When I first heard the news that Paul Newman had died this past September, I reacted with a fair amount of surprise. Not at the screen icon's death, but rather at my realization that I had never seen one of his films all the way through. How had this happened? I certainly knew who he was, both from his major film roles such as Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and yes, from the salad dressing. But somehow I had never really seen him in action. I remember seeing about half of Cool Hand Luke on Turner Classic Movies once, but I never watched the whole movie. Soon after Newman's death, I added Cool Hand Luke and The Sting to my Netflix queue, which were by all accounts two of his best films. Turns out Luke was temporarily out of stock, so I settled for The Sting, and popped it into my DVD player this weekend.
The Sting tells the story of Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), a con man in 1930s Chicago. When one of his fellow friends and "grifters" Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) is killed by Irish mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Hooker seeks revenge with the help of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Together, the two grifters set out to pull a "big con" on Lonnegan.
That can only begin to describe The Sting, however. The plot takes several twists and turns over the course of the story. I won't begin to describe exactly what happens, because frankly I did not understand every twist myself. But The Sting really is not about following the plot to the letter. Most of the sheer entertainment from the film comes from the collaboration of Newman and Redford, who had previously worked together on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both performers are charming and affable, particularly Newman. Redford has more of a dramatic role; he is playing a character who is essentially a very lonely person. But as strong as the two actors are together, Newman is arguably stronger alone. Perhaps his best scene comes in a card game with Lonnegan, in which Gondorff pretends to be a drunken businessman. Newman's arrogant, drunken, carefree character plays wonderfully off of Robert Shaw's uptight mob boss Lonnegan. It should be noted that in addition to Newman and Redford, Shaw is excellent in the villain role.
Another virtue of The Sting is that it never takes itself too seriously. Although the film does have moments of darkness, it generally has a light, comedic tone. This is established from the very first scene, which shows a Chicago with a very bright color palette. The film is also accompanied by a jaunty ragtime score, which adds to the mood.
The Sting is first-class entertainment. It is an unpretentious and consistently entertaining caper film graced by three top-class actors. If you have never seen a Paul Newman film, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
Verdict: A -