The Sting

As soon as I started watching The Sting I remembered seeing it as a kid and associating the song “The Entertainer” with this film. There wasn’t much else I could recall but hearing those first half dozen notes took me straight back to my childhood.

At times the film has the feel of a movie made during the time period during which the film is set…the 1930s smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression.

The opening credits are in the style of some of the best picture winners from that era like Cimarron (below) and Cavalcade. Vignettes of the stars featuring scenes from the film appear with their names and roles.

1931 Cimarron - Dix and Taylor credits

1973 - The Sting - Newman and Redford credits

Interspersed throughout are old-fashioned title cards, with lettering and illustrations right out of the Saturday Evening Post.

1973 - The Sting - The Set Up

Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) plays a grifter in Joliet, Illinois who, along with his partners Luther (Robert Earl Jones – father of James) and The Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe), cons $11,000 in cash (close to $200,000 by today’s standards) out of an unsuspecting dope. Little did they know that dope was a courier for notorious crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Hooker learns of Lonnegan’s involvement when Lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning), a corrupt Joliet cop, confronts him and tries to shake him down for part of his cut. Having already lost his share at a roulette table, he pays him off with counterfeit bills buying him enough time to get away but putting Snyder on his tail. Lonnegan’s men murder Luther and the courier. Hooker flees to Chicago to find an old friend of Luther’s, a man by the name of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).

Gondorff is a legendary con-man now in hiding from the FBI. Hooker asks him for help in taking on Lonnegan. At first he’s reluctant but with some convincing Gondorff agrees and recruits a crack team of professionals. They decide to dust off an old “big con” known as “the wire” to create a phony off-track betting parlor.

And the con is on.

The story is fun and engaging and Redford and Newman as are charming as ever, reuniting four years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Along with great supporting performances from Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould and especially Robert Shaw the film is thoroughly enjoyable and very well made.

1973 - The Sting - Redford tieIt’s beautifully shot with vibrant colors and thoughtful compositions. Director George Roy Hill, who also directed Butch and Sundance, takes a little bit of artistic license, slightly exaggerating the fashions and styles of the era.

The editing style, and its use of various transitional wipes, was very noticeable and a really smart choice. It adds to the film’s sleight of hand feel.

But what ultimately made this film the success that it was (tops at the box office for 1973) was the payoff at the end. And while the payoff still works, it is the kind of story that modern audiences have been trained to anticipate, looking for all the trickeries along the way. It’s kind of like the early 2000s when everyone went into a M. Night Shyamalan movie searching for the twist.

1973 - The StingThe Sting is the film that puts the pressure on movies like Oceans 11 to be able to surprise an audience. We’re tougher to fool because we no longer take things at face value. We expect the unexpected. But for every Ocean’s 11 that does it right there are a hundred films like Now You See Me, Focus and, well… The Sting II.

Yes, a decade after The Sting a terrible sequel was made with a different director and a whole new cast. But not new characters. Redford and Newman were replaced by Mac Davis as Hooker and Jackie Gleason as Gondorff. Need I say more? Probably not but I will. It has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

In the early 80s Hollywood was desperately trying to capitalize on successful films with unnecessary and unwanted sequels.

Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D, Porky’s II: The Next Day, The Sting II, Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 and Staying Alive (the sequel to Saturday Night Fever) were all unleashed on the public that year. It’s an ugly chapter in American history.

But back in 1973, before all that unpleasantness…

The Sting received the most nominations (10, tied with The Exorcist) at the 46th annual Academy Awards. It won seven Oscars including picture, director, screenplay and score for Marvin Hamlisch.

Robert Redford was up for best actor but lost in one of the most star-studded categories in Oscar history.

Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger)

Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris)

Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail)

Al Pacino (Serpico)

Robert Redford (The Sting)

Jack Lemmon went home with his 2nd best actor Oscar of his impressive career. After Brando’s weird rejection the previous year Lemmon made some very poignant remarks.

“In recent years, especially, there has been a great deal of criticism about this award. And probably, a great deal of that criticism is very justified. I would just like to say that, whether it is justified or not, I think it is one hell of a honor and I am thrilled, and I thank you all, very, very much.”

It should be noted that there were three woman who made Oscar history that night. Each in their own way.

The first was Tatum O’Neal who won best supporting actress (Paper Moon) at the tender age of 10. Not only was she the youngest supporting actress winner, she was the youngest winner in any category. It’s a record she still holds to this day.

The second was that year’s best actress winner. Prior to 1973 there had only been seven women who had won multiple best actress Oscars. #1-7 are Hollywood legends.

  • Katherine Hepburn
  • Olivia de Havilland
  • Vivien Leigh
  • Bette Davis
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Luise Rainer

You might not know Luise Rainer because she won her two Oscars back-to-back in 1936 and 37. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a lesser known 2-time best actress than winner #8, Glenda Jackson.

Winning twice in four years for two mostly forgotten films, Women in Love and A Touch of Class, Glenda Jackson is the quintessential 70s actress. One of so many women who burned brightly for a few years before vanishing from our pop culture consciousness. She was nominated 4 times in 6 years, piddled around for another decade or so and then retired from acting to go back to England and get elected to Parliament.

The third was producer Julia Phillips. Not only was she the first woman to be nominated for best picture but when Elizabeth Taylor opened the envelope and announced The Sting she became the first woman to win it. She would be nominated again four years later for Taxi Driver and lead the way for other female producers like Kathleen Kennedy. But a woman wouldn’t win best picture again for more than 20 years.

This ceremony’s most unforgettable moment came right before Elizabeth Taylor took the stage when a streaker ran across the stage flashing more than just a piece sign.

1974 streaker

Host David Niven joked,

“But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

There is some debate over whether this was planned by the show’s producers or not. But regardless, it’s long been considered as one of the most memorable moments in Oscar broadcast history.


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