Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Sting: An Absolute Favorite, Hands Down

I had already planned on writing about “The Sting” (1973) yesterday, but as I caught back up with normal life after the Malibu Triathlon this past weekend, I ran out of time. I now see it was meant to be because now I can include a tribute to a great actor, Harold Gould, who passed away over the weekend. Mr. Gould, this is now for you!

“The Sting” is, of course, the wonderful and fun film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford in their second and only other film together after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), along with director George Roy Hill again as well. It tells the tale of two con artists in 1930s Chicago who decided to pull the ultimate con of revenge after their friend is killed (played by Robert Earl Jones, the great James Earl Jones’ father). Robert Shaw plays the marked sucker, and a cavalcade of amazing character actors support the superstars, like Gould, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, and Eileen Brennan. The now-classic movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations, winning 7 of them, for Best Original Writing, Best Director, and Best Picture, to name a few.

Screenwriter David S. Ward (writer and director of the “Major League” films, “King Ralph,” and co-writer of “Sleepless in Seattle”) came up with the idea of a film about grifters while he was researching for another film, “Steelyard Blues” (also 1973). As he was reading about pickpockets and con artists, he became intrigued by these men who basically used a person’s own greed against himself. He came across the story of real-life con artists and brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and used many of their exploits to create the big scam set forth in the film. Incidentally, Paul Newman’s character is named Henry Gondorff, to honor those men, who were still grifting well into their 60s. Other character names were also taken from real-life crooks, like JJ Singleton (Walston), Kid Twist (Gould) and Eddie Niles (John Heffernan).

Along with producers Julia and Michael Phillips and Tony Bill, the screenplay was sent to Robert Redford to star. He liked the script a lot, but at first Ward was attached to make his directorial debut with “The Sting” as well, and Redford didn’t feel the first timer had the experience needed to handle the complicated storyline. So he turned down the role, which then went to Jack Nicholson (who also turned it down). However, Hill accidentally saw the script one day and decided he wanted to film it. He called up Redford, and with Hill attached, Redford said yes right away.

Hill then sent the script to Newman after Newman heard what the two were up to. See, Hill asked if he could rent Newman’s Beverly Hills house for a while (the same house he had rented while the three were making “Butch Cassidy”). When Newman asked why, Hill said he was filming “The Sting” with Redford. Newman responded with “Really? Anything in it for me?” Hill told him about the role of Gondorff, yet at that time it was a much smaller, much sloppier, more boozy part. (The actor Hill had in mind for Gondorff at the time was Peter Boyle.) But Newman told him to send over the script anyway, and when Newman returned later saying he was interested in the role, Hill had the role added to and tweaked for Newman’s personal style, knowing the three – Redford, Newman, and Hill – would be moneymakers. And he was so right. “The Sting” earned over $160 million at the box office.

And who could imagine this movie with another group? Newman’s and Redford’s chemistry was something audiences had been waiting to see again since “Butch Cassidy” and still longed for up until Newman’s death in 2008. Ward’s original screenplay was much darker than the final film too. It was Hill’s idea to make it more lighthearted, playing on the comedy and adding the ragtime music of Scott Joplin (which was actually popular 30 years before the film is set). And Hill’s homage to the gangster films of the past with the old-school title cards for each chapter of the movie and the wipes to change from scene to scene all created a feeling of escapism that audiences of the early 70s had been missing after dealing with the Vietnam War and Watergate and such.

Don’t pass up the supporting cast though. Robert Shaw gives one the best performances of his career as crime boss Lonnegan, the mark. However, the limp he gave his part was not just a trick. He hurt his knee right before filming began and had to wear a brace for much of the production (all hidden under his costumes done by the amazing Edith Head, who won another Oscar for this). And, of course, let us not forget Harold Gould, aka Kid Twist. You may recognize Gould more from his work on television, like “The Mary Tyler Show,” “Rhoda,” and “The Golden Girls.” I think it was “Golden Girls” where I first noticed Gould, playing Betty White’s love interest Miles. It was fun discovering he was in “The Sting” as well when I first saw it. You were a great talent, Mr. Gould, and you will be missed.

So, get out your gloves, practice your pick pocketing…wait, just watch “The Sting.” If you haven’t seen it yet, you have to see it soon. It’s a classic that shouldn’t be missed by anyone. Have a great week, everyone! Be back Friday with your weekend suggestions.

(Post-tidbit: That actually isn’t Paul Newman doing the slight-of-hand card tricks on the train! It’s technical advisor John Scarne, and with a very clever, invisible cut, the shot switches from Scarne’s to Newman’s own hands in time for the camera to pan up to Newman’s face.)


  1. It's been awhile since I saw this one; need to see it again soon. Thanks!

  2. I saw this recently, it's so good! Lots of fun :) Steve McQueen was such a legend! City Girl x