Wednesday, December 25, 2013

If You Don't Pay Attention, You'll Get Stung

Henry (Paul Newman): You beat him, kid.

Hooker (Robert Redford): You were right, Henry. It's not enough. But it's close.

In 1969, director George Roy Hill teamed with Paul Newman and Robert Redford to make "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." It was a box–office smash, making $102 million, and a four–time Oscar winner. The American Film Institute ranked it 73rd on AFI's Top 100 movies list.

It was, quite simply, movie magic, the kind of movie magic that few people thought could be duplicated.

But, on this day in 1973, the second and final movie to team Newman and Redford (with Hill in the director's chair) was released. Their reunion was an even bigger box–office hit than the first one, earning more than $159 million after being made on a budget of $5.5 million. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was nominated for three more.

It didn't make AFI's Top 100 list — but it should have.

"The Sting" was a Depression–era tale about a grifter (Redford) who was intent on avenging the murder of his partner (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones). Redford and Jones had conned a numbers runner out of $11,000, and the dedication of the numbers runner's boss (Robert Shaw) was not to the numbers runner but to the money and his own reputation so he had Jones killed.

He was on Redford's trail — but this was the 1930s, remember. It wasn't a high–tech heyday. There was no internet or YouTube or faxes or anything like that. There wasn't even television. Heck, there was barely radio.

So, while the audience knew what the grifter looked like, the crime boss didn't.

That's the kind of detail you needed to keep in mind when you watched this movie. You didn't want to miss anything; if you missed something, you were apt to be taken by surprise at the end. But, if that is indeed what happened to you, don't feel too bad about it. It happens to the best of us.

I had to watch it two or three times before I caught everything I needed to catch.

Anyway, before he was killed, Jones' character encouraged Redford to look up Newman's character. Newman, he was told, could teach him the "big con" — often called the "long con" — a confidence game in which, through a series of staged events, a con man gradually gains the trust of an affluent person or individual, setting up a "sting" by exploiting the target's vanity or greed or lust or something similar.

When Redford located Newman, he was sleeping one off. Redford rather unceremoniously roused Newman, then told him, "Luther said I could learn something from you. I already know how to drink."

"The Sting" benefited from a very talented supporting cast — and, since the "big con" required the coordinated efforts of a crew of men, not merely one or two, that was essential for the success of the movie.

Everyone has his/her favorite, I suppose. Mine is Eileen Brennan, who played Billie, Newman's girlfriend and cathouse madam. She went on to greater fame several years later in "Private Benjamin," but she knew where all the bodies were buried in "The Sting."
Billie (Eileen Brennan): Who told you this guy was in here?

Lt. Snyder (Charles Durning): Nobody. I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joyhouses 'til I find him.

Billie: Oh, well, maybe I could help you, if you tell me his name.

Snyder: I doubt it. Which way are the rooms?

Billie: Right through there. But I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

Snyder: What you are going to do, call the cops?

Billie: I don't have to. You'd be busting in on the chief of police just up the hall.

But I also liked Ray Walston (who is better known — probably — for his role in TV's "My Favorite Martian" or his performance as Mr. Hand in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High").

And I liked Charles Durning as the (somewhat) earnest cop investigating matters who got conned in a con on top of a con, distracting not only the mark in the movie but the audience as well.

It was hard not to like the guy who pulled off the con within a con, either — Dana Elcar — who, upon meeting Durning's character, cautioned him, "Try not to live up to all my expectations."

"The Sting" exceeded all of my expectations, and Marvin Hamlisch's Oscar–winning score certainly helped. If you haven't seen it, it will exceed yours, too.

But you may have to watch it a couple of times.