Wednesday 5 May 2010

The Sting (1973)

Director: George Roy Hill
Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Back in the day they used to call this sort of film a caper movie, as 'caper' sounded much more elegant than 'crime'. The more common would call them heist movies but that's not quite as classy. There are a few greats, titles like Oceans Eleven and The Italian Job springing to mind, the originals of course, but this one was so good they haven't even remade it yet. I don't think they dare. After all, who would you cast? Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to replace Robert Redford and Paul Newman? Give me a break. How would you score it? Replace Scott Joplin's piano rags with a nu metal soundtrack and an inevitable Green Day song? I don't think so. The caper movie isn't dead, the remakes of those two other classics I mentioned being surprisingly good, but this is so iconic that it has to stand on its own, something it's very capable of doing. There are a few movies that simply can't be remade, not that it seems to stop people. This is high on that list.

We're in Joliet, Illinois, long before the Blues Brothers. It's September 1936 and hustlers are hustling the hustlers. Johnny Hooker is a small time grifter who works with Luther Coleman and Joe Erie and he taps a sucker beyond his wildest dreams with a neat little switch. 'I just made the world's easiest five grand,' the man laughs in the back of a taxi before he realises he's been had. $11,000 they get away with, though Hooker blows his money in one night: on a suit, a stripper and a dumb bet. So when Snyder, the local crooked cop comes round for his take, he has to pay him off with counterfeit bills and get the hell out of town. If that wasn't reason enough, Snyder explains to him who he hit: a numbers courier called Mottola who was tasked with couriering that money to Chicago to boost the coffers of Doyle Lonnegan, an Irish crime boss from New York. Next thing they know, Luther's been pushed out of a window and Hooker is next on the list.

Hooker has two things going for him. One, he's played by Robert Redford and two, he has a contact to help him get some revenge. Before Luther got hit, he explained how he'd long been waiting for a big take and how he planned to use it to get out of the rackets. Hooker, he feels, is good enough to join the big leagues and so he gives him a name, Henry Gorndorff, who can take him all the way. Gorndorff is played by the best known blue eyes in the business, Paul Newman, who gets plenty of opportunity to twinkle them here, even though he introduces himself to us in memorable style. He's asleep but he missed the bed and so he's mashed into the wall face first. Hooker sits him in the bathtub, fully dressed, and turns the shower on him, but it still takes a sink full of ice to sober him up. 'Luther said I could learn some things from you,' points out Hooker. I already know how to drink.' 'Don't worry, I still know how,' Gorndorff explains.

And so they build their caper, so definitively that the film is segmented out into sections that explain the logic of the heist. The Players explains who we're working with. The Set-Up shows us the beginnings of how one side plans to take down the other. The Hook is where they put that plan into action. You get the picture. By this time we're not even reading the title cards because we're hooked ourselves. Almost every character we meet is a crook, including every one of our heroes, but heroes they remain, because they're on a whole different league of bad to our villain. They're conmen, madams, grifters, all getting through the Depression doing whatever they can to get by. This is their work with its own brand of loyalty and its own set of rules. In their way they're honourable people but they have a lot of tired faces. As Hooker tells a waitress he wants to seduce, 'You know me. I'm the same as you. It's two in the morning and I don't know nobody.'

In comparison, the villain of the piece is a real nasty piece of work and we're more than happy to see him get his. Lonnegan is a ruthless man with a limp and a quiet, humourless voice, played to arrogant perfection by Robert Shaw. 'Not only are you a cheat,' he tells Gorndorff at a critical moment, 'you're a gutless cheat.' The words are subdued and calm but they carry a weight to them that most actors couldn't dream of matching. Snyder gives Hooker the lowdown on him back in Joliet. 'He'll swat you like a fly,' he says, and he isn't kidding. Lonnegan is all business, as Hooker discovers when Gorndorff brings in the usual suspects to try to find an angle to attack him from. 'He's an Irishman who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't chase dames,' points out J J Singleton, one of Gorndorff's crew, but they figure out a way to hit him hard regardless. If there are lessons to this story, it's that anything can go right or wrong and anyone can be taken.
For instance, Lonnegan has a sure thing on the Century Limited from New York to Chicago every few weeks, a high stakes card game that attracts high rollers who catch the train just to play. Gorndorff, posing as a Chicago bookie, turns it into a riot. He staggers into the room late with a bottle in his hand and proceeds to insult everyone. He's done his homework so he knows that his opponent cheats but he merely waits for his moment to cheat better than him, something that Lonnegan can't call him on. What's more, Henry's girl, Billie, has stolen his wallet on the train so he can't even pay his debts after a gentleman's game. Gorndorff pulls out every stop to insult, antagonise and rile his opponent, with all the easy style that Paul Newman was capable of. He keeps getting Lonnegan's name wrong but he's consistent with his own: Shaw. I wonder if that was really in the script or whether Newman improvised it as an added insult to his co-star.

It's hard to imagine this film failing, given that merely reuniting Newman and Redford four years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ought to have been enough to guarantee success on its own, regardless of the quality of the film. However every component part seems to have been nailed from moment one and the picture succeeded beyond anyone's expectations at the time. Budgeted at an estimated $5.5m, it pulled in $160m at the box office in the US alone, and plenty more since. It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, the first Universal film to win that accolade since All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930. David S Ward, who went on to direct Hollywood comedies, won for his original screenplay, though it turned out to be a fictionalised version of real characters and events that he'd read about in David Maurer's book, The Big Con, not least a pair of brothers, Fred and Charley Gondorff. He settled with Maurer out of court.

George Roy Hill won the Best Director award that he didn't win four years earlier with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He lost out in 1969 to John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy, but if anything his competition was even tougher in 1973, including William Friedkin for The Exorcist and Ingmar Bergman for Cries and Whispers. He obviously had a rapport with his leading men, his next two films being The Great Waldo Pepper with Redford and Slap Shot with Newman. Neither Newman nor Redford won for this film, Redford surprisingly being the only nominee the film had on the acting front. He lost to Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger and in fact only ever won for directing Ordinary People. Newman won for The Color of Money, in one of the more obvious consolation awards the Academy has ever dished out. To be fair, this pair do act off each other so much that they almost become symbiotic, two halves of the same character.

Robert Shaw, limping for real after slipping on a wet handball court a week earlier at the Beverly Hills Hotel and splitting all the ligaments in his knee, was possibly snubbed in the supporting slot but more likely fell victim to his own arrogance, a trait that he brought palpably to his character. He really has a supporting role but, perhaps safe in the knowledge that nobody else wanted the part, insisted on a very high salary and that his name be ahead of the title alongside the stars. It's an unwelcome part, which doesn't really leap off the page as a choice role for a name actor, given that he's a thug with pretentions of grandeur and who spends the film slowly getting taken by people he looks down on. Yet he brings an appropriate touch of nastiness to the film, given how honourable and decent all the other crooks are. Already well established in the UK, this was his break in the States and he'd follow up with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Jaws.

He's far from the only memorable supporting actor here. Eileen Brennan is close to the epitome of lazy seduction as Billie, Gondorff's girlfriend who runs the brothel he hides out in. She's utterly capable but hides it magnificently. Charles Durning was always great as a cop but even better as a corrupt one and he gets a number of tough scenes as he chases down Johnny Hooker for real money to replace the counterfeit bills he took as a bribe. Ray Walston, TV's My Favorite Martian, who I know better from The Apartment, is only one of Gondorff's crew, with John Heffernan and Harold Gould memorable as Kid Twist and Eddie Niles respectively. In small but prominent roles are two opposites who play wonderfully together: Tom Spratley as Curly Jackson, a confident actor and crook who specialises in playing Englishmen, and Jack Kehoe as Joe Erie, nervous but willing to do his part. He's the other member of Hooker's set of grifters at the beginning of the film, Luther being played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James and with a voice to match.
There are so many contrasts here that work together as yin and yang, Jackson's confidence and Erie's nerves being only one of many. There are the loyal crooks and the ruthess villain. There's the FBI and the corrupt cop, Snyder. There's the growth of Johnny Hooker, his childlike innocence turning into experience as the film runs on. There are the women he chooses, a bubbly stripper early on and a world weary waitress later. Hooker and Gondorff are the boy and the man, the one cute and dashing, the other all maturity and charm. Hooker is capable but also capable of screwing everything up, Gondorff is capable whenever he wants to be and he commands the respect and loyalty of every man who works for him. Newman gets the edge over Redford but mostly because of the way he appears in one of the best movie entrances of all time, up there with Orson Welles in The Third Man but in almost exactly the opposite way.

Another contrast is in the way the film was set up. It was made in 1973 at a point in time when Hollywood didn't have a clue and knew it. Everything they understood was gone: the studio system, the Production Code and a safe and sure audience. The end of the sixties brought the biggest cultural shake up in modern history and nobody knew what people wanted any more. Studios threw money at whichever youth culture figures they felt might make be able to make something profitable, opening the doors for the extremes of the seventies. Yet here was a huge success that was rooted utterly in the past rather than the future, and while it was made in colour and widescreen, the titles look like they were taken from The Saturday Evening Post and the tone is like nothing less than a Jimmy Cagney movie. The players are even introduced just like the old Warner Brothers pictures and I could map out a whole parallel cast from that roster.

In fact that's an interesting way to look at the film. The iconic feel couldn't be tapped again once it had been immortalised here, so the sequel made a decade later flopped, even though it was written by the same screenwriter, David S Ward, and populated by names as enticing as Jackie Gleason, Karl Malden and Oliver Reed. I can't see a workable remake as being remotely viable, but I can imagine it working in an earlier form, such as through a hypothetical Warners Brothers project back in the thirties that never got off the ground but made it as far as a completed script and a full cast list. I conjured that up but the idea resonates. At points here this felt so old school that I thought I even saw Nat Pendleton chauffering someone around, even though he'd been dead for six years. Perhaps part of the reason it feels out of time is that it's a seventies movie set in the thirties but with music from two decades earlier still, from the noughties and the teens.

This should feel wrong but somehow doesn't, possibly because the rags of Scott Joplin fit the tone magnificently, with a nod to The Public Enemy in the process. The adaptations by Marvin Hamlisch helped to prompt a revival of ragtime, building on the work musicologist Joshua Rifkin had been doing for a few years to bring the style back to public attention. Perhaps as these rags are so rarely used in movies, they stand out in the memory in association with this film and it always surprises me to rediscover how sparingly they were actually used. Then again, the irony of heavyhandedness in this film would have been hard to take. As much as there's danger, violence and plenty of hard work, it's all put together with a deceptively light touch. That as much as anything identifies this as a quintessential caper movie. After all a heavy handed conman is going to be quickly caught or dead. Hooker, Gondorff and this film are still going strong.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

37 years ago this was a good film but now it just comes across as incredibly embarrassing, i`m starting to feel like that about a lot of the films that i enjoyed from the 70s but maybe thats the way it should be, long live CGI, death to sentimentality and nostalgia.

Unknown said...

I saw The Sting when it first came out in the movies back in 1973.
Seeing it as a 14 yr old, this film had a huge impact on me.
Long story short, I became a very successful grifter soon after.
I was fortunate to put 3 kids through college without working a honest day in my life.
You see, being a conman is not what I do....It's what I am.
I have dollars on my mind and larceny in my heart.
But I will tell you this, I never conned anyone who couldn't afford it.