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The Sting: Best Picture, 1973

The 46th Annual Academy Awards are perhaps best-remembered for a totally unplanned event: the notorious incident of a streaker running across the stage behind David Niven just as he was about to announce the Best Picture award, and Niven’s subsequent snide remark about the man “showing his shortcomings.” The Sting, meanwhile, was nominated for 10 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Actor (Robert Redford), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Music and Best Sound. Other serious contenders included William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (10 nominations, 2 wins), Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and George Lucas’s American Graffiti (5 nominations each with 1 and 0 wins, respectively) as well as Paper Moon and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Unnominated that year were Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Best Actor went to Jack Lemmon (his 2nd and final win out of 8 nominations) for Save the Tiger. Cries and Whispers won Best Cinematography and The Exorcist took Best Sound, leaving The Sting with the remaining seven awards.

The Sting is a largely happy-go-lucky tale of two men who organize a large-scale con in 1930s Chicago. The film reunited the successful acting team of Robert Redford, as devil-may-care small-time grifter Johnny Hooker, and Paul Newman, as cool big-time operator Henry Gondorff. The two had previously had a very successful collaboration as the title characters in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also directed by George Roy Hill.

Hooker, after a nasty character named Doyle Lonnegan offs his old partner Luther, joins forces with Gondorff to run an old school scam known as “The Wire.” The con (and I paraphrase for simplicity) involves hooking the mark into believing he has a sure bet and placing a crippling amount of money on it, only to have the bottom drop out, allowing the con men to walk away with a large payday. Further complications require Hooker and Gondorff to make sure Lonnegan never suspects that anything unusual went down . . . and the film makes a fair lunge at turning the tables on the audience more than once.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is the “period” soundtrack, featuring the music of Scott Joplin (including many variations on “The Entertainer”). Joplin’s ragtime masterpieces, which had been composed two or three decades before, were actually waning in popularity at the time when the film is set, but they still provide the perfect atmosphere. The music worked so well, in fact, that it prompted a revival of interest in Joplin’s music, and the film’s soundtrack became a hit record. Hill further evokes an early-cinema feel by announcing each new act with colorfully-illustrated intertitles with chapter headings like “The Set-Up,” to say nothing of the excellent period costumes and the gritty backlot backdrop where most of the action takes place.

Redford and Newman undoubtedly form one of the most inspired movie pairings of all time, with a strong supporting cast of a few dozen fellow con men that help lay the trap and run things from behind the scenes. The plot is smart, sophisticated and suspenseful, and not afraid to run the emotional gamut from humor to pathos. Contemporary “caper” films are generally more about being slick than being sentimental (i.e. the Ocean trilogy), but The Sting makes its characters more real because they are more vulnerable. Hooker in particular gets put through the ringer over the course of the film.

While The Sting is probably not the most artistically significant film of the year, it is difficult to understate its charming popular appeal. It’s an extremely watchable experience, entertaining to sit back in front of just about anytime.

The Sting was later re-released as a double feature with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, another film that’s all about evoking the past. Like The Sting, American Graffiti also features period music in a very prominent role, but it is set around the shenanigans of a group of high school seniors on the eve of graduation in 1962. Featuring a top-notch cast that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams and an early cameo by Harrison Ford, American Graffiti is unashamedly nostalgic for what probably felt like a simpler time than 1973. I’m a big fan of The Sting, but this could easily be my pick for the best film of the year.

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~ by Jared on March 25, 2008.

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