Athletes sometimes describe a temporary state of heightened concentration as being "in the zone." It is a magical, mystical area that a performing athlete enters where the body, mind and spirit align perfectly. Everything is firing on all cylinders, enabling peak performance. The term is not used much to describe creative pursuits like moviemaking, but perhaps it should. I'm referring here to those rare blessed moments when a film achieves a kind of perfection with such apparent ease that they, too, have a mystical, magical quality to them. Perhaps I'm overstating my case, but if ever a movie was "in the zone," it would be 'The Sting.' One of the all-time greats, this film really is pretty darn wonderful.
The plot is both incredibly simple and yet incredibly multi-layered -- a story synopsis won't do it justice. Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a young con man who was taught the ropes by his partner in crime, the legendary Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones). Luther longs to get out of the racket, so they pull one last, big scam -- only this time they choose the wrong guy. Turns out, if you mess with "The Boss," Doyle Lonigan (Robert Shaw), you get put on his hit list with no mercy. After a crooked cop (Charles Durning) gets in on the action, things go even more awry. Seeking payback, Hooker teams up with another great con man, the smooth but cynical Henry Gondorf (Paul Newman). Together, they recruit a motley gang of fellow crooks and accomplices (including Eileen Brennan and Ray Walston) to take down Lonigan. An increasingly twisty, endlessly crafty series of scams, double-crosses and ingenious ruses ensue, all to the tune of "The Entertainer." Payback has never been so sweet.
Critics of 'The Sting' have said that the movie is all chemistry. Indeed, the pure star wattage of Redford and Newman goes a long way in giving the film its heat. But such a simple statement does a disservice, not only to the rest of the a-list cast, but also David Grant's expertly-crafted script and George Roy Hill's energetic direction. 'The Sting' is so darn entertaining not just because Redford and Newman flash their toothy grins, it is so darn entertaining because it works on every single level. Each scene pays off the one before, and sets up the next one, expertly. The writing, the music, the performances, the cinematography, the editing -- not a single moment is anything less than elegant, refined, and a sheer marvel.
However, I do agree with the critics who have said that 'The Sting' is not really about anything. It is an immensely enjoyable, impeccably produced bit of cinematic entertainment, but it doesn't add much to the sum of human consciousness. It might have had a bit more cultural relevance had it examined the racial and class tensions at more than a surface level. That, in hindsight, leaves it a somewhat surprising choice by the Academy to beat out other, more "serious" front-runners for the 1973 Best Picture Oscar, including 'American Graffiti' and 'The Exorcist.' But whatever -- awards are pretty silly in the first place. And why not just revel in the fine wine, even if it is made out of sour grapes? I had so much fun revisiting 'The Sting' again, after having seen the film numerous times over the years, that there really is something to be said for any film that can hold up so well after three decades. 'The Sting' is truly timeless.
'The Sting' was released theatrically in 1973, and for you kids in the audience, yes, we really did have electricity back then. But old is old, and Universal certainly had its work cut out for it in restoring and remastering the film. Though the studio proves itself up to the task, in all honesty this one is a slight disappointment. 'The Sting' still looks good, just not as sublime as most of the studio's recent HD DVD reissues of great films of the same era, such as 'The Deer Hunter,' 'Dune' and 'The Thing.'
The source material holds up well. There are no major problems, such as dropouts and print damage (except a quick scratch mark about 30 minutes in) and dirt is next to nil. Grain is present, particularly on any shot involving an optical or credit matte. Though hardly an effects film, 'The Sting' is structured like a play, with animated transitional sequences, which also look grainer and softer than the rest of the film. Sharpness and depth can also be an issue. Some sequences look great -- sharp, detailed and vivid. Others look a bit diffused and flat. Colors retain a nice orange glow throughout, with a few vibrant, clean primaries, but are generally not overwhelming. They can also fluctuate, even within the same scene. I also some contrast wavering. This inconsistency across the board is a bit surprising, because I've seen better work from Universal and other studios on titles of this vintage.
Universal provides a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track for 'The Sting,' encoded at their usual healthy 1.5mbps bitrate. Too bad it really has absolutely nothing to do but render dialogue adequately.
'The Sting' is a great film to be sure, but aside from composer Marvin Hamlisch's classic score, audio-wise there's not alot going on. Stereo separation is nice on the fabulously rinky-dink music cues, but otherwise is not deployed to the rears. There is some very minor ambiance in the surrounds -- mainly during a couple of scenes on a train and its station, and the rare outdoor scene. Even dialogue is straightforward, with little in the way of overlapping speech or other complexities. It is reproduced nicely and always intelligible, which I guess is all you can ask for with a soundtrack like this.
'The Sting' was released as a two-disc DVD 'Legacy Edition' in the Fall of 2005, though in terms of sheer bullet points it hardly overwhelmed. Still, I'd rather have one very strong, self-contained documentary instead of a bunch of vignette-y fluff or lame commentaries, so I was still satified with the reverential 90-minute three-part documentary called "The Art of 'The Sting,'" which first appeared on the 'Legacy Edition' and is now ported over to this HD DVD release.
The doc's impressive lineup is cast-heavy. Participants include Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Dimitra Arliss and Ray Walston, as well as screenwriter David Ward and composer Marvin Hamlisch. Recollections range from the mundane to the poignant, particularly recollections of the late director George Roy Hill and actor Robert Shaw (the latter was apparently quite the character). Much discussion focuses on how Hill coaxed unique performances from each lead, and on Shaw's limp, which was a last-minute addition to the film after the actor injured himself right before shooting. Of course, there is a golden-hue halo to the proceedings, as 'The Sting' turned out to be such a blockbuster, and the lack of almost any on-set footage does turn this into a talking heads-fest that sometimes drags. Still, this is a must-watch. I'm curious how and when this doc was put together, as some of the interviews look to be quite old (Walston died in 2001, in fact). The video is decent-quality 4:3 windowboxed 480i only.
The only other supplement is the film's original Theatrical Trailer, presented in rather poor 4:3 windowboxed 480p video.
'The Sting' is an unqualified classic, and an Oscar-winner for Best Picture to boot. As a film, it holds up very well on all levels: as a period piece, a comedy, a buddy movie and a nifty little tale of crafty crooks. If you are at all interested in revered American cinema, you gotta see this one. Universal makes that easy with this HD DVD release, which is generally nice to look at and to listen to, and includes a very strong 90-minute documentary. I can't say this is a massive upgrade over the standard-def release, but you can't go wrong with a film that remains so entertaining and compulsively re-watchable thirty years on.