Skip to main content

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting
(1973)

(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I’m usually quite partial to con and caper movies, but this one is, for the most part, flat and indulgent, coasting on the knowledge of an audience ready and willing to see the unbeatable Newman-Redford double act again. It’s a long film, but it feels longer, marked by a crippling absence of internal tension – aside from the few occasions where Redford’s Johnny Hooker is being pursued by cops or gangsters – and a lack of real flair with the twists and hoodwinks.

Redford, like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, is on the backfoot from the off, in that he’s supposed to be playing a capable novice but was a ripe 37 at the time. Thus, the highlight is probably Newman’s Henry Gondorff, putting on a drunk act during a high-stakes poker game and so thrashing Robert Shaw’s crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. But that’s just a prelude, a means to encourage Shaw’s fish to take the bait, and what follows is too effortless.

You need to believe the villain of the piece is formidable, but apart from being played by Robert Shaw – which admittedly does a lot of heavy lifting – Lonnegan’s a pushover (Charles Durning is good value as the plod after Johnny, but it’s the kind of thing he did in his sleep). Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 didn’t present a huge amount of obstacles either, but the director knew to keep that one moving, to juggle the stars and scenarios to breezy effect. Here, the title sets up a certain amount of expectation, daring us to be impressed by its con artists’ virtuosity; The Sting desperately needed plot intricacy, of the kind David Mamet could deliver, where you’re in awe of someone able to pull the rug from under you so conclusively (House of Games).

Why didn’t they go to William Goldman (who would, two decades later, dabble in the con genre with Maverick) and thus make the Butch and Sundance reunion complete? Presumably because The Sting’s was a found screenplay, courtesy of David S Ward (later responsible for… nothing especially good, although like Goldman, he would attempt to cash in on his big hit with a sequel). It appears that Rob Cohen was a reader for Mike Medavoy at the time and extolled the script’s virtues to his boss. Given Cohen’s subsequent track record as a director, there’s inverse reason to see his pick as indicative of quality.

Butch and Sundance exuded a sense of time and place and character, and one can put that as much down to Hill as Goldman, but here such keenness appeared to desert him. The world of The Sting doesn’t feel remotely lived in; it’s stars play dress-up in their ‘30s duds, only ever looking costumed, and parade around sets that feel like sets (probably because they were; it was (mostly) filmed on the Universal backlot. Some of that might have been pertinent if there was a line between the fakery of the scam being pulled on Lonnegan and the grit of Chicago, but Redford (who somehow garnered a Best Actor nomination) and Newman have all the authenticity of stars who have just exited the makeup chair.

Pauline Kael got a little side-tracked by the leads’ iconography in her review (“I don’t respond to their arch love games… I would much rather see a picture about two homosexual men in love than see two romantic actors going through a routine whose point is that they’re so adorably smiley butch that they can pretend to be in love and it’s all innocent”), to the extent that she didn’t really pick up on them not really putting in very much effort (she didn’t like Butch and Sundance, so there wasn’t an iota of a chance she’d have liked this). They don’t even share the screen for large portions of The Sting, and lack the easy camaraderie of their previous pairing. Sure, you don’t want them just stirring and repeating… Or maybe you do? Either way, as the kid and the old pro, there’s nothing more than a vague shape for them to impress themselves upon, so they’re more memorable for their duds than anything they do; the sting itself is over in a flash, and you end up shrugging at the obvious ruses and asking “Was that it?”

Apparently, Ward’s screenplay was darker than the “playful homage” Hill pursued. In terms of box office, you can’t fault the director’s instincts, just the effectiveness of the results (it has a similar slovenly smugness to the later Dick Tracy). Clearly, the Academy loved it as much as general audiences, but then, it wasa much sweeter pill than a Bergman or sensibilities-disturbing, New Hollywood horror flick. Far be it from me to nod respectfully to the Golden Globes, but in both cases where they have failed to even nominate a Best Picture Oscar winner (the other being Crash), they’ve been on the money (The Exorcist won the Globe that year for drama, while American Graffiti took comedy or musical).





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I’m not the Jedi I should be.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
(SPOILERS) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a 12-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however,George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.

This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential …

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.