Review: The Sting

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

The Sting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.

Director George Roy Hill falls into the latter category, and The Sting can be seen as a parable of his notion of what filmmaking, art, is all about. Two Thirties con men (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) plot; for various reasons, to take a big-time mobster (Robert Shaw) for a half-million dollars. A gaggle of legendary confidence artists are cast for the various stages of “the sting,” locations are carefully chosen, and the necessary props are ingeniously acquired. We are made to feel that Shaw’s limping, stolidly ruthless gangster richly deserves the comeuppance the endearingly blue-eyed and wisecracking duo have engineered for him. Even we are not “in” on the final permutations of the con, and so, when Shaw takes his ordained pratfall we aren’t exactly sure of our footing either. The con accomplished, the set is struck, the cast demobbed, and everyone goes home—a good time had by all.

It’s too close for comfort. Hill’s whole approach to making movies is predicated on putting on a good—read thin but glittery—show. The insubstantiality of the Redford-Newman confidence game, its participants and paraphernalia, is exactly proportionate to that of The Sting itself; for the film’s charm and the chuckles it elicits are inevitably lost in the hollow silence which follows the conclusion of the sham/film. With the Redford-Newman team to shill for him, Hill need only utilize his own facile talent for creating an ingenious backdrop for their undeniable charisma—in this case, a pseudo-authentic evocation of the Thirties to milk the nostalgia trend. Sure, it can be great fun to be bilked by a professional who’s in the game for the sheer hell and style of it. But if you read The Sting as director Hill’s approach to moviemaking, then you may stop enjoying the duping of Robert Shaw quite so much. Because it’s George Roy Hill who gets to take your money and run.

THE STING
Direction: George Roy Hill. Screenplay: David S. Ward. Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees. Music: Scott Joplin.
The Players: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Jack Kehoe, Eileen Brennan, Dmitra Arliss, Dana Elcar.

Copyright © 1974 Kathleen Murphy