When The Sting was released in 1973, it was a huge hit and managed to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Anyone seeing it for the first time today, however, could be forgiven for wondering why. I was never crazy about it, and watching it again did nothing to improve my opinion. Normally, period films date more gracefully than movies with contemporary settings, but The Sting (set in the 1930s) doesn’t feel like any particular era, including the 1970s. It’s one long conceit coasting on the charms of its two leading men, too contrived to involve or convince.
The film may have succeeded because its shameless escapism was in contrast to the often negative and critical work receiving praise and audience support at the time. Today’s audiences, incapable of taking anything seriously (except the things at which they should laugh) would probably find something like The Sting heavy going. For better or worse, what may have provided instant gratification in the early ’70s feels pretty soggy today. It is not a movie for people demanding to be prodded like cattle every two seconds.
Supposedly the story of two con artists (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) pitted against an underworld baddie (Robert Shaw), the movie consists of little more than coy glances between the leads sandwiched between endless reams of exposition for two hours plus. The story clanks noisily forward in a world with no resemblance either to life or to the rakish confection the film so clearly aches to be. For it to have any chance of engaging the viewer, The Sting should move quickly, but instead it plods along at an unvaried pace. There are no characters to speak of, just mouthpieces for the constant explanations of the hopelessly convoluted action. Redford and Newman look at their handsome best, but they seem more like boy scouts in fancy dress than the male sex symbols both were. The goo-goo eyes they cast at each other amount to a totally sexless, tedious charade.
This was the second movie the boys made with director George Roy Hill, after the equally arch (and commercially successful) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Like that film, The Sting lacks even a hint of believable adult behavior. Both feel like Vac-U-form plastic toys made to amuse prepubescents, with the dramatic “conflict” in The Sting about as exciting as a mildly intense game of Monopoly. The numerous plot turns are neither surprising nor unsurprising. To be either would require interest in what is going on, but with a movie this glib, involvement is clearly optional. The twists seem calculated purely for themselves, as if constant “surprise” were the only goal worth achieving. It’s a pedant’s idea of cleverness, paper thin, as dry as chalk and mechanical as a wind-up toy. As a result, The Sting is about as entertaining as reading subtitles without the picture.