As entertaining as it is, The Sting is one of the slightest films to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture. It took the top prize (and six others) at the Oscars following its blockbuster 1973 theatrical release. The elaborately produced period piece (the story is set in 1936) boasts excellent art direction and costume design, sharp acting, and a cleverly constructed screenplay. Director George Roy Hill keeps the 130 minute film moving along briskly. The cast, Paul Newman and Robert Redford in particular, makes their essentially shallow characters more interesting than they would have been in less skilled hands. But in the end, its appeal diminishes greatly once the viewer sees all its various plot twists.
A small-time con man named Johnny Hooker (Redford) manages to get into trouble with organized crime kingpin Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) after grifting several thousand dollars from one of Lonnegan’s men. When Hooker’s partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones) decides to leave the con game and is subsequently struck down by Lonnegan’s henchmen, Hooker tracks down Henry Gondorff (Newman) with hopes of collaborating in a revenge scam. They work together in an attempt to bring down Lonnegan in a complex horse racing scam, hoping to take him for all he’s worth. Getting too much further into plot details only ruins the fun of discovering what Hooker and Gondorff have up their sleeves.
Once you’ve seen it all and know what to expect, much of that fun is lost. The Sting is very much dependent upon not knowing who’s conning who as we watch the various players try to outsmart each other. Newman and Redford have a great time playing these professional liars, effortlessly switching between their character’s true motivations and the version they want Lonnegan and his people to believe. Shaw is great as the villainous crime boss as well, quietly menacing and shifty-eyed. His initial reactions to Gondorff as the two face off in a crooked poker game (with Gondorff playing drunk and nearly disorderly) are priceless.
The Sting has never really looked that good on various home video releases in the past. This 1080p transfer, framed at 1.85:1, is the best I’ve seen of the film. The best thing about the visual presentation, hands down, is how vivid the colors are. The film always had an earth, rusty, brownish look to it but the colors, such as the reds of clothing and roses, now really leap from the screen. Clarity is somewhat inconsistent, with wide shots faring poorest. But for the most part, sharpness isn’t a problem on medium and close-up shots. In fact, it’s startlingly good at times. Compared to some previous formats (such as the old laserdisc version) there is far less film grain present, suggesting the usage of digital noise reduction. It doesn’t seem terribly excessive, however, as mild grain is still noticeable.
The audio options include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The DTS mix sounds pretty awesome, with those classic Scott Joplin rags (arranged by Marvin Hamlisch) ringing out with great clarity. Dialogue is clear as a bell. Being a bit of a purist, I’m never happy when an older film’s original mono mix is not included. Expanding the sound to accommodate modern surround sound expectations is fine—and the mix for The Sting nicely incorporates the surround channels for various ambient effects—but I don’t think the original mix should’ve been discarded.
The supplemental materials are not extensive. A nearly one-hour, standard definition documentary, “The Art of The Sting,” has been carried over from a previous DVD edition. It’s a pretty strong piece, with interview footage of the main participants (including Newman and Redford), and including it here was a no-brainer. Thirty minutes of rather self-serving featurettes about Universal Studios (not focused specifically on The Sting, as this release is part of Universal’s “100th Anniversary” series) are also included. The hardcover digibook includes lots of photos and reproductions of promotional materials, as well as light (but well-written) pieces about various aspects of the film. A standard DVD comes with the package as well.