' ' Cinema Romantico: The Sting

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Sting

The one thing I noticed most about "The Sting" (1973) was the music score. It's a movie, obviously, about a sting. A grift. A con. An elaborate bit of trickeration involving gobs of money and an unmerciful Irish mob boss. Yet the music score is not the suspected low and moody and ominous chords, keeping you off balance, setting up every potential turn around a corner as death. Or worse. No, it's "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin. This explains everything. What was amazing about "The Sting" was that none of the endless twists and turns were all that surprising. This was, in fact, the most unsurprising con game I've ever witnessed. When the FBI guys show up is there anyone who really thinks those are FBI guys. But it doesn't matter because its intent isn't to fool you, it's just to entertain you.

It's 1936 and Robert Redford is Johnny Hooker, a small time con man in Depression era Joliet, Illinois, where a grift with his obligatory father-figure mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones) goes really right before going really wrong when it turns out they unsuspectingly grifted a guy carrying stacks and stacks of cash for Chicago racketeering (Liz Lemon: "What is racketeering?" Jack Donaghy: "No one knows, Lemon.") magnate Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). To send a message, Lonnegan's thugs murder Luther but Johnny is able to flee to Chicago to hook up with Harry Gondorff (Paul Newman), once the greatest con man in the business, now struggling, though not for long because he gets the old gang back together with assistance from Johnny so they can all pull a dangerous, elaborate ruse on Lonnegan to both gain revenge and gobs of money.

It will involve a poker game and machismo gone wrong and a fake betting parlor and calls made to diner payphones and blue plate specials and a couple guns and a few footchases and a Police Lt. (Charles Durning) from back in Joliet hot on Johnny's trail and Johnny pretending to be a guy named Kelly right to the face of the guy who's trying to have him killed (imagine trying to pull this off in an iphone world) and if you were raised con game-wise on the films of David Mamet then you will be able to stay a step ahead of "The Sting", guaranteed, but you will still find yourself smiling along to the apple-faced charm of Redford and the understated moxie of Newman.

You know why I love Paul Newman? This is why: the guy was ego-less. He knew how to play things in an ensemble. It's so difficult to have true ensembles nowadays because everyone has to have his or her moment and in their moments, or, more especially, in other people's moments, they try too hard to sell themselves. Look at me! I'm in this movie, too! But Newman gracefully chugs along, never stepping on toes, never forcing the spotlight on himself. He starred in "The Sting" but he wasn't The Star. (Redford was nominated for Best Actor, Newman was not, and I am willing to wager it's because Redford actively campaigned - behind the scenes - and Newman just shrugged and thought, "Whatever.")

"The Sting" is professional. Professional, and nothing much more. You don't love it, you like it. It does not exhilarate and will not cause palpitations and you won't stagger around bleary-eyed upon its conclusion. No, it's just acted uniformly well, directed solidly, never spectacularly,  its story is told in a most straight ahead, uncluttered way, and it never goes more than surface deep. It ends and you think "That was well done" and then you wash the dishes. Come to think of it, "The Sting" is a whole lot like "The King's Speech." Guess what they have in common.

1 comment:

Andrew K. said...

Umm, what do they have in common? :)

I happen to love The Sting - it's a whole lot of fun - as you say, it's not so much about the *sting* as it is about the entertainment.