager to sink his teeth into the con, Gondorff moves slowly but steadily, considering every move and calling in many friends in low places (a wealth of great character actors including Harold Gould and Ray Walston). Hooker also has to work his end of the sting while fending off a local cop (Charles Durning) who knows Hooker’s up to no good.
For all of its layers of con-artistry, it’s a fairly simple story, and at 129 minutes, it could move a little more tightly. But it doesn’t rush for its effects — some of the neatest touches are old movie style, as in its “wipes” from one scene to another, and in wordless sequences powered by Marvin Hamlisch’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Scott Joplin rags. It doesn’t hurt that Newman and Redford have old-style movie charisma in spades. And the grifters’ sting doesn’t work only on the villain — the movie’s beaut of an ending will leave you gasping with laughter.