THE STING (1973) – Lots of pros in this con

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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.

My 5 favorite movie actors

Five Stars Blogathon

The following is my contribution to the third annual Five Stars Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ rapturous reviews of their five all-time favorite movie stars!

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Jodie Foster. Whenever I see Jodie Foster on the screen, I see a fiery woman who is very smart and who is frequently frustrated at having to deal with the less intelligent people in life. Since I often have that same viewpoint of suffering fools non-gladly, I cherish its portrayal on the screen.

Furthermore, she’s so intense that (a) you can’t take your eyes off of her, and (b) you believe every role she plays — whether it’s an underage hooker in over her head in Taxi Driver, the single mother of a brilliant but socially inept child in Little Man Tate, or a starry-eyed astronomer in Contact. In short, Foster makes intelligence sexy.

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Jane Russell. Jane Russell’s brash persona was of its time. She’d have never become a star in our sexually-explicit-yet-politically-correct era, where actresses can show off all the skin they want and then punch out any guy who looks at them as a sex object. Jane was what she was — built, brassy, and non-apologetic about all of it.

(One story goes that, on the set of the movie His Kind of Woman [1951], Russell, Vincent Price, and Robert Mitchum were being interviewed by a sob-sister reporter. As it happened, the trio were all sitting inside a room on the ledge of a second-story window, trying to catch a breeze. When the reporter asked how Russell could reconcile her Christianity with her worldly movie roles, Jane countered with, “Can’t I be a Christian and still have big tits?” Mitchum laughed so hard that Price had to grab hold of him to keep him from falling out the window.)

These days, any guy who deigns to admit that anything turns him on is branded a pervert. But I’ll be glad to say it — Russell’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude, combined with her fulsome physique, get me roiled up every time. Try watching the very first shot of her in the Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface (1952) — with the camera panning up her long, glorious legs as va-va-voom music plays on the soundtrack — and see how nonchalant you remain.

Russell was also a decent actress, and even a good comedienne, when given the opportunity in gems such as SOP and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At the risk of sounding completely sexist, they don’t make ‘em like Russell anymore — so let’s be grateful that some people had a camera pointed at her when they did.

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John Goodman. I first saw John Goodman in David Byrne’s offbeat comedy True Stories (1986). Goodman played Louis Fyne, a shy, overweight cleanroom technician who does a video advertising for a mate. The first thing that struck me was how stereotypical the role seemed. The second thing to strike me was how Goodman quietly transcended the role’s hoariness and really made you feel for this poor schmuck.

Right after that movie, Goodman went balls-out as a nutso escaped convict in the Coen Bros.’ comedy Raising Arizona (1987), and that cemented my love for the guy. After that, he had a huge string of roles where he could seemingly do no wrong — a former high-school quarterback in Everybody’s All-American, a cop who partnered with Al Pacino in Sea of Love, and of course, lovable working-class stiff Dan Connor on the sitcom “Roseanne.” It seemed as though Goodman began all of these roles by planting a tiny seed of truth within his character — so that, no matter how outrageous the situation got, you really believed in and felt for this guy.

Unfortunately, Goodman’s turn from mild-mannered character actor to major star resulted in him starring in some really embarrassing movies — King Ralph, The Babe, and the truly painful The Flintstones. But still, when Goodman is really into a worthy role, he still feels like someone you want to give a big bear-hug and buy him a beer.

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Charles Durning. In his earlier movies, Durning seemed intent on playing the man you love to hate — whether he was a corrupt cop in The Sting (1973), or the owner of a frog-leg fast-food chain who set his sights on Kermit the Frog as his chain’s spokesperson in The Muppet Movie (1979).

Then, in the 1980’s, it was as though a weight lifted off Durning’s shoulders, and he was suddenly doing roles that couldn’t help but endear him to you — the wily senator in the “Sidestep” number of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), the widower won over by Dustin Hoffman’s man-disguised-as-a-woman in Tootsie (1982), and the laconic small-town doctor in Burt Reynolds’ late-80’s sitcom “Evening Shade.” He seemed to bask in his own charm, and the joy spread to his audience. I smiled every time he came on the screen.

But his biggest role, because it was real life, was as a deservedly decorated World War II veteran. For many years, he served as a spokesman on PBS’ Memorial Day concerts, recounting stories of fellow soldiers who never made it back home. With each passing year, you could see the toll it took on Durning to perform this task, but he carried on with it grandly. This culminated in what I think was his finest hour — his Emmy-nominated guest turn on “CSI,” where he played a WWII veteran who was, after several decades, still wracked with guilt over the death of a fellow soldier.

Like John Goodman at his best, Durning had such an authentic Everyman quality that you couldn’t help but be won over by him.

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Stan Laurel. I am a classic-comedy buff, and I mulled over this final choice for ages. There are many comedians from that era who transcended their low-comedy origins and became larger than life — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx, and W.C. Fields, to name a few. I picked Stan Laurel out of this group because he developed such an endearing characterization in partnership with Oliver Hardy, you felt you could believe in simple-but-charming Stanley even if Ollie wasn’t there with him.

(Witness the minute or so at the end of the Laurel & Hardy comedy The Flying Deuces [1939], where Stanley is a lonely vagabond traversing the countryside. It’s just enough of a solo turn that you wish he could have done an entire movie of that character by himself.)

Laurel started out in vaudeville with Charlie Chaplin, and his early movie work consisted of Chaplin-like gags minus Chaplin’s plausibility or heart. When Laurel was first teamed with Hardy, he was hesitant about it, because he had established himself as a writer-director and preferred to work behind the camera. But then he created the character that endeared him to generations of movie fans.

Stanley’s likable dumbness is probably his saving grace as well. When Ollie lords it over him, he seems to convince himself that it’s his friend’s way of looking out for him. And if you doubt Laurel’s depth of performance, watch the final 10 minutes of the L&H comedy A Chump at Oxford (1940), where he becomes a completely different person: a condescending British genius who turns the tables on Ollie and makes him feel like the dummy for a change.

Laurel & Hardy buffs will tell you there’s a reason they continue watching those movies long after they’ve memorized the gags. It’s that extra touch of movie magic, much of it provided by Laurel as the uncredited writer-director-editor of those movies. What’s not to love?