DirectorGeorge Roy Hill
Release Date(s)1973 (May 18, 2021)
Studio(s)The Zanuck/Brown Company (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
The Sting is the rare Hollywood film which is like a piece of fine crystal; no matter what angle you examine it from, everything appears flawless. If even one facet exhibited a single flaw, it would mar the entire structure—in fact, such a flaw would put that structure at risk of collapse. The manner in which film works as a whole requires that each of its component parts does its job with clockwork precision. In that sense, The Sting operates the same way as the big con that forms its centerpiece.
The Sting is the story of a small time grifter in Depression-era Illinois who hooks up with a more experienced con artist to pull off a major score. To say more would be to say too much, as one of the pleasures of watching the film is learning how even the smallest pieces of the puzzle fit into place. Writer David S. Ward based the story on his research into the era, with David W. Maurer’s book The Big Con as a major source. That proved to be problematic when Maurer sued for plagiarism and Universal chose to settle out of court, much to Ward’s chagrin since the book was nonfiction. Ward ended up with the last laugh when he won a deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Director George Roy Hill made the crucial decision to treat The Sting not just as a period piece, but also to give it the veneer of a period film by using frequent transitions like wipes and dissolves as well as title cards with Norman Rockwell style illustrations. He even chose to use a sepia toned version of an older Universal logo to open the film. Marvin Hamlisch’s score consists of adaptations of classic ragtime music by Scott Joplin, which helped to maintain the period feel despite the fact that Joplin predated the Depression by a few decades. All of it works together to give The Sting a whimsical tone that never flags even when tensions ratchet up—Hill and his collaborators always maintain a deft touch with the material.
The cast is ideal, including supporting actors like Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, and Jack Kehoe. They all melt into their characters and the period setting well. But the film belongs to Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the two leads. They proved conclusively that their pairing in Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was no fluke. Unfortunately, The Sting would be their final team up, but honestly, how could they ever have topped it?
The Sting was photographed on 35 mm film by Robert Surtees using Mitchell cameras and Bausch & Lomb lenses, and was projected at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. Universal’s new Ultra HD is a major improvement over their 2012 Blu-ray, though the way the film was originally produced (and how this transfer was handled) does require assessment. The level of fine detail is much better than the Blu-ray, but it can still vary from shot to shot, which was an inevitable consequence of the stylistic choices made for the film. All of the transitions had to be produced on an optical printer, and as a result, entire leading and trailing shots would have exhibited generational loss manifested by softness and a more prominent grain structure. That’s true of any classic film, but The Sting used so many that the affected footage comprises a significant portion of the running time. Universal has applied mild DNR to these shots to smooth out grain and make it match the surrounding footage better, which means that their texture and detail is softer as well. Short of going back to the original camera negative and generating new transitions digitally, those shots were always going to stand out in 4K resolution, regardless of how they were handled. That said, this transfer still looks marvelous overall, with an abundance of fine detail and natural looking grain in the unaffected shots. The HDR10 grade enhances the color palette subtly while staying true to the original look of the film, and the contrast range is improved with better blacks. This is clearly the best version of The Sting available on home video.
The primary audio option, English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, is the same remix of the theatrical mono that was available on previous releases. The track does add limited ambient surround effects such as applause or passing trains, but its primary benefit is that it offers Hamlisch’s score in stereo. That fact alone makes the 5.1 soundtrack preferable, though Universal doesn’t give viewers a choice since the original mono soundtrack is not included. Other options include 5.1 Spanish DTS and French 2.0 mono DTS. Subtitle options include English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Universal’s Ultra HD release is a 2-Disc combo pack which includes an identical copy of the 2012 Blu-ray, meanting it doesn’t include the newly remastered picture. There’s a paper insert with a Digital code as well. The special features are identical on both discs, and while they’re all encoded in 1080p HD, The Art of the Sting and the theatrical trailer are both upscaled from SD:
- The Art of The Sting (56:19)
- 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:13)
- 100 Years of Universal: The '70s (11:01)
- 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:14)
The Art of The Sting was originally produced for 2005 Legacy Series DVD. Divided into three sections, it features interviews with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, David S. Ward, Marvin Hamlisch, and several others. Unfortunately, George Roy Hill died in 2002 so he was not involved, and the featurette does not include any archival interviews with him. Overall, it does give a nice overview of the production, and while Hill may be absent, his presence is still felt through the reminiscences of those who worked with him. The theatrical trailer is actually the first re-release trailer for the film, which makes it an interesting reminder of how films were exhibited in the days before home video. The three generic 100 Years of Universal featurettes are included on most of Universal’s catalogue Blu-rays at the time. The Sting is barely mentioned in any of them, with only The ‘70s devoting a couple of minutes to it. On the other hand, while Restoring the Classics doesn’t even mention The Sting, it offers one relevant moment when it explains how the studio applied DNR to an optically zoomed shot in To Kill a Mockingbird to help it blend better with the rest of the scene. Otherwise, it’s a pretty limited selection of extras and this is definitely one film that deserves a more thorough special edition.
The Sting was a massive hit in 1973 and it became the fourth highest grossing film of all time up to that point. It won a total of seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. But the most interesting testament to its popularity is the fact that Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of The Entertainer became a top ten hit. Fifty-six years after Scott Joplin died, he was topping the charts. That is a perfect example of how The Sting captured popular imagination in its day, and its many charms have not dimmed. This UHD is currently the optimal way to experience them for old and new fans alike.
- Stephen Bjork
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