It is very tempting to hate The Sting for beating The Exorcist to the Best Picture Oscar. Some would even go so far as to rank it alongside Crash and How Green Was My Valley is one of the Academy's greatest faux pas. But whatever vitriol the other two deserve, The Sting still holds up as a damn fine film, with all the essential ingredients of a proper American caper.
Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting is very deliberately nostalgic and old-fashioned. Both films romanticise key aspects of American history, something which is evident in everything from the jazz-inflected dialogue to the washed-out visuals, right down to The Sting's family-friendly PG certificate. One of the most obvious expressions of this old-school approach is the editing. William H. Reynolds' transitions are all slow wipes and frames twisting on each other, and the film ends with an iris wipe of our two heroes walking off into the distance, like the characters in Looney Tunes.
In line with this romantic depiction of 1930s Chicago, The Sting's tone is playful and breezy even in its most threatening moments. The Scott Joplin ragtime soundtrack gives every scene a precise sense of pace and momentum, and as with Howard Shore's work on The Lord of the Rings, the action fits the music so well you can't believe the actors weren't choreographing their movements to it on set. The film nestles somewhere between a Technicolor musical and the original version of Scarface, combining all that bright and cheerful about melodramas with all that is suspenseful about crime films.
Aside from its similarity to Butch Cassidy, the closest comparison to The Sting would have to be Chinatown, since both films depict a similar era from a 1970s vantage point and have incredibly twisty stories. In terms of the period touches and historical accuracy, you couldn't put a playing card between them. But Chinatown is the better film, not because it is darker or more hard-hitting, but because it has more conscious and lucid intentions.
Because Roman Polanski approached the Californian water wars as an outsider, he could be as savage as he liked about the American dream and drive home his arguments about contemporary America. For all its period glamour and elegant noir touches, Chinatown feels like it is constantly driving forward and asking you to keep up, with Polanski leaving nothing to chance to reel you in and break your heart. Because George Roy Hill has such massive affection for the period and lifestyle he is depicting, The Sting occasionally feels like a film which wants to stop and admire the view even when things are becoming crucial. At two hours long, it's still an efficient piece of storytelling, but it does feel like a film with a lot less to say.
There are two aspects of The Sting which hold the film together, both as a piece of breezy entertainment and as a really good thriller in which everything adds up. The first is the storytelling, which is accessible without being facile and complex without being convoluted. The use of old-fashioned title cards explains where we are for people not old or informed enough to understand the twists, while the various cheats and increasingly elaborate bluffing keeps the rest of us guessing.
The Sting is a film about conning in which everyone is conning or being conned by everyone else - a premise that could quickly get out of hand. But Hill and the cast get around this, drawing the audience in with the charm of the characters so they we not only indulge their play-acting, we encourage it. In the opening con involving Robert Redford and Robert Earl Jones (the father of Darth Vader), Hill's camera is there as a passive observer, never intervening by getting in close and thereby making their actions look believable. Hence when we find out what was really in the wallet, we not only don't feel bad for being tricked, but we find ourselves rooting for these guys.
The other key aspect is Robert Shaw, whose performance as Doyle Lonnegan is the best of his career. Lonnegan is the most complex character in the film, someone who has hidden his own past to shore up credibility and who has risen to the top by outsmarting his opponents before cutting them out of their own operations. Shaw is a naturally intimidating screen presence, and in sharp contrast to Paul Newman and Redford his actions are constantly restrained and understated.
As is so often the way, the most interesting part of Shaw's characterisation happened by accident. A week before filming, he slipped on a wet handball court and split all the ligaments in his right knee. Rather than delay filming, Shaw had to wear a knee brace under the wide trousers, resulting in a staggered and uneven gait. The impediment is noticeable when Lonnegan enters the salon, keeping his right leg absolutely straight as he slowly hobbles the steps. This subtle touch gives the character extra reasoning behind his ruthless approach, while also reassuring the audience that he is not invincible.
The best scene in The Sting is the poker game which Newman joins on the train between New York and Chicago (ironically posing as a bookie called 'Shaw'). Instead of Scott Joplin, the scene is given rhythm by the background noise of the train, making the silences all the more unbearable. Shaw's face barely alters save for little flickers in his eyes and his mouth, and yet he manages to move from calmness to smirking confidence to seething fury all in five minutes. And then there is the great guessing point - how on earth did Gondorff manage to cheat?
This latter point hints at the other great success of The Sting: the lack of excessive exposition. The film expects audiences not only to follow the plot but to have a working understanding of poker - or at the very least, be aware of the wider significance of the cards being played. Despite the fact that at no point the rules of either poker or the cons are explained in any great detail, you don't have to be an expert in either to follow the story. Compare that with the poker in The Cincinnati Kid, in which every move is explained and the camera is darting all over the place, desperately trying to make the scenes dramatic but having the opposite effect.
Alongside Shaw's performance, there are other dark elements of The Sting which reference characters familiar to filmgoers of the day. The character of Snyder, the rogue FBI agent hunting down Hooker way outside his jurisdiction, bears some similarity to Popeye Doyle in The French Connection: like Gene Hackman, he pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned to do his job. The idea of female assassins had become popular in the James Bond series, with such characters appearing in both From Russia with Love and Thunderball. And the black leather gloves worn by the hidden figure tailing Hooker is a possible reference to Dr. Strangelove.
The Sting is not an unqualified success. It is ultimately very light-headed even in its serious moments, and in the conclusion of the final con involving the FBI it does descend a little into silliness. But it is very hard to take against a series of such enjoyable and well-judged performances, complimented by an engagingly complicated story. While it doesn't have the cult appeal of Butch Cassidy, it is an improvement on that work, and remains a must-see 1970s crime film.