Paul Newman and Robert Redford could have followed the blockbuster Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with pretty much any onscreen reunion and delivered box-office gold. But the savvy movie stars waited for something special, and David S. Ward’s twisty screenplay about Depression-era grifters pulling the ultimate con on a vile gangster fit the bill. Also rejoining the actors was Butch director George Roy Hill, whose storytelling is close to flawless throughout The Sting. Fast and fun from start to finish, the clever comedy-drama lays out a complex plot with incredible clarity, driving characters inexorably toward one of the most entertaining third acts ever filmed. Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a small-time con man whose mentor, Luther (Robert Earl Jones), gets killed after ripping off a courier in the service of big-time crook Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Determined to get revenge, Hooker connects with veteran grifter Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), and together they contrive an elaborate scheme to swindle Lonnegan out of a fortune. The picture is broken up into chapters—complete with hand-painted title cards for segments like “The Set-Up,” “The Hook,” and “The Shut-Out”—and riffs on Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic “The Entertainer” complement Marvin Hamlisch’s original scoring to give the piece a playfully old-fashioned feel.
The interplay between Newman and Redford is marvelous; they’re so charming that their shared scenes are like intoxicants. Shaw counters them with seething savage-in-a-suit villainy, and the fantastic supporting players fill the movie with delectable flavors: Jones, Dimitra Arliss, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar, Harold Gould, Jack Kehoe, and Ray Walston are wonderful. The Sting scores in every conceivable way, because it’s rare for any movie to meet, much less exceed, high expectations, just like it’s rare for a script full of plot twists to work all the way through, and just like it’s rare for a large ensemble cast to mesh into a seamless unit. At once a throwback to a simpler time in Hollywood history and a celebration of how sophisticated the art of filmmaking had become by the early ’70s, this masterpiece contains just about everything Tinseltown does well. It’s always tempting to express disappointment that Newman and Redford didn’t reunite onscreen after Butch Cassidy and The Sting, but unlike the baddie they bamboozled in The Sting, they were too smart to fall into traps. After all, why blow a good run by trying to hit the trifecta?
The Sting: OUTTA SIGHT