“The Sting” has all the signs of a blockbuster. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are superbly reteamed, this time as a pair of con artists in Chicago of the ’30s, out to fleece a bigtime racketeer brilliantly cast with and played by Robert Shaw. George Roy Hill’s outstanding direction of David S. Ward’s finely-crafted story of multiple deception and surprise ending will delight both mass and class audiences. Extremely handsome production values and a great supporting cast round out the virtues. Tony Bill and Michael and Julia Phillips produced for the Richard D. Zanuck/David Brown unit at Universal.
The original script by Ward establishes Redford as a novice con artist, apprentice to Robert Earl Jones who is murdered when one of their marks turns out to be a cash runner for Shaw’s regional syndicate. Ambition plus revenge leads Redford to Newman, an acknowledged master of the con trade who rounds up Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Ray Walston and John Heffernan to fake a bookie joint operation to snare Shaw in a major bet.
A clever interweaving of key sub-plots involves Charles Durning as a corrupt detective on Redford’s trail; also, Newman’s baiting of Shaw in a terrific poker game organized on a train by conductor Larry D. Mann; Redford’s ingratiation of Shaw; Dana Elcar’s FBI team; and the convenient amiability extended a worried and harried Redford by waitress Dimitra Arliss.
Although nearly every element in the film lends credibility to the story, the three stars make all the difference between simply a good film and a superior one. Newman in a somewhat older role than normal opens the door wide to another facet of his career; his relationship with Brennan (in a sensational supporting role) rounds out his characterization of an old pro making his last big score. Redford really turns to and works superbly (too many of his roles are shallow despite the obvious ability).
The casting of Shaw is a major coup: his taciturn menace commands attention even when he is simply part of a master shot. A less-imposing presence, in a less-imposing player, would have negated the impact of the story. Clearly, Shaw’s character is the keystone to the plot.
In recreating the period, cinematographer Robert Surtees filmed in brownish tones, lending a slight rotogravure look which works very well. Art director Henry Bumstead and set decorator James Payne outdid themselves, along with Edith Head’s great costuming. Setting up the film’s period from the outset is use of Universal’s old trademark (the lucite globe design used from the middle ’30s to the late ’40s).
The slight weaknesses in the film include episodic title cards, turned over as in optical effects of yore. The device tends to be too cute, though the other dated opticals reveal anew their value in pacing. Also, Marvin Hamlisch’s music adaptation, which employs piano rags by Scott Joplin, seems too thin and perhaps a decade too early for the obvious and emphasized ’30s period.
The 127-minute film comes to a series of startling climaxes, piled atop one another with zest. In the final seconds the audience realizes it has been had, but when one enjoys the ride, it’s a pleasure.
The producing partnership of Bill and the Phillips has broken up after this, their second venture (the first was the forgettable “Steelyard Blues” at Warner Bros.). However, one out of two is a terrific record. As for the Zanuck/ Brown Co., “The Sting” augurs well for their future. Finally, Universal, which to date has had a record year, continues to hold a hot hand.