The Sting (1973)

The Sting – 1973

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw

Some movies are just the right combination of pluck and chemistry.  They don’t have the strongest story, nor do they have the most gripping action, or the most beautiful girl, but they leave you with a pleasant feeling once the film is over.  Thanks to the long lasting effects of this pervasive pleasantness, films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hot Shots, and The Neverending Story still resonate with me, while still other films (much like the Wonka re-make) fail.  They possess some element that isn’t quantifiable or necessarily repeatable.  The stars aligned and the seas parted and low and behold the film is good.  The Sting sits firmly in this demographic, not at all bad, but somehow better than the sum of its parts.

Redford and Newman re-team in this buddy film set in the lawless Chicago of the 30’s.  Newman oozes confidence and cool as the con-man Henry Gondorf, who takes novice Johnny Hooker, Redford, under his wing in order to pull off the fleece of the lifetime against serious as cancer mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).  There are a number of twists and turns, red-herrings and surprises on the con-men’s road to revenge, yet the whole tone of the film stays light and fun.  Despite some marvelously dower moments by Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan, the stake never really seem that high, although it is still a pleasure to watch all of the three main actors do their thing.

Cinematographically, the film rides a thin line between stylized and cartoon, (a line that fellow 70’s heart-throb Warren Beatty went way, WAY past in Dick Tracy) and at times seems a little campy.  Still the look of the film sets a certain tone that works for the camaraderie of Hooker and Gondorf.  It looks exactly like the Disney resort “The Boardwalk” made me feel, nostalgic about a time I never thought I cared about.

Of all the creative elements, the least effective in terms of me continuing to enjoy the movie, was the musical score.  Despite the fact that it compliments the set design and look of the film, every time strains of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” began, I was immediately drawn out of the story.  Luckily, even though the music is a little goofy, it isn’t used to a degree where I couldn’t pay attention, I just gritted my teeth and eventually it would end.

By and large, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.  I saw the twists and turns for what they were long before they were revealed, but I blame my knowledge of modern movie conventions for that.  While it might not be the best con-man movie I’ve ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the super fantastic Paper Moon), I think it’s earned it’s spot on this list, even if that spot is towards the end.

“Learn to run your own con-game.” – Ashley

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All the President’s Men (1976)

All the President’s Men – 1976

Director – Alan J. Pakula

Starring – Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Hal Holbrook and Jason Robards

As far as politically charged thrillers go, the 70’s was full of them. Covering topics as influential and wide-ranging as Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and of course corruption in government. While inspired by real events, the majority of these stories seem to be firmly rooted in the realm of fiction, however the dramatized re-telling of the Watergate scandal investigation is a rather shocking view into the reality of the political climate in the era of Richard Nixon…and it is all the more fantastic because of it.

Director, Alan Pakula had a string of successful thrillers in the 70’s in addition to All the President’s Men, including Klute, and the Parallax View starring Donald Sutherland and Warren Beatty respectively.  The famous journalists at the heart of this story, Woodward and Bernstein, are played fantastically by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively. Redford, who was initially just a producer on the film, chose Dustin Hoffman to balance the film’s star power when it became clear that he would be acting in it. As a result, the plot isn’t so much bogged down by the star power, but propelled by it. Hoffman, and especially Redford are at the top of their games. It is especially apparent with Redford, who as far as I can tell, used to be quite a charismatic and attractive fellow.

Aside from it’s two headline stars, the film is populated with a plethora of talented character actors as well.  Jason Robards plays the crochety editor of the Washington Post, Hal Holbrook plays “Deep Throat” the secret informant who led Woodward and Bernstein in the right direction, and we are even treated to a young Meridith Baxter, best known as being Alex P. Keaton’s mom in Family Ties, in a minor but memorable role.  Though these actors and actresses weren’t the box office draws that the two leading actors were, their parts are no less captivating and enthralling to watch (Robards especially).

For those not up to date on their political history, the film begins with a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. While briefly hot news, the story quickly got bogged down in mis-information, and cover-ups. Most news organizations dropped the story in favor of concentrating on the nomination of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Woodward and Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, never let the story drop. Both continued to chase leads, dig up information, and famously, follow the money, despite the risk to their careers. The result was one of the most wide-ranging political conspiracies of our times, which in good part, led to the disenfranchisement of the American people and the resignation of an American president.

As with many thrillers in the 70’s, All the President’s Men relies heavily on pacing to build tension and establish the stakes of the story, which it manages to do fantastically well.  Many times throughout the film, there are shots that last multiple minutes, slowly zooming in, or remaining static as the actors move around the screen.  This allows the gravity in the story to seep into the audience.  Often times the tension is broken through the mixture of elements, such as through sound, juxtaposition in the composition of a the next shot or scene, or through the editing.  During a long zooming shot of characters interacting, a phone may suddenly ring, a car horn may sound, or a typewriter may suddenly start clacking away. 

The use of metaphor in the film is a powerful one that fits perfectly with the message of the film, words are weapons, and they can be just as powerful in the right hands as they can be in the wrong ones.  This ideal is driven home, most notably, in the end scene in which a television is playing actual footage of a twenty-one gun salute for Nixon’s re-nomination while in the back ground there is a layer of busy typewriter sound.  Woodward and Bernstein are hard at work even while it seems that the wrong side has won.

This film bears a similarity to another film that I’ve reviewed already, Costa-Gavras’ mind-blowing, Z.  Both deal with the triumph of right over wrong, and honesty over corruption, and both are masterful in every sense of the word.  All the President’s Men was an absolute treat to watch, and will more than likely find its way into my DVD collection (if not my Blu-Ray collection).  Highly, highly recommended!

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

ButchCassidySundanceKid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – 1969

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross

Growing up as a kid, I would visit my dad on the weekends.  Together we would watch shows like “Bonanza”, and movies like “The Outlaw Josie Wales”.  To my dad, the western was a big deal, and as a result I got pretty burned out on watching them.  So I stopped.  All through high school, and some of college I avoided them.  To me, they all seemed the same.  Gritty, boring, long, and worst of all, un-interesting.  It was in college that I began my love of foreign film, from the French new wave, to Italian neo-realism.  The angry young men of British films, to the heroic samurai from Japan.  It was one samurai film in particular that caught my attention (Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”), and eventually led me back to the western through the work that it inspired (A Fist Full of Dollars).

Despite this rather circuitous route, I’ve since come to embrace the western as the praise-deserving genre that it is.  With these newly opened eyes, I’ve seen some real gems that I would have otherwise missed, among them, Once Upon a Time in the West, 3:10 to Yuma (the 2007 version, as I have yet to see the original), The Proposition, and now…Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!

Newman and Redford are positively magnetic as the titular pair of outlaws in this late 60’s film by George Roy Hill.  Redford in particular stands out for me.  He is quiet, introspective, dangerous, and complex.  He has an intensity as well as a light-heartedness, all conveyed through “simple” posturing, or through a smouldering stare.  Before this, my only real knowledge of Robert Redford came from a small selection of his acting resume (Three Days of the Condor, Sneakers, and Spy Game), none of which gave a consistent feel for his ability.  In Butch and Sundance, I feel that I got a much clearer glimpse into why this actor became as popular as he did.  As the Sundance Kid, he is the calm, cool and capable partner of Butch Cassidy, the smooth-talking, idea-man played by Paul Newman.  Despite Butch being more of the main character, and having more dialogue, he was continually out shone by the quiet, almost Harry Lime-esque character of the Sundance Kid.

Don’t get me wrong, Paul Newman is great in the role of Butch Cassidy, but since I expected less of Redford, I was left with a more lasting impression from his performance.

Both characters seem wholly entranced by, and are ultimately slaves to the impending future.  They are living through the events of the present, with their eyes firmly forward, ever planning the next heist, fleeing the current town for the next one, and orchestrating the next caper.  As the film progresses, they slowly become aware that this shiny future they admire has no place for them, that they are a dying breed.  In every aspect of their lives, there exists strife.  From the dissent in their own gang, to the special posse contracted to deal with them, to the overwhelming odds they face by the end of the film, it becomes clear that their time is through.

The thing about this impending doom, though, is that they are seemingly un-willing to change in order to stop it.  While trying to escape their pursuers, they are told “It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”  Throughout the film, they are given multiple chances to turn away from their destiny, but they never do.  The glamour and and excitement of this lifestyle is all they know, and it keeps them constantly committed to their outlaw trade, looking for fresh starts, second chances and new hideouts (New York, Bolivia, Colorado, etc.).  The eventuality of their communal fate, illustrated in the scene where Butch Cassidy is riding his brand new bicycle, doing tricks, and taking risks, only to end up in front of a stampeding bull.  And so it is with Sundance too.  The railroads are bringing civilization and law to the once lawless terrain measured and ruled by the gunfighter and his gang.  They are literally and figuratively being driven to extinction.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fantastic watch, and is well deserving of it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die.  Highly Recommended.

“What the shit, bicycle montage?” – Ashley