Perfect Movies: The Sting

Note: A majority of this entry appeared on chud.com years ago while I was a contributor there. However, given it is a Perfect Movie, I felt it fitting to retrofit slightly and post here. You can go to CHUD to read the original, complete with snarky screen caps.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I absolutely love this movie (the theme song is a ring tone on my phone), mostly because there aren’t too many other movies I feel are more deserving of the title “Best Picture.” There are times in the award ceremonies where that term doesn’t always mean what I think it should. The Best Picture should be one where all the individual elements of a film (acting, script, directing, cinematography, etc.) are all individually great and, when they are combined, form something greater than the sum of its parts (much like Voltron). “The Sting,” does exactly that. (As fate clarifies this for me – I’m watching the 2011 Best Picture winner “The Artist” literally right now as I type this and.. it is safe to say that “The Artist” will not be featured under the Perfect Movie banner.)

“The Sting” is the ultimate con movie. This is different from a heist movie (like “Ocean’s Eleven”) in one very important way. Con men (according to lore and displayed in “The Sting”) never robbed from anyone (like Danny Ocean’s crew does). Instead, the grifter uses a mark’s greed against himself, and ends up swindling the mark for a lot of money.

That’s a very subtle difference, but it is necessary to understand. The grifter has an interesting moral center. In “The Sting”, both Newman and Redford portray that attitude very well. Neither is about to rob someone outright – but they will set up an elaborate con to swindle someone out of money. Outright stealing, in their mind, is wrong – but staging an elaborate play that makes the mark hand over the money – that’s OK.

That notion is one of the things that makes “The Sting” such a wonderful movie. The characters come from a shady world; but one different than viewers were used to seeing. Looking back through film history, we see an oddity in the early 70s. The “Godfather Saga” reigned supreme, winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1972 and 1974. “The Sting” is almost the anti-“Godfather”. Where “Godfather” is serious, “The Sting” is whimsical; where “Godfather” had amoral characters the “Sting” had characters who conducted illegal activities while adhering to a strict moral code.

There are plenty of characters in “The Sting”, but ultimately the movie is boiled down to three of them. First is Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who plays an old con man who is imparting his knowledge of the Big Con onto a young apprentice, Johnny Hooker (Redford). Their mark is a criminal, Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Each of the actors handles their characters brilliantly. Each is played with style and gusto and creates a life for the character. The entire cast is great in the movie – but the interplay between the three principles is magic.

Part of the reason the interplay is so good is because of the acting. Another reason is the fantastic script they had to work with. The script not only creates great characters – but an interesting story for them to play in.

As the Con unfolds it seems something happens to the screenwriter (David Ward). At some point he realizes that, as he sets into the third act, he has this great twist planned for one of the characters – Lonnegan. After all, he is being conned. The audience, however, is completely aware of it. Not only that, we know every detail. The audience has been involved from the first step and knows every aspect of the plan.

This is a problem for the screenwriter. If everything unfolds as it should – there is no real payoff for the audience. At that moment the screenwriter must realize there is another mark: The Audience. Some vital piece of information must be held back and a misdirect thrown out – so the audience thinks they are seeing one thing, and in reality seeing something different.

In this case it is whether or not Hooker will rat Gondorff out to the Feds. This notion becomes a part of the movie and ultimately is used as a device to feed the audience some misdirection. It works perfectly too. The audience falls for it (as does the mark in the film). The result is giving the audience a little something extra that wasn’t expected. The screenwriter cons the audience perfectly for a better payout.

Another aspect of the film that is just perfect is the score. All the music was old ragtime music by Scott Joplin, dropped into the film. Even though ragtime was no longer popular during the time “The Sting” takes place, it doesn’t matter. In this case the music isn’t there to strengthen the time period of the movie, as much as it is to accentuate the feeling of the movie.

“The Sting” has a great feel to it – and that feeling is one of the reasons it still works today. Much like “Ocean’s Eleven” was a few years ago, “The Sting” is cool and fun. Even the sets and the camera work in the movie are lively. Again, every aspect of the movie is great on its own accord, and plays into the mastery of the film itself.

Director George Roy Hill did a fantastic job with making all the various elements of the movie fall into place. Everything was perfect, from the cinematography to the acting to the music. That’s what I mean by a “Best Picture.” Not (necessarily) when all the elements of a movie come together to form something great, but when each individual piece is great and they come together to form something perfect.

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