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The Sting: Legacy Series

Considering how legendary the screen pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford is in the annals of Hollywood lore, it's interesting to note that they have only appeared in two films together. And in both instances, they weren't a duo at all, but part of a trio — steered by the capable hands of director George Roy Hill. One of Hollywood's true renaissance men, Hill attended Yale and Dublin's Trinity College, where he excelled at literature and music. His studies offered a rich preparation for a life in the theater, but the outbreak of World War II sent him in an alternate direction, during which he served as a naval aviator. Starting out as an actor in the 1950s, Hill soon turned to television directing. By the mid-'60s, his feature film career was established with The World of Henry Orient (1964) starring Peter Sellers. Until his retirement in 1988 — after which he returned to Yale to teach drama — Hill revealed a taste for iconoclastic, literate material, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), and The World According to Garp (1983). Butch Cassidy remains one of his best-loved works, not only for its New Hollywood deconstruction of the western genre, but also for its marvelous, ultra-charismatic casting of Newman and Redford. Both actors would be seen together again in Hill's frame, but the three only collaborated a second time, in 1973's The Sting, which not only scooped up seven Oscars, but also reintroduced America to ragtime music and invented the "con" movie long before David Mamet or The Usual Suspects.

A tale of a tall confidence trick, The Sting begins with a quick-and-dirty one, as Depression-era Chicago grifter Johnny Hooker (Redford) and his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) swindle a man out of his wallet. What they don't realize is that they've suckered the bag-man for a large gambling operation owned by gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who immediately puts out a hit on the two thieves — it's a mob order that Luther does not escape. Bent on revenge, Hooker seeks out the legendary confidence artist Henry Gondorff (Newman). Gondorff is game, but he's clear on one point — since the swindle he has in mind will be a once-in-a-lifetime job, and Doyle Lonnegan is not a man to be crossed lightly, he'll have to be taken for all he's worth and yet never even know that he's been cleaned out, and especially by whom. The con is then put into motion, starting with a small card game on a New York-to-Chicago train and culminating in a betting parlor built specifically for the sting. But Hooker doesn't only have to worry about Lonnegan's men gunning for him — there's also a corrupt bunco cop (Charles Durning) on his trail, as well as an FBI agent (Dana Elcar) who's plotting a sting of his own.

*          *          *

Few motion pictures outside the musical genre utilize, let alone elevate, their score as much as The Sting. The appropriation of Scott Joplin's ragtime piano created a sensation as the film swept through American theaters and dominated the Academy Awards in early 1974, but the choice was not an obvious one. Like many writers, scenarist David S. Ward wrote to background music, but his taste at the time was the blues. An accomplished pianist, George Roy Hill's decision to use ragtime instead is an arch example of style over substance, or at least historical accuracy — Joplin's saloon compositions were the sound of America the turn of the century, not the Great Depression, but Hill subtly understood the contrapuntal, playful nature of the music suited the con film far more than the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Son House. It wasn't the only daring choice Hill made — Paul Newman originally turned down the role of Henry Gondorff, accurately noting that it required an actor far beyond his years. But Hill believed that the Newman-Redford dynamic, and the power of dramatic suggestion, would overcome such a minor detail. Hill's cast is bolstered by standout performers in every category, including Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Charles Durning, and Harold Gould. But only one could compete with Redford and Newman for the screen: Robert Shaw, whose intimidating presence belied his virtuosity — in a span of ten years, he convincingly played an icy Nazi tank commander in The Battle of the Bulge, the dapper gangster Doyle Lonnegan here, and the gruff sea-dog Quint in Jaws. Shaw's legend was confirmed, as were his two co-stars. Robert Redford's career was in full ascendance by this point, and while Paul Newman would reprise his breakout role of 'Fast' Eddie Felson in The Color of Money (1986), a closer look at Martin Scorsese's film reveals he's revisiting Henry Gondorff at the same time.

Universal's two-disc DVD release of The Sting, part of their "Legacy Series," features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85;1) from a splendid source-print that reveals barely a hint of wear — it's a substantial improvement over the non-matted, full-frame transfer found on the original DVD release, while the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio soundtracks capture every note of Marvin Hamlisch's piano wonderfully (the original monaural audio is also available on a DD 2.0 track). Disc One offers the feature film, while Disc Two includes the new documentary "The Art of The Sting" (55 min.) with comments from Newman, Redford, Brennan, Durning, Walston, Hamlisch, and more, in what ultimately amounts to a sweet tribute to George Roy Hill, who died in 2002. Also on board are production notes and a re-release trailer. Dual-DVD folding digipak.
—JJB



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