The vote in my recent "Which Best Picture shall I review?" poll was so close, I decided to give the runner-up a moment in the sun, too. Not least because unlike the actual winner, I have unhesitatingly positive feelings toward this one.
The Sting is not a great movie because of its ending. Let's just get that out of the way. It is, undoubtedly a fine ending. It is the exact perfect ending to that movie, in fact, and no movie about con men has ever done such a good job of baking a con against the audience right into its structure. And, undoubtedly, removing that ending would significantly weaken the movie. But it has come to dominate our cultural awareness of what the movie is, and it was so undoubtedly part of what drove its Best Picture victory at the Oscars (in the year that Cries and Whispers was nominated! I'm sorry, there's no such thing as a film so good as to keep me from being sore at about that), that I think there's a sense that the twist ending is everything there is to it, and the source of all its quality. Which simply isn't true. The Sting is a great movie because it manages, for two hours and nine minutes, to be a perfectly calibrated machine designed to be as entertaining as possible in as many ways as possible using as many top-notch character actors as possible, with the best soundtrack imaginable. It is an exercise in sheer, frothy movie delight, in other words, and while it's only my third-favorite of that year's Best Picture nominees (American Graffiti is #2), I have to say that it's extremely delightful of the Academy to have seen fit to reward something so defiantly unserious and therefore so entirely far out of their usual tastes in dry message pictures and/or flimsy tearjerkers.* Imagine Ocean's Eleven becoming the second-highest grossing film of 2001, on the way to trumping A Beautiful Mind at the Oscars. Man, film culture was cooler in the '70s.
To begin with, we have Paul Newman and Robert Redford, under the direction of George Roy Hill, four years after they combined forces to birth the legendary comic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Sting is perhaps not as much fun as that movie - not many things are - owing in part to how much less energy it devotes to the Newman/Redford buddy dynamic; they are not friends at the beginning of it, and there's no explicit reason to imagine that they'll be spending very much time together after it's over. But that's still the nugget of the movie: people who are enjoyable together reuniting to be enjoyable yet again. And oh, how much of that they are, propped up by a Murderer's Row of ensemble members well-known (Charles Durning, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, and Robert Shaw as the villain) and not (Harold Gould, Jack Kehoe, Robert Earl Jones, the father of James).
But propped up, mostly, by one of the tightest purely entertaining scripts of the 1970s. And when I say "purely entertaining", I suppose I am being a bit dismissive and haughty to The Sting, for pointing out that in the company of other Class of '73 heavy hitters like The Last Detail, The Exorcist, or Papillon, David S. Ward's script is almost pointedly not trying to engage with society in any particular way or communicate anything deep and honest. That being said, it is a more mechanically proficient script than any of the, and while I also suppose a phrase like "mechanically proficient" also sounds dismissive, I certainly mean just about anything else by that phrase. The Sting is a movie that wastes absolutely nothing: it rolls through its exposition, which has to set up not just a time period (1936), and a place (the South Side of Chicago and suburban Joliet) in additions to its nest of characters whose very profession all but requires a program to keep track of them all, and does all of this with indubitable, effortless grace. If it is challenging, it's only in the sense that you're pretty well screwed if you stop paying attention for even a minute or two, though I've never quite understood how movies that as you to watch them attentively rather than, I don't know, doing your taxes by the reflected light of the screen, qualify as "challenging". The Sting guides you through every step of the way; it tells you details exactly when it concludes you need them, and if you run about making assumptions, that's your issue, not the movie's (KIND OF SPOILERY Upon rewatching, the incredible skill by which a hired assassin's identity is hidden bowls me over: if you were to say that they're just avoiding pronouns, it seems like it should be horribly obvious, but in the actual scene where they're avoiding those pronouns, it's done so naturally in the dialogue that not just the first but also the second time I saw the movie, I fell for it completely). Not a single detail is lost, though many are clarified only once and in passing; the whole thing is marvelously complete and sets itself up perfectly. It being the case that caper films are almost duty-bound to have the most efficient scripts, if they are to be any damn good at all, well, The Sting has maybe the most efficient script of any caper movie ever made. It occurs to me that I haven't actually said a single word about the film's narrative content, and I'd like to keep it that way: suffice it stay that a con is put over, and the bulk of the film consists of watching it being planned, put together, and executed. The joy of the film consists in not knowing what's going on and being blindsided the first time you see it, and then delighting in the perfection of it every other time you see it, and in either case, I've no reason to give a single thing away.
To a certain degree, the pleasure of the movie is precisely the same as the pleasure of watching the plot happen, with the fantastic batch of actors making sure that we care about the people to whom it's all happening (Shaw gets my best in show pick, for choosing to play his Irish mobster's bloodlust more as the constant short-fuse impatience of a villain in a Bugs Bunny picture than as anything plucked from the world of gangster movies). That is to say, not because it is a end-to-end triumph of the art of cinema. Certainly Hill's direction is more functional than brilliant: he works with his actors well, but he has very few interesting ideas about what to do with the camera, making it lucky for him that he worked with talented cinematographers - Robert Surtees here, of the romantic nihilism in The Last Picture Show and the unsparingly clinical The Graduate. The visual idea behind The Sting was to leave the color palette stripped down, as it were a '30s movie itself, and to have the patently artificial backlot city of such a movie; and too, many of the frames (and especially the depth of interior compositions) mimic '30s cinematography pretty well. But mimicry is, often, all that's going on, and while the visuals in The Sting work just fine, they are not particularly inventive, not in the ways that the story is.
That all being said, the story is so well-told, and even in a subdued mode, Surtees is gifted enough with a camera, to leave The Sting wholly engaging as a piece of moviegoing candy of the finest sort. And I haven't touched on its main weapon, which is not at all a secret: Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of Scott Joplin piano rags for the vast bulk of the soundtrack. I have no doubt that there are Joplin purists who disapprove entirely of the lofty orchestrations Hamlisch adds to the spare solo piano of the original; and by all means, the music is far enough off of the right period - Joplin's heyday was a full quarter-century or better prior to the movie's setting - that we cannot in good faith say that it's actually building up a sense of place in any kind of authentic way. That's because it's doing something even better, though, which is building up a wholly artificial sense of movie place: the big, well-orchestrated tunes have a rollicking jauntiness, with the slow songs cheating in just the right amount of sobriety to let the film play at having deep emotional moments, that regardless of the degree to which it sounds like no historical version of 1936 in Chicago or anywhere else, The Sting sounds exactly like the story of two con artists of very little inherent sincerity pulling of the most gloriously sleek big con you can imagine, but especially on the audience. The music is a very overt cue to take everything with the same tossed-off, casual tone of the music itself, because although The Sting is too meticulous for "tossed-off" or "casual" to describe it whatsoever, those are exactly the right word to describe its relentlessly playful mood. It is pure, unadulterated light entertainment; and if you think that's not worthy of being called classic from a time of classics, or winning high-level awards, then all I have to say is that if it weren't a big deal to assemble a fleet romp that reaches such giddy highs so consistently as The Sting, then surely we'd have more than one or two movies like this in a generation.