“It’s the rare film that pleases everybody,” writes Leonard Maltin in the liner notes of the new reissue of The Sting, the 1973 Depression-era caper movie that won seven Oscars (including Best Picture) and earned both critical acclaim and popular success. In an era full of auteur-driven turbulence in Hollywood, The Sting stands out as a model of old-school craft, a richly appointed studio production with big stars and a premium on efficiency and pace. Reuniting the team responsible for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid—the versatile director George Roy Hill and the absurdly charismatic buddy team of Paul Newman and Robert Redford—the film isn’t particularly ambitious or distinctive, but something much rarer in the ’70s: a broadly appealing entertainment that runs like a top. While David Mamet brought greater depth to the con-artist movie with House Of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, The Sting remains the model of the subgenre and a prime example of how well cinema assists the deceptions of flim-flam men.
Shot in a beautiful backlot recreation of Depression-era Chicago and its suburbs—the images and title illustrations evoke Saturday Evening Post covers—The Sting may be billed as a Newman-Redford team-up, but it’s much more a vehicle for the latter. A small-time con artist working in Joliet, Illinois, Redford and his mentor/partner (Robert Earl Jones, father of James) accidentally get a big score when they intercept $11,000 from a numbers runner en route to Chicago. When local mob boss Robert Shaw has his partner killed in retribution, Redford flees to Chicago and hooks up with Newman, a veteran grifter who agrees to take revenge by luring Shaw into an elaborate long con. The pair and their buddies open up a phony off-track betting parlor and have Redford feed the winners to Shaw until he gains enough confidence to lay down a monster bet.
A great con movie cons the audience, too, and screenwriter David S. Ward (who later wrote Major League among other less-acclaimed projects) throws up various smokescreens and complications as both the mob and the police close in on the operation. It’s often the smaller improvisations that are the most pleasing, like two members of the team posing as painters to form a makeshift wire operation or Ray Walston calibrating his fake track announcements to whenever Shaw steps forward to place a bet. The silky-smooth mechanics of Ward’s screenplay and Hill’s direction are the film’s primary allure. For a Best Picture winner, The Sting is refreshingly unpretentious, a comment on little but a testament to Hollywood’s occasional ability to get its act together and churn out a movie as effortless and irresistible as the Scott Joplin music that fills the soundtrack. Of all the classics Universal is putting out for its 100th anniversary, here’s one where the studio itself deserves to take a bow.
Key features: A previously produced three-part, one-hour documentary gets interviews from most of the major players, including the late Newman, but the other supplements are mostly Universal paying tribute to itself.