Sting, The (US - HD)
Scott McKenzie checks out the HD-DVD release of one of his favourite movies...
In Depression-era Chicago, Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a successful small-time grifter, but he runs into trouble when he accidentally steals from a runner for Irish mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan despatches his men to take revenge and when they kill Hooker’s friend and mentor he decides to leave town, with his old foe Lieutenant Snyder on his tail. Hooker teams up with Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), an old big con artist, who agrees to hit back at Lonnegan the only way they know how.
Teaming up with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford once again play a pair of ne’er-do-wells who operate outside the law. What’s obvious from watching this movie is that everyone involved is having such a good time, most of all the two lead actors who exchange the fast-paced dialogue with the ease of people who are comfortable with the way each other work. Robert Shaw inhabits his role as the limping mob boss, giving Lonnegan the right balance of menace and charm. The supporting cast is very strong as well, with even the quieter characters like Floyd being given plenty of screen time and as the actors comment in the extra features, the director gave them all room to improvise in their roles.
The Sting has a light-hearted tone that stays almost constant from the first scene right to the end. This makes the more tragic scenes all the more affecting, but then it’s quickly back to what we expect from a caper movie. What makes The Sting’s appeal so enduring in an age when Ocean’s movies rake in tons of cash is the relatively simple story. The Ocean’s movies spell out an incredibly complicated setup to the audience, then complicate matters further as the movie goes on, but The Sting’s strength lies in its seemingly simple setup, which is complicated only if you’re paying attention to small details that are only hinted at and reward multiple viewings.
Of course, the way The Sting is put together means there are plot holes and leaps of faith necessary to buy into the action. The movie is presented in a theatrical fashion, with the opening titles operating like a theatrical programme, showing us the main players and their roles in the production we’re about to watch. The story is very deliberately separated into chapters as well, which takes the viewer out of the movie but also reminds us that we shouldn’t be taking it too seriously. The theatrical approach also means that you’ve come to the wrong place if you’re after gritty realism. Most of the characters, in particular Kid Twist, are caricatures and the way they all rub their noses to indicate their involvement in the con is so obvious that you can’t imagine them lasting ten minutes against a real gangster.
Overall, The Sting is perfect entertainment. It’s dramatic without being heavy-going, funny without going for cheap gags and the story contains enough twists to make you want to start watching it again as soon as the credits roll. Even though it clocks in at over two hours, the fast pace means you won’t be left checking your watch to see how long is left and I find it difficult to imagine how someone couldn’t find plenty to enjoy in a movie that has something for everyone.
Even though the vultures appear to be circling above the rotting carcass of HD DVD, one of the reasons I was looking forward to getting my hands on my new Toshiba player was to get the opportunity to see how one of my favourite movies of all time has been scrubbed up for high definition. The old non-anamorphic DVD from many years ago (which I used to get these screenshots) looks pretty bad and I was hoping for a presentation that would take me back in time to the cinema circa 1973. My expectations had been set pretty low by Fox’s recent Blu-ray output, but I’m pleased to say I’m very happy with the quality of this presentation, especially since this movie is well past its thirtieth birthday.
The first thing you have to realise with a movie this old is that unless the HD DVD producers discover a way to go back in time, the quality of the video and audio will depend on the way the master copy has been stored since it was locked away in the studio’s archive. Short of trawling through the whole movie frame-by-frame, it’s also difficult to see how every single scratch or patch of dirt could be completely removed. With that in mind, I’d say this is definitely the best-looking ‘old’ movie I’ve watched in a long time. The picture flickers a little from time to time, most noticeably during the titles and the odd scratch is still noticeable, but it is a vast improvement over the original DVD release. Colours are particularly strong, most of all the reds and Paul Newman’s blue eyes. The background in long shots lacks the detail we expect from movies shot in high definition, but overall the 1080p picture makes this well worth picking up for fans of the movie.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo audio options are also an improvement over the DVD’s Mono track, but to a less significant degree. The Oscar-winning music is one of the most memorable aspects of The Sting, and while it’s nice to hear The Entertainer coming through the surround speakers, the music overall sounds muted when compared to the digitally produced soundtracks of movies made in the twenty-first century. Some work has gone into giving the effects more impact in surround sound, with traffic noises from the side and rear offering more than you might expect from a movie made in an era when directional sound was not as much of a priority as it is now.
Unfortunately there aren’t any HD DVD exclusive special features and all we get are the same extras that were included on the special edition DVD. ‘The Art of the Sting’ is the only extra feature of note. Clocking in at fifty-two minutes, this featurette is separated into three parts: ‘The Perfect Script’, ‘Making a Masterpiece’ and ‘The Legacy’. Clips from the movie are edited together with behind-the-scenes stills and interviews with the cast and crew, who have plenty of stories to tell about how they got into making the movie and their escapades on set. Most interesting of all is that Robert Redford insisted on having George Roy Hill direct The Sting if he was going to be involved and Paul Newman tried to turn down his part, thinking he was wrong for the role of Henry Gondorff. A theatrical trailer is also included, along with production notes, which are no more than a text-based making-of, which isn’t exactly rewarding when we're expected to fork out our cash for high definition content.
In my opinion, The Sting is a rare beast—a perfect combination of drama and comedy that assumes a higher level of intelligence in its audience than most modern movies, offering twists and details that reward multiple viewings. For a movie this old, the video and audio quality are very good and while the extras might not be that impressive, this is still a package worth checking out if you find yourself saddled with an HD DVD player.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the HD DVD release.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 16th January 2007
Disc Type: HD DVD
Audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo English, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo French
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Extras: The Art of the Sting, Production Notes, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Robert Redford, Paul Newman
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Drama
Length: 130 minutes
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