The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill)

RECOMMENDED

For certain, George Roy Hill’s The Sting — sort of a kinder gentler comic take on The Killing, except this time the idea is revenge instead of wealth — is many shades better than his earlier film with the same two leading men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a bland bore that’s aged terribly. You could make an argument that what marks the improvement is tighter story construction; obviously that assists in the watchability factor. But Hill was a complicated director with a good eye for beauty on the fringes and an unfortunate resistance to playing to his own strengths. The Sting is his sort of project; in a manner somewhat akin to The 39 Steps, he takes time at various points to explore the life of his anti-hero, Robert Redford, in a joyful and calmly awestruck manner suggestive of pure magic. Watch the sequence in which he hits on the waitress who longs to “take a train out of here”; the ensuing minor action scene seems almost drunken on its resourceful exuberance, and the faces, the streets and alleys, Redford’s own palpable sense of danger (the scene might very well include his best acting ever), it’s all intoxicating fantasy with just the right shot of unflappable truth. There’s something oddly graceful about it all, a capturing of the outskirts of a kind of wild liveliness only tangible in the movies.

But these elements ultimately fall into place for something so vulgar as a plot. The Sting is hard to fault because it’s pretty unassuming in its frivolity and quite fun, but its potential is squashed by its script, or perhaps its director is squashed by the movie. Highly commercial, uncomplicated, and very, very silly, The Sting is a harmless crowd-pleaser that represents nothing remarkable in a cinematic sense outside of its technical design and a few hidden treasures like the one noted above. It’s 125 minutes and therefore at least half an hour longer than it should be, especially with its story dramatically thin and virtually free of nuance and detail — and what little there is ends up becoming meaningless by the end, when the film cops out with a useless “populist” twist. The biggest problem, frankly, is that David Ward’s oft-studied script is too much of a “perfect case study”; it corresponds so neatly to the supposed structural rules of screenwriting that it seems to take no risks. All the way down to the reflective rhythmic gap just before the climax (you can see this with an equal undressed obviousness in Rocky), it’s as though you can sense the gridlines. It’s more a populist experiment than a story.

Paul Newman, an actor I don’t care much for, is very good in The Sting, and so is the supporting cast, including the consistently lovable Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, and Robert Shaw, who is especially fun and provides the movie’s only sense of danger and guts. In the public relations department, it also depicts African-American characters in a mostly non-stereotypical fashion, but it does evoke a few groans when yet another movie of the ’70s can’t have black characters without cutesily throwing everyone’s favorite word “nigger” around; the movie just couldn’t let Robert Earl Jones’ goddamn color go by without straining to point it out.

All that said, the film really only suffers in light of its reputation. Were it not considered a classic and a popular touchstone, were it instead a discovery we all made individually on late-night TV or suchlike, it would likely enjoy a more sustainable reputation. Though the characters don’t amount to much, they build up plenty of affection from us on the basis of the actors’ charms. By the midway point, as convoluted as the many parallel stories and the heist itself have come to be, we find ourselves deeply involved in the emotional conflict that seems to be quietly taking hold in Redford’s Johnny Hooker. That’s why the film’s other great failure is its copout finale, which is the reason it never rises above the intellectual level of a crossword puzzle: fun to gaze at and to solve, but bereft of emotional content. The movie sweeps us up in an interesting problem: will Johnny turn his partner Henry (Newman) in after completing his spiteful game, or will he allow the Feds to do their worst to the very family he meant to avenge and protect in the first place? Hints are dropped that Henry is aware something is amiss, and Redford generates a good amount of pathos. But it’s all phony; the entire thing is a put-on. We’re lifted up into this mild emotional tornado for no reason, just so the director and writer can say “a-ha!” and reveal that the buds were buds all along and there never were any Feds even! It’s a decidedly macho trick, to conjure up emotional depth strictly to dismiss and/or make fun of it, and reminds me uncomfortably of the sitcoms that were on the air when I was coming of age.

Shouldn’t this director have been able to rise above sitcom level? Hill’s movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, a safe and whitewashed move even by their standards, but it’s still annoying to see someone with so much talent waste his potential like this. It’s another in a long line of Hill movies — including Butch Cassidy, Hawaii before that, and The World According to Garp later — that features an overflow of misdirected energy. This is one of the best of the crop. Much of the problem obviously comes down to an apparent difficulty the filmmaker had choosing stories that would actually complement his visual and sensory abilities, which were considerable. Instead of illuminating life and cinema, he’s forced to go through the motions, repeatedly.

Much thought was expended on the art direction, superb, and in a delicious move for movie buffs, the title design, which is intended to evoke the film’s time period of the Depression, replete with the old Universal logo from those years. But the smart, mannered duplication of outdated style in the opening sequence unfortunately seems to have required more love and attention than anything else in the picture, which is little more than acceptable assembly line product. Come and get it.

[Expansion of a review posted elsewhere in 2007.]

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