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That’s “Entertainer”-ment: “The Sting” in the Tale, and the Art of Movie-Making…

Last Sunday, I discussed The Sting on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to the podcast here.

The Sting is a remarkable movie in a number of ways.

The film is somewhat overlooked in the annals of Best Picture winners, its victory in the category nestled between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. More than that, the film feels positively old-fashioned when compared to many of the Best Picture winners of the decade; The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer and even Rocky. Many of those Best Picture winners offered a sketch of America as it existed in the seventies, a more grounded and realistic approach to cinema reflecting a broader range of experiences and perspectives than had otherwise bubbled through mainstream popular film.

Actors like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro suggested a grittier and more diverse selection of leading men for a bold new era; actors playing what David Kamp and Lawrence Levi described as “morally compromised, usually runty, usually ethnic protagonists.” In contrast, Robert Redford and Paul Newman embodied a more conventional all-American charm. Redford, in particular, was a blonde-haired and blue-eyed screen icon – “the movie star, the matinee idol, the dashing leading man” – who could never be confused for a character actor. (In this context, it is perhaps telling that Robert Shaw’s insistence on third billing above the line on The Sting was so controversial to the producers that they allegedly sabotaged his awards campaign.)

The Sting feels very much out of step with its time and place. To be clear, it isn’t so much the film’s distinctive thirties setting that is the issue. After all, The Godfather was set in the forties and The Godfather, Part II flashed back and forth between the start of the twentieth century and the end of the fifties. More than that, New Hollywood films like Bonnie and ClydePaper Moon and Chinatown all unfolded against the backdrop of the thirties. In some ways, the seventies were as nostalgically focused on the thirties as the modern era is itself fixated on the seventies; an endearing reminder that such nostalgia is not an exclusively modern affliction.

However, there was a tangible difference in texture to the thirties as depicted in The Sting compared to Chinatown or Paper Moon. Many of these films offered a contemporary perspective on the thirties, applying a level of gritty realism and grounded naturalism to the decade that would have been impossible to replicate in the films of the time. Chinatown could deal explicitly with themes that many films noir had to grapple with implicitly, acknowledging the kind of violence and depravity that the Hays Code had kept off-screen. Even though it was shot in black and white, the characters in Paper Moon could talk about sex in a way that would never have been allowed in a film of the period.

There are aspects of The Sting that reflect the seventies. The film is much more socially realistic than a film produced during the thirties could have been. The Great Depression is constantly weighing on the edge of the frame; a hobo encampment visible on an establishing shot of a train traveling by night, a long line of starving people looking for work or food to establish a contrast with the luxury of the criminal enterprises, a desperate escape from an assassin through a makeshift shanty town. There are hints of more sex and violence than a film actually set in the thirties might have allowed; Hooker sleeps with Loretta, while a late-film headshot allows for a liberal splattering of (cartoonishly) red blood.

More than that, the general tone of the film reflects the era in which it was produced, as most films do. Paul Newman was famously (and proudly) included on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list”, after all. The Sting is informed by the cynicism and weariness of the seventies, suggesting the breakdown of faith in institution that reflected a generation confronted by horrors like Watergate and the Vietnam War. In The Sting, the most organised games in town are run by mobsters and hustlers. The only people who can be trusted are the criminals who are at least honest about their graft. When law enforcement does appear, it is either as fake as the FBI or as inept and corrupt as Lieutenant William Snyder. The Sting is a story about a society where only criminals can provide justice.

At the same time, the manner in which the story is told is decidedly old-fashioned. There’s an emphasis on lavish studio sets, the expansive back lots that evoke the older history of Hollywood. More than that, director George Roy Hill made a conscious effort to shoot the film in the style of thirties cinema; those street sets are often left empty, with only featured characters navigating them. Although there is violence in the film, it is decidedly less graphic than the violence in The Godfather or Chinatown. Crime boss Doyle Lonnegan is introduced as a man to be feared, although the film keeps his death toll reasonable. The audience is told that Lonnegan has “had seven or eight people rubbed on his way up.” He is no Michael Carleone.

As such, The Sting is a film that smooths off most of its rough edges. Roger Ebert observed, “It’s good to get a crime movie more concerned with humor and character than with blood and gore; here’s one, as we say, for the whole family.” Critic Leonard Maltin described it as the rare film that pleases everybody.” He’s not wrong. The Sting earned a “PG” certificate from the MPAA, in contrast to many of its more aggressive contemporaries. The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Deer Hunter were all “R” rated. Indeed, The Sting seems decidedly gentler than either Annie Hall or Rocky.

As such, The Sting seems very much like an oddity when compared to the various Best Picture winners around it. It feels almost like a movie out of time. This is apparent even within the specific context of the film’s Best Picture triumph. The Sting emerged ahead of a much more contemporary field; it had been nominated against George Lucas’ American Graffiti, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and the adultery comedy A Touch of Class. (Bernardo Bertolucci was also nominated for Best Director for his work on Last Tango in Paris.) In their own way, each of these films was arguably more reflective of seventies cinematic aesthetics than The Sting. In hindsight, the film’s victory seems very much an oddity.

However, there is a manner in which The Sting feels very much like a conventional Best Picture winner, an aspect that very much compliments its nostalgic aesthetic. Although nominally a story about a group of con artists who plot an elaborate swindle at avenge the death of one of their own at the hands of a brutal gangster, the texture and tempo of The Sting is more relaxed than such a summary might suggest. The Sting is the kind of film that takes more pleasure in the artistry of its central characters than in the thrill of their hustle. In fact, modern audiences are rather unlikely to be taken in by any of the narrative shell games within The Sting, which choreographs its major climactic twists well in advance. Instead, audiences are likely to admire the craft on display.

There is remarkably little tension and dread within The Sting, comparatively few complications in what should be a fairly thrilling con movie. There are hints of tension within the narrative, but they tend to be kept low key. When Hooker is introduced to Gondorff, there are a few small hints that the older con artist might be over the hill; he is first seen passed out in a drunken stupor, and he later clumsily drops a deck of cards during an elaborate shuffle. However, there is never a moment in which it ever seems that Gondorff might mess up or miscalculate. Gondorff only fleetingly interacts with Lonnegan, and is in complete control of his faculties during those encounters.

Similarly, Lonnegan never really poses an immediate and tangible threat to Hooker or Gondorff. Lonnegan has ordered a hit on Hooker, but has never seen the young man’s face. There is a scene early in the film where Lonnegan seems to consider having Gondorff murdered for swindling him at cars, but the conversation is fleeting and defused by Hooker’s arrival with a plan to instead orchestrate an elaborate con to help Lonnegan recover his lost money – and then some. There are undoubtedly hiccups and complications in Hooker and Gondorff’s plans, but these are seldom presented as life-threatening crises. Instead, they are presented as opportunities for improvisation and innovation.

The question in The Sting is never whether Hooker and Gondorff will be able to introduce Lonnegan to an agent inside Western Union who doesn’t actually exist, but how the pair will manage to keep the bloodthirsty gangster off their back. Similarly, when Lonnegan demands another demonstration of the so-called “wire” scam, there’s never a moment when it feels like the entire operation is at risk. Instead, the film takes considerable pleasure in showcasing the quick-thinking and resourceful manner in which these veteran confidence tricksters manage to hustle their mark. The Sting is a movie that revels in its characters’ process, in the idea of watching competent professionals demonstrating their skills for the audience.

Indeed, The Sting repeatedly and consciously draws attention to its artifice. At a time when mainstream productions were embracing a more realistic aesthetic, The Sting consciously evokes the heightened stylised sensibilities of old-fashioned movie-making. Scenes frequently open and close with an iris-in and an iris-out, the sort of nostalgic editing that would be favoured by Star Wars only a few years later. The various acts of the film are introduced with lovingly-rendered title cards that look like something from a lavish silent film. Even the soundtrack evokes an older kind of movie-making. The Scott Joplin soundtrack is consciously anachronistic, predating the action by a couple of decades. However, it evokes the sound of the piano that would often accompany silent films.

The Sting is a movie about performance, and not just of the front-end of the con for the benefit of Lonnegan. The Sting is very much engaged with the “behind the scenes” mechanics of the swindle. The Sting takes the audience on a tour of the underground economy that enables this graft, allowing Hooker and Gondorff to rent the necessary property and hire the necessary talent. In a way, it recalls the approach that creators like the Coen Brothers or Vince Gilligan take to matters of criminality in films like No Country for Old Men or shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, treating such illegal acts as an object of curiosity and as an artform unto themselves.

However, the preoccupation with process within The Sting is not just about the joy of watching competent confidence men going about their business with an endearing self-assuredness and the skill to back that up. On a scene-to-scene basis, The Sting often feels like a movie about movies. More specifically, The Sting repeatedly and overtly presents itself as a film about the art of movie-making. This is reflected in a number of ways, with director George Roy Hill and screenwriter David S. Ward borrowing heavily from the language and iconography of Hollywood movie-making in how they craft the film. It seems entirely appropriate that the film’s iconic theme music is none other than Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. What is this particular con but extended entertainment?

The parallels are quite apparent. In order to build their elaborate con game, Hooker and Gondorff need a set. So they buy a vacant lot – one so empty that it resembles a sound stage – and they convert it into a set. They rebuild the room from the ground up, buying props and painting walls. They then populate the set with actors. A variety of con artists are interviewed for jobs, although these sequences are framed as auditions. “Ever play the wire, Curly?” one potential candidate is asked, which feels like asking whether an actor has ever read Shakespeare. “Roped for it long ago,” the subject replies. He clarifies that he is a safe hire, “I don’t run with riffraff, and I only drink on weekends. Me specialty’s an Englishman.”

Curly gets the part. He is immediately rushed into wardrobe. “We got a rack of suits over there. Pick yourself a nice tweed one.” Later on in the film, when Lonnegan demands to meet the con’s “inside man”, the gang is forced to do some impromptu location work. They very quickly invite themselves into a real-life Western Union office posing as a painting crew, redecorating the office. This ruse allows them to plant their actor in the location to afford the scam a little more legitimacy. It is a very clever and canny piece of work, but feels very much like guerilla film making, an effort to efficiently add a little production value to the narrative that they are constructing.

Indeed, the rhythms and structures of the con (“the wire”) seem designed to evoke stagecraft. The actual mechanics of the con – the handling of the money and the reveal of the swindle – take place on the standing set of the bookie’s office. The cast of rogues are effectively performing for an audience of one. A lookout is perched in a window overlooking an alley into the betting house, hitting a button wherever Lonnegan approaches. When the button is hit, a light cues the performers inside the set, who each move to their starting position. The sequences look very much like a film set or a stage, actors posed like statues waiting for the director to yell, “Action!”

Of course, the structure of The Sting invites and furthers the comparison. Lonnegan is very much cast as the audience for Hooker and Gondorff’s performance, but The Sting repeatedly and consciously parallels Lonnegan’s experience of the con with the audience’s experience of the movie. The audience is in on “the wire” with Hooker and Gondorff, with the pair explaining in great detail exactly how they plan to fleece the mobster. However, over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly clear that The Sting is operating its own confidence trick on the audience, concealing information and offering misdirection in order to manipulate the viewer so that they might be caught off-guard.

The Sting contains a number of twists and turns that are obscured from the audience on first watch. Some of these are fairly logical and straightforward, such as the revelation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who team up with Snyder are actually working with Hooker and Gondorff and that the climax of the film involves a staged falling-out between Hooker and Gondorff for the benefit of Lonnegan. Some of the other twists are decidedly less organic and seem to exist purely to wrongfoot the audience, such as the revelation that a mysterious armed and gloved figure stalking Hooker is actually a bodyguard hired by Gondorff to protect him from an assassin whose strategy involved taking a job at a late-night diner and seducing Hooker so she could kill him in an alley.

The Sting suggests that movie-making and con artistry are surprisingly similar trades, both anchored in the idea of constructing elaborate narratives that serve to enchant and distract the audience. This is hardly the most novel of revelations, cinema has often luxuriated in various metaphorical comparisons to the art of movie-making. Christopher Nolan is particularly adapt at constructing such cinematic allegories. Inception is another movie about a con artist that doubles as a treatise on the practice of film-making, while The Prestige develops its comparison within the world of magic. In both cases, the art of movie-making is likened to an illusion. The Sting proposes something similar, suggesting cinema (and perhaps even storytelling itself) is nothing but a hustle.

After all, storytelling is more than merely providing information. It is about structuring that information, pacing the delivery of information to an eager audience. Nolan has described plot as “the controlled release of information”, and this description applies to a lot of popular information. This is most obvious in films that rely on twists, which effectively manipulate and mislead the audience; The Sixth SenseThe Usual SuspectsStar Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it is easy to take this approach too far, as is the case with modern “spoiler culture”, which ironically prioritises the information itself above the delivery of that information. However, there is some value in that analogy.

Movies are essentially a hustle on the audience. They are a carefully and meticulously assembled fiction intended to provoke a particular response, images and sounds that are brought together in order to become much more than their constituent elements, to convince the audience of a reality that doesn’t actually exist. It might be tempting to view these metaphors for movie-making as inherently cynical; certainly, the comparison between filmmakers and con artists is hardly the flattering. However, it should be noted that there is a deep and abiding affection for the con artist in American pop culture, from films like The Sting and Paper Moon through to Catch Me If You Can or Ocean’s Eleven.

The con artist is arguably a distinctively American folk hero, the “self-made man” (or woman) taken to its logical extreme and disconnected from the pesky tethers of reality. Although the reality differs greatly from the romantic ideal conjured through these films, the con artist is the ultimate free spirit, a perpetual wanderer who can reinvent themselves in every town and around every table, who can start from the most humble of beginnings and bring the most fantastical and elaborate imaginings to life without the hindrance of material means or class mobility or support structures. This is especially true in The Sting, which portrays a righteous group of con arts who are brought together (largely though not exclusively) out of solidarity for a fallen colleague.

In this context, the parallels to film-making seem almost flattering, treating the cinema as an extrapolation of these idealised attributes. Those people who make movies offer all of the romance of the con artist, the capacity to bring stories to life and to render dreams as tangible objects. Indeed, there may even be a slight parallel in the film’s concession that the con at the heart of the story (“the wire”) has “been out of date for ten years” by the time that Hooker and Condorff conspire to employ it against Lonnegan. Perhaps this choices reflects the manner in which The Sting itself feels like a relic of an older time compared to contemporary prestige pictures and crowdpleasers.

With this in mind, The Sting seems a less surprising Best Picture winner. The Academy has a long history of rewarding films that celebrate the art of movie-making, and The Sting at least gestures in that direction. After all, the Academy Awards exist as an entire evening given over to the celebration of Hollywood by Hollywood. It is no surprise that films about the transformative power of movie-making tend to perform well. This is most obvious in the films that are overtly about film production like Argo or The Artist. However, it is also reflected in the body’s long-standing interest in rewarding films that celebrate and glorify that history. The Shape of Water might seem an unlikely winner, but it includes both a black-and-white dance number and an homage to The Red Shoes.

In this sense, The Sting seems less like an outlier than it might otherwise, and more overtly like a celebration of cinema as part of an American cultural tradition as old and as rich as the art of the con.

4 Responses

  1. Part of the reason the thirties setting works so well is that it probably echoed the lives of audiences in the seventies in a way that it wouldn’t have in the fifties or sixties. At the time this movie came out, the country was experiencing the worst economy since, well, the thirties. So the portrayal of Depression era life would’ve struck a chord with a lot of viewers. And so would the whole heist format in which a bunch of street level protagonists get together and stick it to a rich and powerful man.

    I mention all this because when I first saw this movie, it was a year or two into the Great Recession, which itself started just about when I was trying to enter the workforce. The movie might have been forty years old, and the setting forty years older than that, but boy, did it hit the spot. Discovering this and Arsène Lupin stories at around the same time is what made me a huge fan of the heist genre.

    • Chris, if you enjoy the Lupin stories (I do too), you might be interested to know that Japan has a long-running homage cartoon series called Lupin III that is basically a ’70s combination of heist and Bond films. One of the best of the movies, ‘Castle of Cagliostro’, is available on Netflix.

    • Yep. I would have first seen this during the boom, and so I missed all of that stuff. It’s amazing what you see in these films when you come back and look at them with adult eyes, and changed circumstances.

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