The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

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I’ve been expecting you…

As everybody has been incredibly keen to point out surrounding the release of Skyfall, the James Bond film franchise is currently celebrating its 50th birthday. Yes really- some absolute genius of an executive at Eon managed to get the rights to a film series that has lasted longer than the Cold War (which in and of itself presented a problem when Bond couldn’t simply beat up Commies all of a sudden and they had to start inventing new bad guys). But Bond is, of course, far older than that, and his story is an interesting one.

Ian Fleming had served as an intelligence officer during the Second World War, being involved with such charismatic spies as Dusko Popov (who ran an information exchange in Lisbon and traded signals on a roulette table), before returning to England during the 1950s. He later made a famous quote, based on an event that occurred in 1952:

‘Looking out of my window as the rain lashed down during one of those grey austerity-ridden days in post-war Britain, I made two of the biggest decisions of my life; one, never to spend winter in England again; two, to write the spy story to end all spy stories’.

He began writing the first Bond novel (Casino Royale) in February of that year, retiring to his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica to write it (Bond spent the majority of his time in certainly the earlier novels in the Caribbean, and Goldeneye would of course later become the name for Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film). He chose the name from American ornithologist (and world-renowned expert on Caribbean birds) James Bond, saying that he originally wanted his character to be a normal person to whom extraordinary things happened, and whilst this brief got distorted somewhat through his various revisions this drab name, combined with Bond’s businesslike, unremarkable exterior, formed a contrast with his steely edge and amazing skill set to form the basis of the infamous MI6 operative (Fleming also admitted to incorporating large swathes of himself into the character).

The books were an immediate hit, demonstrating a sharp breakout from the norms of the time, and the film industry was quick to make its move towards them. As early as 1954 a TV version of Casino Royale starring the Americanized ‘Jimmy Bond’ had hit the screen, but Fleming thought he could go better and started a project to make a film adaptation in 1959, with himself acting as screenwriter. However, the project bombed and it wasn’t until 1961 that Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli (along with partner Harry Saltzmann) bought the film rights to the series. This project too was plagued by difficulties; despite Sean Connery being said to ‘walk like a panther’ when he came to audition for the part, Broccoli’s first choice for the Bond role was Cary Grant, and when he said he didn’t want to be part of a series he turned to James Mason. Mason made similar bones and so at last, with some misgivings, they turned to Connery. Said Fleming, ‘he’s not exactly what I had in mind’.

He had even worse things to say when Connery’s first film, Dr. No, was released; ‘Dreadful. Simply dreadful’ his words upon seeing the preview screening. He wasn’t the only one either; the film received only mixed reviews, and even a rebuke from the Vatican (never noted for their tolerance towards bikinis). However, Dr. No did include a few of the features that would later come to define Bond; his gun, for instance. For the first 5 Bond novels, Fleming had him using Berreta 418, but munitions expert Geoffrey Boothroyd subsequently wrote to Fleming criticizing the choice. Describing the weapon ‘a lady’s gun’ (a phrase Fleming himself would later use to describe it), he recommended the Walther PPK as an alternative. Fleming loved the suggestion, incorporating an adapted version of the exchanged into his next book (which was, coincidentally, Dr. No) and giving the name of Bond’s armourer as Major Boothroyd by way of thanks. Boothroyd’s role as a quartermaster eventually lead to his more famous nickname; Q.

Not that any of this saved the film, or indeed ‘From Russia With Love’, which succeeded it. Reviews did improve for this one if only for its better quality of execution, but many still rallied against the very concept of the Bond movie and it hardly kickstarted the franchise. What it did do, however, was prompt the release of the film that did; Goldfinger.

This was the film that cemented Bond’s reputation, and laid the tropes on the table for all subsequent films to follow. Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) became the definitive Bond girl, Sean Connery the definitive Bond (a reputation possibly enhanced by the contrast between his portrayal of Bond and the aggressive, chauvinistic ‘semi-rapist’ portrayed in the books), and his beautiful, silver Aston Martin DB5 the Bond car- one such car sold in the US some years ago for over 2 million dollars. According to many, Goldfinger remains the best Bond film ever (although personally I’m quite fond of Live and Let Die, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale), although rather sadly Ian Fleming died before he could see it.

Since then, the franchise has had to cope with a whole host of ups & downs. After ‘You Only Live Twice’ (in which the character of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is first revealed), Connery announced that it would be his last Bond film, but his replacement George Lazenby appeared just once (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which his performance received mixed reception) before claiming that he didn’t feel the character of a gun-em-down chauvinist such as Bond could survive the ‘peace & love’ sentiment of the late 60s (Lazenby was also, on an unrelated note, the youngest man ever to play Bond, at just 30). After Connery was tempted back for one more film (Diamonds Are Forever) by an exorbitant salary, the gauntlet was thrown to Roger Moore, who simultaneously holds the record for oldest Bond ever (57 by the end) and most number of films (7, over a 12-year period). Moore’s more laid back, light-hearted and some might say graceless approach to the role won him some plaudits by its contrast to Connery’s performance, but despite increasingly negative audience feedback over time this style became ever more necessary as the series came under scrutiny. The feminist lobby (among others) had been gaining voice, and whilst they had once been pleased at the ‘freedom’ demonstrated by the likes of Playgirls and other burlesque performers (seriously, that was the attitude they took in the 50s) by now they saw them as the by-products of a chauvinist society. This quickly meant Bond’s all action, highly sexual and male-dominated atmosphere came under fire, forcing the character to retreat into steadily tamer plots. It was also rapidly running out of ideas (the same director had been working on the project for several films by now), retreating into petty jokes (ie the name ‘Holly Goodhead’) and generally mediocre filmmaking. The series limped on with Moore until A View To A Kill, and for two more with Timothy Dalton after that, but it then took an 6 year break whilst another Dalton production fell through. Some felt that the franchise was on its last legs, that a well-liked and iconic character would soon have to wink out of existence, but then came Pierce Brosnan.

Whatever you do or don’t think of Brosnan’s performances (I happen to like them, others think he’s fairly rubbish), there can be no denying that Goldeneye was the first Bond film to really catapult the franchise into the modern era of filmmaking. With fresh camera techniques to make it at least look new, a new lead actor and a long break to give everyone time to forget about the character, there was a sense of this being something of a new beginning for Bond. And it was; seven films later and with Daniel Craig now at the helm, the series is in rude health and is such a prominent, well-loved and symbolic character that Craig adopted his 007 role when pretending to skydive into the stadium alongside the Queen during the London 2012 opening ceremony (which I’m sure you all agree was possibly the best bit of the entire games). There is something about Bond that fundamentally appeals to us; all the cool, clever gadgets, the cars we could only ever dream of, the supermodels who line his bed (well, maybe a few people would prefer to turn a blind eye to some of that), and the whole smooth, suave nature that defines his character makes him such a fixed trope that he seems impossible for our collective psyche to forget. We can forgive the bad film making, the formula of the character, the lack of the artistry that puts other films in line for Oscars, simply because… he’s Bond. He’s fun, and he’s awesome.

Oh, and on a related note, go and see Skyfall. It’s absolutely brilliant.