22 July 2010

The Sting

Everyone loves a good twist, right? The audience gets enormous pleasure out of being manipulated, and they get lots of pleasure out of trying to figure it out. In other words, the audience wants to be involved, and wants to feel smart. This is not a small consideration.

Think about all the big "rug from under you" moments here: Luther out the window, Redford turning turnout on the train, the black glove man turning out to be a savior, Redford and Newman shooting each other at the end. Every one of these moments gives an audience an extreme amount of pleasure and is a booster rocket that keeps them involved in the story and wondering what will happen next. In a very real sense, that's the essence of storytelling: giving the audience engaging characters and making us wonder what will happen to them next.

So the fun in these movies is the not-knowing, being swept away like waves of complications in the plot and trying to figure it out, but mostly trusting that the characters are smarter and act better than we ever could.

While the structure of the narrative is a little more unwieldy than a traditional 3-act structure (it's more like a five-act film), it works because it roughly follows the structure of a sting or a big con itself. And there's no sense of complaining either, because it hits all the big notes: set-up (Redford is a con who robbed the wrong dude), act two of no going back (Luther killed, wants revenge), reversal at midpoint (Redford as turncoat), act two complications (Snyder closing in, Feds involved, Lonnegan wavering), and the time-compressed third act with a resolution -- in this case, a happy one.

What's remarkable is how light the movie is, and yet how complicated the plot machinations are. To keep those in balance, and to add the sense of danger necessary for us to take it seriously, is a serious feat. Remember: as a filmmaker, you still have to take your "fun" movie seriously, and George Roy Hill clearly did. And won the Oscar as a result.

The writer's maxim, so much a maxim that it is now a cliche, is to "write what you know". Accordingly, like a lot of great movies, it's actually a thinly veiled view of what it's like to put on a movie or a play -- the large ensemble of con men is like an acting troupe (the supporting players even come, hat in hand, to "audition"), the style of the film is purposefully exaggerated, the sets a little too fake-looking, the costumes a little too garish, the transitions a little too similar to a red curtain dropped down. And once they finish their con of Lonnegan, like in any play, they immediately start striking the set.