Directed by George Roy Hill
In 1930s Chicago, a young con man seeking revenge for his murdered partner teams up with a master of the big con to win a fortune from a criminal banker.
Famed French Director Jean-Luc Godard once remarked: “cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world”. How right he is. Put simply enough, film is a manipulative form which desires to lie, cheat and enthrall an unsuspecting audience through the use of edits and camera set-ups which, in turn, deconstruct any legit reality.
Originally, films were meant to be about escapism. They desired nothing more then to simply entertain people who were determined to find solace in the moving image. However, as a result of all the turmoil that took place during the 1960s and 1970s for American society, films began to undertake serious political overtones (films have always strived to teach such as 1940s Film Noir but during these two decades, films took on new meanings never seen before). Character rather then story became essential to defining an era in search of an identity. Films such as The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) were examples of an art form which desired to understand the significance of change and its effect on the inhabitants of American culture. Thus films became statements rather then mere entertainment. The films probed and analyzed the American psyche in an attempt to come to some sort of solid conclusion about what had happened within a span of ten years
For as much as films desired to teach, there were still films that simply just wanted to entertain. The Sting is one of these films. It does not desire greatness nor does it aspire to be something other then it is. It is a highly entertaining nostalgic set piece greatly reminiscent of the films of the 1930s.
Thus it was a great joy to witness the reformation of these two iconic actors in a film that (in my belief) is far superior to Butch Cassidy. The Sting is nothing more then a revenge tale and cinema goers have seen it time and time again throughout film history. Put simply, the underdog attempts to challenge the big dog on the block. Yes, it is true that we have seen it all before but the film does it with such finesse and grace that we are quick to forget the simplicity and familiarity of the plot.
As noted earlier, the film is an extremely nostalgic tale. It reminisces about the past and adds little key notes to the understanding that this is indeed a period piece. Antique segment titles interrupt the action to identify the next stage of the plot while scenes end with fade outs or of the iris of the camera shutting. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film is in fact found in its music provided by Scott Joplin’s Ragtime piano. It adds such a wonderful balance to the overall simplicity of the film. In other words, the music is light hearted and thus gives the film more of an eloquent but comedic façade.
But this is the point. The film is not solely about the manipulation of Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan but rather it is a con of the audience and there perceived belief in the films (apparent) mainstream approach to the material. We are conned throughout because this is not really a light-hearted revenge film bur rather a mystery in which the audience is the key investigator. The fact that most audiences members will not catch on is representative of the filmmakers’ skill at controlling and manipulating everyone and everything involved in the picture.
There has been so much talk about the reformation of Newman and Redford that one may be keen to overlook the masterful but yet subtle performance by Robert Shaw. Remembered mostly for his role as Quint in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece ‘Jaws’, Shaw adds an element to the antagonist that many would be incapable of mastering. Lonnegan is an arrogant, money hungry individual who despises losing at anything. It would be easy to overplay this role and deliver it with more of a camp sensibility. But yet Shaw remains controlled and it is in his moments of silence and contemplation that we witness an actor who was unbelievably talented. He also adds a sense of humor to the character (but also it is apparent that a sense of menace and uncontrolled anger lingers just beneath the surface) as it would have been awful if the character would have simply become one note. For all that Newman and Redford contribute to the film, it is Shaw that helps make it all worthwhile. I could probably look deep into the film and come away with some sort of message about politics or the economy but for once I am not going to search for anything. This is a film that embodies a sense of what filmmaking should be like. It is not flashy nor does it rely on violence and sensationalism. It does not preach nor does it point fingers. It is a film that simply wants to have fun. It is a classic interpretation of what film used to be like and more then likely will never be again.