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IMDb Top 250: The Sting (1973)

WIPE VS. IMDb

(Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, there may be spoilers below.)

Director: George Roy Hill

Screenplay: David S. Ward

IMDb rank: #99

IMDb user quote: “The caper movie uber alles . . . A magical plot, dead on art direction, brilliant supporting roles (most notably Robert Shaw, ya falla?), and the guiding hand of Redford/Newman chemistry make this one of Hollywood’s great films.” – moman818, from Los Angeles, 10/10 review

Wipe’s take: The Sting marks the second and final pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, an enduringly popular duo whose initial collaboration Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – also directed by George Roy Hill – currently sits at #148 on the IMDb top 250. It came as a bit of a surprise when The Sting took home an armful of Oscars in the spring of 1974, including Best Picture (it had been virtually shut out of the Golden Globes, earning only a screenplay nomination); however, by this time the film, a late-December-’73 release, had struck it big at the box-office and started a sensation on the Billboard charts with its soundtrack, composed mainly of old Scott Joplin piano rags adapted by Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch.* Today The Sting appears to have lost little of its ability to charm audiences, who remain enthralled by the Redford-Newman iconography, and perhaps even more so by the film’s playfully convoluted plot, which is divided into segments (“The Set-Up”; “The Hook”; “The Tale”; etc.) detailing the various stages leading up to the film’s climactic con (“The Sting”). As in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the keyword for The Sting is “fun”; its champions are most likely to laud the film as a supreme example of “pure entertainment.”

Viewing The Sting for the first time recently, I was indeed entertained, if not supremely so. I doubt I’m alone in confessing a penchant for films in which the characters hatch a plan that unfolds in carefully delineated stages towards some tremendously rousing payoff (I’m thinking not only of caper flicks but of prison-break perennials like The Great Escape [IMDb #100], The Bridge on the River Kwai [#70], and The Shawshank Redemption [#1]). The Sting follows this line of plotting admirably (it certainly had me “hooked,” to use the con-man parlance), except I would hesitate to call its climax rousing. When we finally reach the point at which the con-men played by Redford and Newman swindle the gangster Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) out of a half-million dollars, the victory occurs rather hastily (taking place within the last ten minutes of the film) and with surprisingly little fanfare.

Perhaps this is to the film’s credit. In an age where Soderbergh’s glitzy, preening Ocean’s trilogy sets the standard for its genre, it’s certainly nice to look back at a caper film with the good grace to underplay its climactic grift, and with the modesty not to bask in its own cleverness for too long. When Redford’s character declines his cut of the big score, telling Newman “Nah, I’d only blow it,” it’s a sign that both the character and the film itself basically mean well – for neither does it seem ultimately about the money, but rather about the humble rewards of pulling off a great story. (Actually, in the Redford character’s case it’s also about earning retribution for a pal Lonnegan had murdered. Almost forgot about that. Probably because the film’s so darn good-natured you tend to overlook the grisly murders that occasionally crop up.)

One other aspect of The Sting intrigues me, and that’s the handsomeness of Redford and Newman in contradistinction to practically all the rest of the major cast onscreen. Now, obviously, one expects that the best-looking people in the average Hollywood film will be its stars (except where Judd Apatow is concerned), but there seemed something especially pronounced about the unattractiveness of everybody but Redford and Newman in The Sting. (It also doesn’t help that Redford never looked fitter than he does in this film. Wow he’s dashing.) I’m not the first person to notice that the two lead women in The Sting are not what you’d call “conventionally attractive.” This wouldn’t bother me at all if one of these women didn’t happen to turn out to be a treacherous assassin (knew she was funny-looking for a reason!), and if the other weren’t relegated to a very unimportant role, despite the fact she’s playing Newman’s live-in love interest (knew she wouldn’t get much screen time!). Meanwhile, Robert Shaw’s character is made noticeably less attractive by means of a padded hunchback (if I’m not mistaken), and by a herky-jerky limp (which, in fairness, Shaw brought with him to the set from a recent handball accident).

Again, I should not be shocked that Redford and Newman turn out to be the most beautiful people in the cast. But I did detect a little more effort than usual put into foregrounding their beauty by surrounding them with mortal-looking people. (Plus I’m not even sure the two actors share many shots together. Better to admire them in separate close-ups I guess.) Even if I’m right, and this is the machinery of movie-star vanity at work, it hardly overwhelms the picture, which, as I previously stated, is pleasantly modest in tone and approach.

Does the movie merit top-250 status? I would say no, but it does belong near the top of any person’s list of “Movies with Impossibly Attractive Male Leads.”

-Cam

* Hamlisch’s score is often credited with reviving a ragtime craze in America, but the truth is that Joplin’s music had already enjoyed a popular resurgence a few years prior to The Sting, when Joshua Rifkin’s album of Joplin rags sold in excess of 100,000 copies in the United States. Still, the zenith of the craze has to be located in The Sting soundtrack’s reign at the top of the Billboard 2oo for five weeks in May and June of 1974. Semi-interesting footnote to all this: A Joplin biopic – called Scott Joplin – was released in 1977, starring Billy Dee Williams, and directed by Jeremy Kagan – a.k.a. the guy who would go on to direct 1983’s much-maligned The Sting II.

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Why the hell are you shooting it in that?

Bear with me folks, I’m an old projectionist so this is what I daydream about when I’m not dawdling on about hockey or a hermetic life spent in the Seychelles. My column today concerns the importance of choosing the right aspect ratio for your future cinematic masterpieces along with a brief look at the advantages of shooting in film and digital. Hardly barn-burning stuff you may think, but stay tuned for porn and explosions!
(Please note: neither ‘porn’ nor ‘explosions’ will take place below.)

When to choose 1.85 : 1 Aspect Ratio
You want to tell an intimate story–for example the struggles of half-Job, half-schmuck Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009). The story resonates with the Coens’ own Minnesota childhood and because Larry at no point fights a polar bear on top of the White House or saves the Third World, the film remains in the smaller, more appropriate ratio of 1:85 (aka “flat widescreen”). Another example is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), which never stretches the borders of a 1:85 screen nor the demands of the viewer with its zeitgeisty romance, because if you expand the frame you’re also expanding the viewer’s expectations. The flat screen ratio has been adopted worldwide by filmmakers over the standard 1:37 that was once de rigueur for documentaries and fictional work grounded in reality, with 1:37/1:33 ratios still being used for certain projects (Alan Clarke’s  Elephant [1989] and later Gus Van Zant’s own version [2003] spring to mind with their particular unsettling realities).

Below is an example of a 1:85 widescreen ratio:

When to choose 2.39 : 1 Aspect Ratio
If you’re gonna do a “larger than life” film (see: Tarantino’s WWII fantasies in Inglourious Basterds [2009], or PTA fulminating against capitalism with There Will Be Blood [2007]), you don’t want your epic fighting for breathing room in the frame, hence the longer image of 2:39 to match a larger subject matter. The Man with No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns was an iconic character in an iconic setting, therefore The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) had to be shot/viewed in anamorphic widescreen–the alternative to a shoddy pan-and-scan world lacking perspective on the mythical gunslingers in the Wild West (via the high plains of Spain). This can also apply to gritty films with an immense worldview, say the international scheming of Syriana (2005), or the canonization of the 9/11 passengers in United 93 (2006). Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) worked in 1:85 because it had common ground with the reality of cinema-vérité documentaries, but it also would have been entirely acceptable to have been shot/screened in anamorphic with its scope of characters and events.

Below is a 2:39 aspect ratio:

Film vs. Digital

Celluloid has existed for over three centuries, and along with persistence-of-vision remains the closest claim to alchemy that civilization has achieved. Digital is the steadily-popular method for filming blockbusters, indie flicks and everything in-between, for very good reasons: flexibility, durability, ease of shooting on set and transfer time in post-production. My thoughts on shooting film vs. digital go beyond the technical limitations and financial reasons behind both formats and towards the psychology of WHY you should choose a certain format. If celluloid and photography have deep roots in our history over the past 200 years and digital points to our present and future, should that thought process not apply to the format with which you choose to film a Mumblecore short, a 3-hour Custer bio-pic or any sci-fi extravaganza?

Michael Mann chose digital to bring John Dillinger’s brief life to screen in Public Enemies (2009) with the intention of immersing the audience in 1930’s Americana and it worked up until the slo-mo climax stretched the demands one could place on the format. Digital has yet to find a solution to its awkward appearance in slow-motion, and this undercut otherwise excellent reasoning for more period pieces to be shot digitally. Another offender is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), which allowed the filmmakers an easier time of shooting in the Mexican jungles than 35mm film yet in any scene involving fast-cutting movement, digital ‘pixelation’ occurred–thus taking me right out of the realm of the Mayans. Now if pixelation were to occur in present day settings such as Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) or the futuristic Avatar (2009) I would readily except the digital look as a reflection of our modern times and the years to come. My point being if you want to capture the essence of the past perhaps you should put down the Red One camera and pick up a Super 35 camera with a fine grainy stock, and vice-versa if you’re making the next Terminator popcorn muncher.

There you go, those are my thoughts on the matters, I hope they can be of use to you.

Thanks to the images section of Blu-ray.com and dvdbeaver.com for the examples used above.

-B.A.S.

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