Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Sting (1973)
Studio Line: Univeral Studios - All it takes is a little confidence!

The Sting is one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed films of all time. Set in the 1930s, this intricate comedy caper deals with an ambitious smalltime crook and a veteran con man who seek revenge on the vicious crime lord who murdered one of their gang. How this group of charlatans puts "the sting" on their enemy makes for the greatest double-cross in movie history, complete with an amazing surprise finish.

Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Film Editing; Best Costume Design; Best Score-Marvin Hamlisch. Nominated for Best Actor-Robert Redford; Best Cinematography; Best Sound, 1974.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, Spanish & French Digital Mono; subtitles Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 16 chapters; rated PG; 129 min.; $24.98street date 3/31/98.
Supplements: Production Notes, Talent Bios.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/B/D

In anticipation of next month's DVD release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I thought it was time to check out an even more successful collaboration between megastars Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The first movie snared about $100 million at the box office - huge bucks in 1969, and a figure that would equal roughly $300 million today.

However, the next teaming of Redford and Newman topped even that amazing take. That would be 1973's Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Sting, a film that also reunited those actors with Butch Cassidy director George Roy Hill. The Sting grabbed almost $160 million, which would translate to nearly $400 million these days. Not too bad for a modest little comedy about a couple of ambitious con men.

The Sting seems like an unusual movie to win Best Picture as it lacks almost all of the qualities we normally associate with such victors. It's a period piece - Oscar rarely picks movies that take place in the current era - but it lacks any sort of epic feel and it doesn't deal with broad, heroic issues.

Instead, The Sting just gives us a clever and entertaining little romp through Depression-era crime. No lessons are learned, no life obstacles are overcome; it's just a caper flick that reels us in and keeps us hooked for its full two hours.

Hill does an excellent job of moving the film along at a snappy pace and keeping the proceedings breezy. The Sting isn't all bubblegum and daffodils; people are killed, and sometimes semi-graphically and coldly. However, the movie maintains a slightly cartoony feel that suits it, so the violence doesn't taint the story with an overly negative sentiment.

Despite that tone, The Sting manages to feel gritty enough that we muster concern for our heroes. Did I think that either of them wouldn't make it to the end of the movie? Nope. Was I nonetheless concerned that one would drop out along the way? Yup. Rare is a film that can make me actively question the potential survival of a major star when the movie in question is from such a peppy genre, but that's the way I felt during The Sting.

The film offers a somewhat convoluted script - the scam in which Redford and Newman involve themselves can be rather complicated - but it all makes sense in time. Plot twists come together nicely by the conclusion and even if you've been confused for much of the movie, you'll be content by the end. The script also provides some sharp dialogue that makes the journey all the more enjoyable.

Newman is nearly perfect as experienced grifter Henry Gondorff; to be honest, his is closer to a supporting role than a leading one - Redford's part is clearly the main character - but Newman makes the most of what he has, so I can't quibble too much about the billing. Robert Shaw is also excellent as the prospective pigeon, big time crook Doyle Lonnegan. Okay, Shaw's Irish accent doesn't always cut the mustard - I occasionally had an urge to scarf down some Lucky Charms - but his presence as a burly, intimidating leader more than compensated. The remaining supporting cast includes top-notch veterans like Ray Walston, Charles Durning, Eileen Brennan and Harold Gould, all of whom bring life to their parts. (And yes, Robert Earl Jones - who plays Luther - is related to James Earl Jones; Robert's his father, and while his voice isn't quite as sonorous as his son's, you can definitely hear the resemblance.)

Redford is the closest thing to a weak link in the main cast. Overall he's more than competent, but he simply seemed slightly wrong for the part. Two-bit crook Johnny Hooker should have been at least a little scraggly and gritty, two qualities Redford couldn't muster if his life depended on it. Too much of Redford's "golden boy" sheen shines through in his acting, and while this definitely didn't ruin the film, I still couldn't help but feel that he wasn't the right guy for the role. Obviously his presence helped click at the box office, and the movie still earned many plaudits, but I gotta gripe about something!

There's not much about The Sting that deserves criticism, though. Don't expect it to be a grand, epic saga, because it's not and it never pretends that it is. The Sting is simply a superbly executed film about some small-time crooks who decide to try to enter the big time. It entertains from start to finish, and that's enough.

The DVD:

The Sting appears in a fullscreen aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although they now do a terrific job of supporting DVD, Universal wasn't always so great, and for a while they often offered fullscreen versions of films that were mildly matted in theaters. The Sting apparently used a 1.85:1 ratio but was shot fullframe, which means the image on the DVD seems to represent the entire original frame. As such, we get the picture as projected theatrically plus extra information at the top and bottom. I'd still prefer the original framing but I won't gripe too badly about this.

More problematic is the quality of the image. It's not terrible but it could stand for serious improvement. Sharpness generally seems adequate, though it can be mildly hazy and soft at times. I noticed a few instances of moiré effects, but not many. Digital artifacts are a frequent problem, however, and they give the picture a rather gritty appearance at times. The print suffers from other flaws such as speckles and a few nasty scratches, which are most prominent when Redford first meets the feds.

Colors generally look bright and vivid and offer some of the high points of the image; they seem well-saturated and lack noise or smearing. Black levels are also quite good, and shadow detail usually appears appropriately opaque. Remove the digital artifacts and the print flaws and The Sting jumps a grade, but as it stands, it only merits a "C-".

Although limited in scope, the film's monaural audio is a substantial improvement over its picture. When it comes to mono sound, quality is the only consideration, and it seems pretty strong for a movie that's more than a quarter century old. Dialogue occasionally appears dubbed, but for the most part it integrates well with the picture and sounds relatively natural and intelligible. Effects can be a little thin - gunshots seem especially wan - but are reasonably realistic and lack distortion. Scott Joplin's music comes across terrifically well; the ragtime songs sound clear and rich, with a little bit of nice bass tossed into the mix. For an older mono track, The Sting sounds pretty good.

This DVD includes a few minor supplements. Better than average biographies appear for the three main actors (Redford, Newman and Shaw) plus director Hill. We also find some very good text production notes; these offer quite a lot of information about the film. None of this replaces a good special edition - which it appears we'll get with Butch Cassidy - but at least what's here is good stuff.

The Sting is a solidly entertaining little film. It aspires to be nothing more than a consistently compelling and delightful movie and it succeeds on all counts. The DVD offers adequate sound but disappoints with its subpar picture and sparse extras. Here's hoping Universal eventually get off their duffs and give The Sting the full special edition treatment it deserves. Until that happens, it's still a classic movie that deserves at least a rental.

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