Review: The Sting
I was three when The Sting was originally released theatrically, and I can’t recall how old I was when I first saw it, but it was one of those films that was just love at first sight for me. The story, the acting, the twists, the dialogue, the style, the chemistry . . . it was unlike anything else I’d seen at the time, and I still feel I get a bit more out of it on each viewing. So I couldn’t have been more excited when I heard that Universal gave it a 4K HDR restoration for its almost-50th anniversary! (You might recall that The Sting was on my 4K HDR Wishlist, so I’m thrilled we can cross this one off!) While you can pick up the 4K Blu-ray disc when it’s released on May 18, the film is available for download in full quality now from Kaleidescape.
I’m sure there are more apt comparisons, but The Sting reminds me a bit of The Usual Suspects and The Game in that you really need to pay attention to what is being said and what is happening on screen. While the twists might not be as
elaborate and complex as those in modern films, there are still enough curveballs that paying close attention pays off, especially the snappy dialogue, which features a lot of gangster and grifter colloquialisms.
Another thing that comes to mind with The Sting is the classic Hollywood saying, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Of course, the chemistry and back-and-forth between Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff) and Robert Redford (Johnny Hooker) is what really drives the film, re-teaming them with director George Roy Hill following their successful outing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, but there are no throwaway performances here. While there are lots of bit parts, everyone really digs in to give the most of their performance, specifically Ray Walston as J.J. Singleton, Harold Gould as Kid Twist, and Dana Elcar as FBI Agent Polk. Robert Shaw is also fantastic as crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (“You’re gonna remember that name, you
THE STING AT A GLANCE
The classic Redford/Newman con-man flick gets a 4K HDR upgrade, with somewhat mixed results.
Once you get past the unacceptably soft opening, UHD helps improve the presentation, although inconsistently.
Derived from the original mono soundtrack, the DTS-HD 5.1 mix is pretty center-channel heavy but that’s OK since this film is all about the snappy dialogue.
follow?”), giving small glimpses into the character that will be Quint in Jaws in just a couple of years.
The film opens with a small team of grifters led by Hooker pulling a fast-con on an unsuspecting victim. Unfortunately for Hooker, they con the guy out of $11,000 he was carrying for crime boss Lonnegan, a guy who is known for taking petty revenge. When Lonnegan has one of Hooker’s partners killed, Hooker looks to get even and pull off a big con on Lonnegan. For this he seeks the aid of Gondorff, a once-great con man who is now on the lam hiding from the FBI. Hooker convinces Gondorff to join him, and together they put together a team of con artists to help them execute the elaborate con. But unlike small-time cons, Gondorff says, “You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him . . . a guy who’d kill a grifter over a chunk of money wouldn’t support him for two days.”
The plot and con are elaborate but easy enough to follow, and believable enough that it could work, requiring skill, timing, guts, and a group of guys to pull off. And even though the film is 129 minutes, the time zips by, with cons-in-cons happening in the film’s subplots that will keep a new viewer guessing up till the end credits roll.
Originally filmed on 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, with a DTS-HD 5.1-channel mix from the original mono soundtrack that appears to be the same as was included with the 2012 Blu-ray release.
Take note: The film’s opening minutes do not look good. In fact, they are a messy, overly grainy soft mush that had me actually check my system to see if I had accidentally selected play on the DVD version of the film. It was just about the time that disappointment was turning to anger that the image quality snapped to life and things started looking markedly better. I can’t offer any explanation for the poor quality of the opening but will just say persevere through the first couple of minutes and things definitely get better.
Even still, I found that image quality was a bit inconsistent throughout. There would be moments when a closeup would reveal startling sharpness, detail, and clarity, but then other shots would be soft, lacking focus or real detail. This is, unfortunately, the reality when dealing with film elements nearly 50 years old but even still, this will be the best you’ve seen The Sting look and it is still certainly worth the upgrade.
At its best, the detail can be startling, letting you really appreciate Edith Head’s Oscar-winning costuming, with rich, thick fabrics and fine details and patterns. There is a scene right before the big card game on the train where Redford is wearing a navy suit with pinpoint dots and Newman is in a plaid that really looks sharp.
The film has a very period style and look to it—with hand-drawn title cards introducing each act of the con—with a lot of browns and earth tones in the color palette. But there are some nice pops of color, such as the bright reds, yellows, and blues outside the merry-go-round where Gondorff is holed up or the garish reds of a gentleman’s club. The HDR grading is pretty mild here, though we do get some nice pop from light bulbs in an elevator shaft, or from crisp white tuxedo shirts. However, HDR does help to deliver nice shadow detail and depth throughout, giving the images a more realistic look. I found the
black levels to be nice and dark, and mostly noise-free, with some film grain apparent throughout, but rarely objectionable (well, once you get past the opening).
As mentioned, this release doesn’t get a new audio mix but, remembering that the original audio was mono, the 5.1-channel sound—with the vast majority kept across the front channels—is fine for servicing the story, keeping dialogue clean and clear and locked into the center channel.
One thing I notice with these higher-resolution remixes of older films is that Foley sounds—such as footsteps running—are far more noticeable. We do get a bit of ambience that pushes the sound out beyond the center channel in the form of some street sounds, and some rumble from a couple of trains passing by outside (and seemingly overhead and all-around thanks to my processor’s upmixer). Marvin Hamlisch’s Academy Award-winning score based on Scott Joplin’s ragtime also gets some room to stretch out across the front channels, particularly in a montage where they are getting ready to gather their crew, which is mostly silent save for the musical score.
Having received 10 Academy Awards nominations (including a Best Actor for
Robert Redford, who lost to Jack Lemmon for his role in Save the Tiger) and pulling seven wins including Picture, Director (Hill), Original Screenplay (David S. Ward), Set Decoration, Costume Design (Edith Head), Editing, and Music, The Sting is a classic of American cinema. And with Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and audience scores of 94 and 95% respectively, it still holds up.
Aside from a couple of uses of the N word, which are a bit jarring for modern viewers (the film is set in Chicago in the ‘30s), this is something that can be enjoyed as a family. (My 14-year-old daughter watched it for the first time and loved it.) Whether you’ve never seen it, or have enjoyed it dozens of times, The Sting has never looked better, and is a wonderful film that belongs in every collection.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.