What are movies if not elaborate cons, clever ruses designed to trick popcorn-munching marks into caring about people who don't exist, presented in a format shot and edited to reveal only what the puppet-masters pulling the strings want audiences to see? Accordingly, 1973's quietly masterful The Sting emphasizes the elaborate stagecraft that goes into pulling off a big con, the way all the players have to play their parts to perfection in order for the command performance to separate marks from their ill-gotten loot.
After triumphing together as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Robert Redford and Paul Newman reunited with director George Roy Hill, playing, respectively, a brash young con artist out to avenge his mentor/partner's murder, and the grizzled, drunken old pro who takes him under his wing. Robert Shaw co-stars as their deep-pocketed, mercurial mark, a cold-blooded shark of a gangster whose limp qualifies as just about his only humanizing trait.
At a time when American studio films addressed the country's discord and turmoil with unprecedented directness, The Sting looked back wistfully at an earlier age with sepia-toned nostalgia, immersing audiences in the kind of cornball Americana that in lesser hands could easily have come across as cheesy and regressive. But it doesn't, which is largely a tribute to the light touch of the underrated, versatile Hill, who keeps the proceedings moving along briskly. With its use of transitions that hearken back to the silent era, its use of Scott Joplin music to establish a simultaneously jaunty and melancholy tone, and its division into chapters illustrated with Norman Rockwell imagery, the film qualified as deliberately old-timey in its day, and it subsequently hasn't aged a bit. So when The Sting won the 1973 Best Picture Oscar, beating out American Graffiti, Cries & Whispers, A Touch Of Class, and The Exorcist, it must have seemed like a validation of crackerjack entertainment over more challenging, abrasive, socially relevant fare. But 32 years later, The Sting retains its breezy charm, and while it doesn't qualify as high art, it makes a fine case for the virtues of old-fashioned escapism.
Universal's new two-disc special edition engages in a much less enjoyable con. The picture looks and sounds great, but it seems silly to devote an entire second disc just to a few skimpy, unrevealing making-of documentaries. The set is appropriately designed to resemble an old novel, but considering the features enclosed, such fancy packaging is a little like a giant, immaculately gift-wrapped box containing only a boring old pair of socks.