Did you know that The Sting was the first Academy Award Best Picture winner to have a female co-producer? Maybe that explains why this film seems so progressive, at least by 1970s standards. As I write this I am coming from a place that is, “well, everyone saw this movie,” but perhaps some people have not seen it. I mean, some people have not seen the Best Picture winner from the year before, The Godfather. Thus I will provide the setup.
What was I supposed to do — call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?
Here is the two buck version of the film: con artist team of Johnny Hooker—Robert Redford, All the President’s Men—and Luther—Robert Earl Jones, Ben from Sleepaway Camp, seriously, what a difference in quality 10 years makes—take $30,000, in 1930s dollars, off of low level mobster in Chicago. In retribution the crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan—Robert Shaw, Jaws—orders all three of them killed. Hooker gambles his cut away immediately, which is at least partially responsible for Luther’s death. Of course Luther had immediately retired after the con, telling Hooker to seek out an elite con artist, Henry Gondorff—Paul Newman, The Hustler. Put another way, we have a bad guy and two anti-heroes and a grand moral excuse for pulling off grand hustle with a few chases and shootouts.
That sounds like dozens of other movies, but this won Best Picture, so there must be something special about it. Placed into a historical context, this is six years after Bonnie and Clyde, which is famous for having the protagonists be villains. Under the old Hays Code the criminals could never get away with the money, indeed even Bonnie and Clyde bite the dust in the end. Even in Ocean’s Eleven (1960) Frank Sinatra’s team does not get away with the money. So in 1973 having a moralist film with dozens of criminals taking advantage of not only mobsters, but a rather crooked police lieutenant too—Charles Durning, Peter Griffin’s father on “Family Guy”—must have still been quite a surprise. You could compare this to The Godfather, but it really is an extremely different style, and genre, of film. This film should be viewed for what it is, a transitional film bridging the death of the Hays Code, the ensemble period piece, and the blockbuster. Because the film looks like it used practical effects and blocks of Chicago1 with 1930s cars and clothing, it has really aged well and does not feel like a 70s film.
Another way the film transcends its time is in its casting. For instance, having Luther be played by a Black actor, that shows an anti-racist stance by the director, even as racist language gets used. Although, having him he fit into the wise old Black man archetype is less modern. Then there is the intrepid madame—Eileen Brennan, of schlocky manor murder movie fame2—a classic strong female archetype from the Western genre. So she is strong, but in a stereotypical way. On the other hand Salino is a cold blooded assassin. That she happens to be a woman is a pleasant surprise. That she sleeps with Hooker the night before the attempt is very Bondian, although she shows very little sex appeal. The last casting choice I want to mention is that of Charles Dierkop as Floyd, Lonnegan’s bodyguard—Robinson from The Pawnbroker. His look was perfect. It says 1930s mob thug in a way that Vincent Pastore–Goodfellas—looks like a 1970s Italian mafioso.
Charles Dierkop, Robert Redford & Robert Shaw, as Floyd, Hooker and Lonnegan, sharing the backseat of a too thin car, The Sting, © 1973 Universal.
On the soundtrack front, I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know the name of Scott Joplin until about a week before I watched this. If his name does not ring a bell, his music will. His wonderful tune “The Entertainer” is instantly recognizable as a song ice cream trucks play. Marvin Hamlisch adapted it, among other songs, for the soundtrack, and received an Academy Award for his trouble. Hamlisch’s name was already familiar to me, but that is because he co-wrote “Nobody Does it Better”, the theme song to The Spy Who Loved Me. Thus in conclusion you should definitely watch The Spy Who Loved Me. And The Sting, even though there is no character named “Jaws” in it.
1 I do not know how much of the film was shot on location and how much was shot on the Universal City lot, but that is a testament to just how well made this movie was.↩
2 Brennan played Mrs. Peacock in the cult classic Clue and Tess Skeffington in Murder by Death. I forgot to review Murder by Death, which is a good thing because I had never seen a Charlie Chan movie, e.g. Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, so I did not understand that Peter Sellers was parodying a yellow-face, “Confucius say” Chinese detective, and not just being horribly racist. I blame The Pink Panther Strikes Again, because he stars in that and it is very racist in its portrayal of a Chinese manservant.↩