Saturday, December 11, 2010
Day 147: The Sting
Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #99
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman and Robert Redford
For plenty of good reasons, The Sting is compared to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both movies were directed by George Roy Hill and star Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Both took a great song and made it iconic – "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in Butch and "The Entertainer" here. Both focused on a pair of swindlers with a complicated relationship. In most measurable ways, the films are equivalent. In execution, however, they are not. While Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a great film that holds a candle to the brilliant team that Redford and Newman make, The Sting is superior on almost all fronts. It's a true tour-de-force, easily one of the greatest films of the 1970s and quite possibly of all time. It has everything you might want from a caper story and more. It uses tropes and stereotypes inherent in the age-old genre in a totally new way and is worlds better for its self-awareness. I'm a huge Western buff, so I didn't expect to like a movie that is basically Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid set in Depression-era Chicago more than that film, but boy, was I ever wrong. This is one of those movies on the list that makes me ask myself how I went so long without seeing it. Yes, I loved every second of The Sting.
Like most great caper films, the majority of The Sting's running time focuses on one big job. The director Hill keeps us on our toes, never letting us know everything that the heist's principle players know. We're constantly misled to think that someone has conned someone that they haven't, that people have been betrayed when they haven't been, that the law has caught onto the job when it hasn't, and plenty of other red herrings and misdirections that make every labyrinthine turn in the film a joy to watch unfold. Doyle Lonnegan (played brilliantly by Robert Shaw) isn't the only mark; the audience is right there with him. Actually, without it being incredibly obvious, I think Christopher Nolan's Inception owes a lot to The Sting. In both films, the person being deceived by the heist team is the only character not in on the scheme, and in each, if you don't pay extremely close attention throughout the film, you're bound to miss something crucial. The Sting has a little more respect for its audience's intelligence than Inception, though; where Nolan explicitly shows us everything that we need to know to understand his film, Hill lets us hang. Until the last five minutes of the film, we don't know exactly how the caper was designed, and even when we do, it isn't revealed in dialogue; we have to figure it out by watching what happens and remembering clues from much earlier in the movie ("The mark can't know you're ripping him off, even after you've finished ripping him off.") I respect the hell out of that.
There's two more things about this movie that warrant a mention, and they both involve using a time-honored (some might say clichéd) device and making it seem innovative. First of all, the soundtrack. My God, the soundtrack. I haven't listened to Scott Joplin in earnest since I was in 2nd grade and we had to learn about ragtime during Black History Month, but The Sting made me consistently question why I don't own his entire discography. Sure, "The Entertainer" is a classic, but every rag that plays in the film is brilliantly suited to the visuals it's paired with, and they seem to perfectly encapsulate 1929 Chicago, even if the songs were quite a bit older than that. Just as significantly, the way that The Sting divides its parts, and in turn, the parts of the caper, into seven chapters with Joplin-accompanied title cards is nothing short of ingenious. Quentin Tarantino has since made this device a part of his usual repertoire, but in 1973, it hadn't been done very often since the silent film era. These are just two examples of many ways that George Roy Hill made The Sting a unique experience while firmly rooting it in its genre. It's been one of my favorite discoveries thus far on the blog, and I can't recommend it enough.
The Good: The amount of faith George Roy Hill puts in the intelligence of his audience.
The Bad: Not much comes to mind. I really loved this movie.
The Skinny: #99 sounded high before I saw the film; now it sounds a little low.