Part I of this series discussed seeing The Great Gatsby on a Friday night in the Spring of 1974. On Saturday night, I saw American Graffiti. The next day was Sunday.
My family woke up ready to travel back home from Charleston, WV to Weirton, WV. The travel time home was 5 hours and uneventful. We arrived back at the house in late afternoon, unpacked, and had a light dinner. Sitting around the table, Mom asked what we wanted to do that night. Dad, half-joking, said, “How about a movie?” We laughed and said yes.
Dad suggested The Sting. He’d already seen it in Charleston and said it was very funny. We drove across the river to Steubenville, OH where The Sting was playing at the General Cinema on the edge of town.
As mentioned in the previous columns, America in the early 1970s was on a big nostalgia kick. Yes, we were looking back fondly at the 1950s but hit shows like The Waltons had us looking back warmly at the 1930s as well. The Sting fit this mood perfectly. It also had buzz because it reunited the team from the megahit Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969): Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and director George Roy Hill.
From the very opening the movie had me hooked. I learned from The Sting how to grab an audience’s attention even before the movie started. Hill’s use of the old Universal logo and to start the theme, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” right under it, perfectly established the mood of the film. The storybook page turning quality of the credits established this as a bit of a fairy tale.
This was my second Redford movie in 3 days and I was becoming a big fan. He seemed a little old for the role of Johnny Hooker but his intensity in the role won me over. I’d never seen Newman do comedy before. He was very good. Ditto Robert Shaw who made a very believably threatening villain, Doyle Lonnegan.
The other thing that struck me was the brilliance of David S. Ward’s screenplay. You could tell from the get go that this was a well-told story. A playful story that warned in the opening scenes us that we had better pay attention and keep on our toes. Not everything was as it seemed. That the audience was being played just as much as the con men’s marks. And yet it was all done with such a good-hearted tone that we knew nothing fundamentally bad would happen.
The Sting introduced us to the world of con men and “The Big Con” (something that actually existed then). Like Pixar’s films, Another world that exists right under our nose but which we rarely ever cross paths with. This was the first trickster script I’d encountered.
The movie dripped with nostalgia as it brilliantly brought the Depression era to life. Robert Surtees cinematography, Henry Bumstead’s production design, Edith Head’s costumes perfectly set the mood. In a decade when location shooting became the preferred norm, The Sting was one of the last films of the era to be shot entirely on the Universal lot (except for 3 days filming in Chicago) and yet it still feels like the real thing.
Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin tunes, while not historically right (Joplin’s music was written 30 years before the Depression) is “right”. The music proved so popular that The Entertainer” dominated Top 40 radio that spring along with the novelty hit, Ray Stevens’ “The Streak.”
I enjoyed the subtle misdirection of George Roy Hill’s directing. Most of the clues and truths of what is really going on are plainly in sight if you know what to look for. William Reynolds’ slight of hand editing contributes to that as well as his use of old time wipes and irises.
Even as an 11 year old I could sense Ward’s screenplay was a masterpiece of construction. The fact that Hill and Ward gave each sequence a title (The Set Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-Out, The Sting) made me understand structure more. I began to sense there was an Act I, Act II, and Act III to telling a story. I also appreciated his use of Depression-era slang in the dialogue which gave this a real sense of time and place.
The supporting cast were all superb: Harold Gould, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Jack Kehoe, Dana Elcar, Robert Earl Jones. A young Sally Kirkland plays the burlesque dancer at the beginning. And a tip of the hat as well to Dimitra Arliss as the diner waitress who helps Redford out of a jam and ends up in bed with him (exactly where most American women wanted to be with Redford that year).
Everything came together in a slam-bang conclusion and then the movie was out.
Once again, the audience applauded. The Sting may not be a great movie but it is a great entertainment and often times that is an achievement in and of itself.
All three movies I saw that weekend had a lasting effect on me. Gatsby taught me how to tell a story through camera movement and composition. Graffiti taught me how to tell a story through sound and editing. The Sting taught me the value of a great script and a well-told, well-structured story. All three films demonstrated how music, production design, and cinematography could work together to pull a viewer into a world whether it be 1925 Long Island, 1962 small town California, or 1936 Chicago. All three films taught me the value of proper casting whether they be stars or unknowns.
I came out of that weekend loving Robert Redford, wanting to learn more about how movies were made, and wanting to start making movies myself. Wanting to share how those movies made me feel. Soon after, I started writing scripts.
3 days. 3 great movies. It remains the most influential weekend of my life.