So, we're going to do a little something different around here. With my new job and the health problems I've had, keeping up with my blog and other social media stuff has been difficult. So, my husband is going to be contributing more to the blog here. This is related to the studio because he's the one that does all the writing for my prints and badges. He also wrote the Anime RPG book you may have seen at my table, so it makes sense for him to write some stuff for my blog. For the summer, on most Fridays, I will be sharing some reflections related to a film project he's been doing with the kids. He's big fan of film, and he teaches a variety of film classes at the college level. These posts are going to be a little longer than what I normally write, but I think they're worth the read. So, without further rambling, here's the first Friday post for the Summer Classic Film Project...
As part of a summer activity, I have decided to watch classic films with my children. I want them to have to a good cultural background in film so the plan is to watch a number of movie classics and then talk about them. I was inspired to try this after I finished teaching a film art class in the spring. I was actually rather surprised at how few movies over twenty years old that my students were familiar with let alone seen.
I’ve already exposed my children to a number of what you might call geeky classics. They’ve seen films like Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and the older Batman movies. We’ve even watched some of the more obscure ones like The Monster Squad, Ferris Bueller, and Murder by Death. As such, I’m going to experiment here a little more and show them more dramas and action films that aren’t quite as well known. Our first film was The Sting.
Made in 1973, The Sting features a pair of con artists named Hooker (Robert Redford) and Gondorff (Paul Newman) who exact revenge against a corrupt mobster named Lonnegan, played by the excellent Robert Shaw who was the drunk shark-hunter in Jaws. It’s a fairly straightforward story with a few twists along the way to make things interesting. It’s set in the 1930s and certainly captures the feel of destitution and dirt that I often associated with my limited knowledge of the Great Depression period.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how it not only creates this underworld fantasy of crime but it populates the world with a society of con men with goofy nicknames like Kid Twist and Combs. These men apparently have their own secret society with signals to identify one another and will on occasion band together to act out a complicated con story for big bucks. They play off one another to create an intricate story with which to bamboozle the poor schmuck they’ve decided to rip off. In this case, the con is revenge for the murder of one of their members. As such, it is a satisfying story of crooks stealing from other crooks. It probably wouldn’t have been as good if they had decided to just target a rich guy who was a little more empathetic.
The film opens with a couple of clips from the movie and a description of the players. This is a nice nod to earlier silent films that used this term when listing the opening credits since film in the early days drew heavily from plays. After an introduction to our main characters, the film halts over a still image of people sitting at a street corner. Some have chairs. One rests against a car. In the background we see a man rummaging around in the trash. It almost looks like a painting depicting the squalor and general hopelessness I have when I picture 1930s urban Americana. The still image shifts to movement revealing it not to be a painting but part of a film.
The camera then cuts to a man walking past all of the poor street dwellers. We only see the man’s shoes and they are clearly clean and expensive. They stand in stark contrast to the poverty around them. The man climbs some very dirty and rusty old stairs and enters a room bustling with people. We hear another man talking on the phone about the day’s take and how the police shut the group down for an hour. While we are not privy to the whole story, there are enough pieces here to suggest that these men are involved in an organized crime racket. Probably gambling but it’s hard to say.
Matolla, our well-groomed man from the street, is given some money and told to take it to Chicago. He leaves and as he walks down the street, he observes a robbery. Our man doesn’t get involved but another man, Hooker, steps into the scene and foils the robbery. A short exchange occurs in which Matolla agrees to deliver the robbery victim’s money to a group of loan sharks. What Matolla doesn’t realize is that he is being conned and is quickly relieved of all of his money. Thus begins The Sting.
The movie has some interesting and likeable characters, a complicated confidence scam, some assassins, and some very corrupt police officers. It doesn’t cut as often as newer movies but then again it is rather dialog heavy. That’s something that really stood out to me on this viewing. The characters in this film rattle off a ton of slang. I’m not sure if people in the 1930s spoke like this or if it is only a Hollywood reimagining but I found myself reflecting on the language a lot here. A lot of the slang was vanishing from general vocabulary when I was a kid. I can only imagine the confusion of my own children as they heard words like moxie and sting thrown around like cotton candy.
In particular there is one scene in which our conmen observe a detective entering a pub. One of the con men remarks, “I’ve never seen him before. He’s a dick, though.” I know from my experience that dick was an old slang term for police detective. My kids have only heard that word used as an insult meaning a jerk. The two meanings were probably synonymous once upon a time but the former term is no longer really well known among the younger generation.
That’s not to say I was able to follow the dialog all of the time either. I still have no idea what “droople drooze” is supposed to mean. Robert Shaw’s Irish accent is almost indecipherable at times when he rattles off phrases like, “You don’t see my men rumbling around with such riffraff.” Overall though, I think my kids were able to follow the story. The older two in particular really liked some of the card tricks and lies that the con men used to trick the evil mob boss.
One little thing that amused me is that at one point, Hooker and Gondorff are playing Cribbidge together. They only play one hand and for the most part the game is really just to give the two something to do with their hands while they rattle off exposition and character reflection. However, they played the game correctly. I like that kind of detail in a film.
In summary, The Sting is a fun film. It won a ton of academy awards and made a lot of money in the box office when it came out 45 years ago. There is one scene in which we see a woman’s naked backside and part of her breast. In the same scene is a woman doing a semi-risky strip tease in a bikini bottom and nipple covers. There are also a couple of murders in which one person gets shot in the head. I was actually rather surprised that the film has only a PG rating. I had forgotten those moments when I first saw the film years ago.