It’s incredible to me that films as magically, charmingly perfect as THE STING exist. Incredible as it is, it makes absolute sense that Hollywood was the exporter of films that concentrate on mass public appeal through the highest standard of quality, made real by the American film industry’s boundless coffers. While the international and independent cinema was defined by auteurs, talented individuals assembling crews to create their vision, the studio system was about the “production.” It was about producers assembling all-star crews to work together to create a vision. THE STING does not approach perfection because it is confidently, professionally directed by George Roy Hill; or because it has an exceptionally plotted, lyrical script by David S. Ward; or because its actors created archetypes exploited almost 40 years later; or because of its score, or the beauty of its sets: THE STING approaches perfection because it has all of these things: each aspect of the film, from the beautifully painted title cards to the theme (Scott Joplin’s classic piano rag “The Entertainer”) to the editing, are all produced with an attention to quality born of a multi-million dollar film industry, the biggest the world has seen since the beginning of the film industry.
And yet despite the pressure of history and the weight of its parts, THE STING not only achieved what all genre films set out to do (to be the best of its kind), it did so shockingly, drawing on the politics of American cinema now (I should say then) to create something new in the old style. By 1973 France’s nouvelle vague had come and gone, and films informed by this new aesthetic had been being produced in America since the mid-60s. Films like BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971), and the various films of Sam Peckinpah (particularly THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and STRAW DOGS (1971)) allowed George Roy Hill to violently draw blood and threaten characters with a death seemingly real in THE STING, by convincing the studios that an independent cinematic scene was emerging that could, eventually, prove a threat to their dominion. THE STING proved that in a shifting landscape, the studio system would be able to change, adapt, and stand tall.
THE STING presents itself as light, pop fare, buoyed along by beautiful illustrations, a catchy theme and charismatic leading men. Scenes showing Paul Newman (“Henry Gondorff”) and Robert Redford’s (“Johnny Hooker”) charming rapport and dramatic chops will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969, and also directed by George Roy Hill). Despite this previous indication of style and talent, THE STING is still filled with surprising elements, particularly the final twist, which left me agape, and the action scenes. These scenes are edited together in a way that perfectly conveys a feeling of real-time urgency, where the characters are felt to be in genuine peril.
THE STING’s two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who, as stated, had worked together with the director four years previous) come out of the classic Hollywood tradition of leading men like Cary Grant and James Stewart. They are evolutions of “looks” that have existed for leading men since the first, familiar enough to work within the studio system, yet new enough to be appropriate for the new crop of stories being told by the American new wave. They represent archetypes the American public has come to expect from Hollywood, today filled by the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt. It is a sign that from the 70s to the golden days of Clooney and Pitt, the 21st century, film in America has hardly progressed. It is only now, with the new wave of leading men, generally affected “bros” or shy boy-men, that the public’s palate is starting to change. For better or for worse is arguable, but signs of change are increasingly evident.