Plot: What’s it about?
The highly-anticipated filmmaking reunion of director George Roy Hill and actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford after the phenomenal success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” just a few years prior, “The Sting” is a Best Picture winner that reminds us that the honor actually used to mean something. The plot, as replete with twists and turns as it is, somehow remains straightforward and simplistic at the same time – something I intend as a compliment and not as a criticism. It had been several years since I last visited this film, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how effortlessly it managed to re-captivate me. After a seemingly small-time bait and switch con unexpectedly crosses local crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), street grifters Johnny Hooker (Redford) and his best friend and mentor, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), are targeted for a hit. Luther wants out of the con game and urges Hooker to get in contact with an old friend of his named Henry Gondorff (Newman). After Lonnegan’s thugs catch up with Luther and Hooker gets away by the skin of his teeth, he decides to track Gondorff down and convince him to team up for revenge on the crime boss by pulling of the ultimate “sting”. Gondorff, according to Luther, was the best con man ever in the game, and Hooker quickly enlists his help to learn all the tricks of the trade before going back up against the wisely suspicious Lonnegan.
Virtually every element of “The Sting” is pulled off supremely well. The acting is top notch from the two leads, but Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan is no less impressive, serving as a formidably dangerous foil for our protagonists. Having watched the making-of documentary on “Jaws”, I recall Richard Dreyfuss commenting on Shaw’s real-life temper and predilection toward competitiveness. I suspect that these traits informed Shaw’s excellent turns in both films, making him the ideal choice for the fatally arrogant villain. The story is riddled with plot twists befitting a movie about deceptions and double-crosses. Indeed, one of “The Sting’s” greatest strengths is in David S. Ward’s screenplay, which shows us most – but thankfully not all – of the motivations behind everyone’s actions. In fact, one particularly vital element of the con is intentionally left out, allowing the audience to be just as surprised as Lonnegan at how it all plays out in the end. Just the right amount of tension is allowed to fester between our con men, allowing us to wonder just how loyal either will be to the other when the chips are down in the final act. The con itself, consisting of a horse-racing scheme, is played off completely believably, requiring a cast of characters both large in scope and thoroughly convincing during the film’s numerous, protracted “set up” scenarios. There’s also a subplot involving a waitress at a nearby diner that I’d personally forgotten about since the last time I viewed the film which leads to rather surprising results. I’d not remembered just how labyrinthine the plot of “The Sting” was, and it’s a testament to how great this movie is that everything is kept easily understandable and its complex plot kept classically linear.
It’s hard to believe that “The Sting” is nearly 40 years old, as its impeccable directing, era-appropriate music score, costume design, cinematography and flawless performances make it just as entertaining as virtually any film made today. It struck me while watching the film this time just how rare it was (and is) in Hollywood to see a movie like this which relies so completely on its storyline and capable actors to draw the viewer in. Even in 1973, the film was a nostalgic look back at the 1930’s. Today, that setting seems even more timeless than I suspect it did upon the movie’s initial release. You simply forget that you’re watching a film about the 1930’s made in the 1970’s and get swept away by the characters and masterful storytelling. Even early scenes never fail to intrigue, such as Newman and Shaw’s first scene together, as riveting a game of poker as you’re ever likely to see on the screen. As much as I enjoy “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, for my money, “The Sting” is an even stronger film. Its tone is always consistent for one thing, something that Butch Cassidy, to be fair, never really had going for it. The plot is equal parts gripping, humorous, and entertaining, a balance that’s nearly impossible to pull off correctly. It’s perhaps an odd comparison, but the only movie that comes immediately to mind when I think of those three elements coming together with such effectiveness is “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It’s funny when it wants to be, exciting when it chooses to be, and never loses sight of how high it’s elevated its own stakes. Redford and Newman may carry the film, but in the end, I truly can’t think of any one element that isn’t precisely as it should have been here, making “The Sting” one classic that fully earns the title. It belongs in any serious film fan’s collection.
Video: How does it look?
Universal bring “The Sting” to blu-ray with a generally strong transfer that should delight most viewers, but may unfortunately infuriate others. First, we’ll talk about the good news. The last time I watched “The Sting”, it was on the 4:3 DVD release. Popping this new edition in, there was obviously no comparison. The first thing you’ll notice is the drastic (and I do mean drastic) uptick in the area of fine object details. Textures in tweed jackets never shimmer, and the film’s aforementioned excellent costume design gets a welcome facelift from this new blu-ray. Shots can sometimes seem a bit inconsistent from time to time, but I feel that much of this is due to the phenomenon I alluded to in my “Pillow Talk” review. Any shot that contains an optical wipe or fade effect fares far worse than the shots surrounding it, and the notable shift in quality during these transitions can, at times, be unavoidably distracting. Contrast seems to have been pumped up a notch or two from previous releases, and while I can’t be sure if the result is still faithful to the original source, the saturated colors and almost sepia palette do serve the material well in my opinion. This is an aesthetic preference, however, and purists may take issue with the new timing if they’re expecting something a bit more washed out as is more indicative of the period. Black levels seem adequately inky, and I didn’t notice enough edge enhancement to mention here. Where the new transfer falters is in its overly processed attributes. While certainly not as horrible as the most recent edition of “Predator” or the infamously sterilized “Patton” blu-ray, “The Sting” does have its own share of problems. DNR has definitely been employed too heavily in some scenes, lending the dreaded waxy appearance to close-ups once in a while. Grain, while present, is handled quite inconsistently from shot to shot. In some scenes, everything looks great and as natural as one could expect. In others, the backgrounds take on a digitized look, and grain transitions from fluid to static without warning. On smaller screens, this issue likely won’t be noticeable, and even on my 60” plasma, I had to look closely to see it, so it’s certainly not a deal-breaker. But Universal needs to go back to the drawing board on this title if they want to create something not only pleasing to HDTV owners, but a true-to-the-source archival print that will stand the test of time and the higher resolutions sure to be utilized in the future. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish and French.
Audio: How does it sound?
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this new edition of “The Sting”, for the most part, sounds just fine. This is a nice surround upgrade that really gives the music and sound effects a nice boost, both in clarity and volume levels. So why the relatively low audio score? While I commend the efforts obvious in this audio track, there’s also something unquestionably gimmicky about it. I got the impression while watching this presentation that I was hearing one of Disney’s home theater mixes. That kind of pumped-up audio works well for an animated feature which, by its very nature, is built sonically from the ground up. But for a live action period drama, I’m not sure it really serves the material as well as the original mix would have in a lossless presentation. While clarity and separation is never an issue and dialog remains clean and understandable, the bass seems a bit too heavy in places, most prominently during title card scene transitions. It’s a consistent presentation, to be sure, but one that just seems too in-your-face for the film we’re watching. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the track on a purely technical level. There isn’t. But I definitely would have felt better giving the audio a higher score had Universal opted to include the original soundtrack on the disc – at least as a viable option for those of us who would prefer to hear the film as originally recorded and shown in theaters (adding further salt to the wound is a DTS mono track that’s included as well, but only in French). As part of Universal’s 100th Anniversary campaign, I would consider original soundtracks a vital and necessary inclusion for preserving these classic films, and I can only hope that “The Sting” is the exception and not the rule going forward. With the “Jaws” restoration just around the corner, I know I’ll be waiting to hear if the original mono track is included on that release before I dive in for a purchase.
Supplements: What are the extras?
In a move that seems more than a little odd, Universal has chosen once again to forgo the inclusion of a commentary track on one of its flagship catalog titles. A track featuring the surviving cast, including Redford, would have made this an instant 4.0 to 4.5 star rating. As it stands, though, we’re offered only two extras. The first, thankfully, is pretty great. A making-of documentary comprised of three shorter featurettes called “The Art of The Sting”, this one runs just under an hour and is actually a really nice look back at the film, with interviews from most of the principles involved in production. As a lone (major) extra, this retrospective is definitely nice to have as a part of the set, but it does leave one wishing more a little more overall. The only other feature included on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer (it’s quite nice to see that not all of Universal’s 100th Anniversary titles are missing this piece of history). The only other inclusions here are the obligatory Universal 100th Anniversary featurettes (“Restoring The Classics”, “The 70’s”, and “The Lot”). Again, these featurettes are really nothing more than glorified commercials for the studio more than film-specific extras, so I’m not factoring them into my score for the purposes of this review. As far as my overall rating, I’m weighting it heavily based on the strength of the film itself, which is ultimately of much greater importance than the sum of the parts of this particular set. With a strong if somewhat flawed video and audio presentation, decent making-of documentary, and a decisive bump up in quality over previous editions, I still feel confident giving “The Sting” a hearty recommendation.