Sunday, October 3, 2010

Classics: The Sting (1973)

Like the thesis statement in the opening paragraph of a paper written for a seventh grade English class assignment, the opening credits of 1973's The Sting announce what's in store for the audience. The 1930's Universal logo, hand-drawn title cards, the introduction of the cast as "The Players," and most importantly, the Scott Joplin ragtime score set the mood for two things: fun and nostalgia.

This was a dose of what Americans needed desperately in 1973. War raged on in Vietnam, society was still reeling from the social upheaval of the late 60's, and cynicism was at an all time high (although not nearly as high as it would be, with Watergate just around the corner). Many of the great films of the era were daring and experimental, taking advantage of the demise of the Production Code and exploring dark themes with gritty realism. When The Sting won the Oscar for Best Picture, it followed the Oscar wins of darker fare such as The Godfather (1972), The French Connection (1971), and Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Many critics have asserted that the unprecedented success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) can be explained by a cultural zeitgeist which was ready for good old-fashioned fun and escapism. The real world had gotten quite serious and depressing, and the movie-going public could only take so many Taxi Drivers and Dog Day Afternoons. I believe that the success of The Sting can be attributed to similar factors.

The film takes place in 1936, only 37 years prior to the its release. Exactly the same number of years have passed since The Sting opened in theaters. However, the film is deliberately crafted to give an aura of the much more distant past. The ragtime soundtrack, hand-drawn title cards, and sepia-tinged color palette all create an ambiance more suitable for film set in 1906. The costuming is slightly exaggerated from real 30's fashions, and dialogue is gratuitously peppered with antiquated slang. This is not the real world or the remembered past; this is the imagined past. The characters inhabit a world of nostalgia and exaggeration, like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Like most heist films, the plot takes twists and turns but is, at its core, incredibly simple. A small-time grifter (Robert Redford) sees his partner (Robert Earl Jones) killed at the hands of thugs working for crime boss and general a-hole Robert Shaw. Redford then exacts revenge by enlisting the help of experienced but down-and-out con-man Paul Newman and his various all-star hustler contacts to systematically rob Shaw of $500,000. A corrupt police officer played by Charles Durning appears to nearly foil the scheme, providing the requisite suspense, but through cunning and chicanery the boys pull off the Big Con.

The characters are well-rounded and believable, but the this is not a character piece, nor is the movie interested in the moral complexities that other early 70's films were exploring. Like other heist movies such as Ocean's 11, we are invited to identify with the criminals and live out our secret criminal fantasies through them, all the while with a clean conscience because we know that the victim really deserved it. We know that Robert Redford and Paul Newman are the Good Guys because they are the protagonists and are charming. We know Robert Shaw is the Bad Guy because he had Redford's buddy killed and acts like a jerk. We know that the death of Robert Earl Jones is meant to be tragic because we met his family and they seemed like nice people.

There are movies where people talk like real people, and movies where people talk like movie people. This is the latter. Dialogue such as this doesn't occur in the real world, but sounds great on film:
Loretta: And you expect me to come out, just like that?
Hooker: If I expected somethin', I wouldn't be still standin' out here in the hall.
Loretta: I don't even know you.
Hooker: You know me. I'm just like you. It's two in the morning and I don't know nobody.
Naturally, Loretta then sleeps with him, because that's how things work in the movies. 'Reality' is not a part of the equation. We are here to be entertained.

These sorts of movies are akin to watching a magic trick which you know the secret to performed by a master magician. You know how its done, you know what to expect, but the tricks wows nonetheless due to the sheer skill and slickness of the performer. If The Sting is anything, it is a wholly satisfying movie experience, enhanced by the fun and nostalgic mood it created. The film is timeless escapism, and remains as powerful 37 years after its release as ever.