Behind the Camera On THE STING
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Two days before cameras were set to roll on The Sting Robert Shaw, who was cast to play the film's villain Doyle Lonnegan, had an accident. He had slipped on a handball court and hurt himself enough that doctors put him in a long-term brace. Shaw also acquired a noticeable limp in his walk as a result of the accident and wasn't sure that he would be able to work on The Sting in such a state. Director George Roy Hill, however, encouraged Shaw to remain on the film and incorporate the limp into his character, which he did memorably.
Production began on The Sting in January of 1973. The filming was split between some location shooting in Chicago, where the story was set, and on the Universal back lot in California.
Hill wanted The Sting to be a stylish film that accurately reflected the feel not only of 1930s Chicago but also of old Hollywood films from the era as well. Hill along with Art Director Henry Bumstead and Cinematographer Robert Surtees devised a color scheme of muted browns and maroons for the film and a lighting design that combined old-fashioned 1930s-style lighting with some modern tricks of the trade to get the visual look he wanted. Edith Head designed a wardrobe of snappy period costumes for the cast, and artist Jaroslav Gebr created inter-title cards to be used between each section of the film that were reminiscent of the golden glow of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations - a popular publication of the 1930s.
Hill tried to find locations in Chicago and Los Angeles that had not been touched by modern civilization to use for some of the scenes. In Los Angeles, locations such as The Green Hotel, the Santa Monica Carousel and The Biltmore Hotel were all used. Chicago's Union Station was also used along with LaSalle Street Station. Producer Tony Bill also contributed to the film's authentic look by helping to round up a number of period automobiles in the Southern California area.
As he researched old Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s for inspiration, Hill noticed that most of them didn't use a lot of extras in the scenes. "For instance," said Hill as quoted in Andrew Horton's 1984 book The Films of George Roy Hill, "...no extras would be used in street scenes in those films: Jimmy Cagney would be shot down and die in an empty street. So I deliberately avoided using extras."
To complete the effect, Hill made choices for The Sting that would utilize certain stylistic techniques of the 1930s. For instance, he decided to use an old-fashioned Universal logo from the period at the beginning of the film, immediately evoking a nostalgic tone for The Sting. Hill also employed devices such as editing wipes to transition between scenes and iris shots - all stylistic choices that would help place the audience in a 1930s time frame.
Having to shoot location scenes with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Hollywood's reigning movie stars and sex symbols of the day, proved challenging at times. Crowds would inevitably gather and reactions would be akin to the arrival of The Beatles in 1964. "I used to go see Sinatra at the Paramount in New York when I was a kid," said one observer as the cast and crew shot a scene at Chicago's Union Station, "and, my God, I never saw anything like that. I bet the temperature in here went up 22 degrees when Newman walked in." Added another onlooker at the time, "I never saw anything like it, either. Myself, I think we ought to rope off that center aisle and never let anybody use it again."
The pandemonium seemed to reach a particularly feverish pitch for Paul Newman, often to the amusement of co-star Robert Shaw. "...I did notice that it was Newman everywhere we passed through," said Shaw in a 1973 Rolling Stone interview. "I mean, I picked up about two fans on the way, and those two ladies guided me back to the station, and with great joy they introduced me to people along the way...and none of these absolute layers of girls knew who the hell I was. But they all recognized Newman, to be sure. I mean, everybody would come up and kind of swoon over him, but they didn't in Redford's case, not at all."
Newman made a point along with Robert Redford to never take such attention too seriously and instead focused on the work at hand. To keep each other grounded, Redford and Newman took turns playing practical jokes on each other. There was a good camaraderie between them, which inevitably registered on screen. "What puts Newman and Redford over so well together is as much chemistry as acting," said George Roy Hill according to the 1996 book Paul Newman by Lawrence Quirk. "When they're in the same frame something exciting happens even when they're not talking or even moving."
When Hill first approached composer Marvin Hamlisch to adapt Scott Joplin's music for the score of The Sting, Hamlisch was reluctant. He was a composer of original music, after all, and not in the habit of adapting other musicians' work. "I agreed to see a first cut in the screening room," said Hamlisch in his 1992 autobiography The Way I Was. "I quickly realized that this was one of the best pictures I had seen in years...David Ward had written a witty, stylish script, George Roy Hill had directed it faultlessly, and Newman and Redford were the best screen couple in years...One of the things that drew me to The Sting was that George had been shrewd enough to leave little oases without dialogue for the music. He built montages and sequences into the picture for this purpose. Whenever I see patches in a film that are talkless, I'm in heaven." Hamlisch agreed to take on the job.
Although Hamlisch wasn't a Scott Joplin aficionado, he quickly found several pieces of his that he liked and set about adapting them to suit the film. It took him a mere five days. "Writing an original theme for a film takes time, but that was not the job here," said Hamlisch. "Instead, I chose from preexisting material, and that was much easier. I quickly figured out what went where, adapted the music, timed it, cut it up, and the rest was history." He told his agent he was done, and the agent replied, "Whatever you do, don't tell them you've finished in five days. Call them in three weeks and tell them it's coming along nicely." That is exactly what Hamlisch did.
Hamlisch had nothing but praise for director Hill. "George Roy Hill was what every director should be for a composer. If I told him I had a problem and needed a little more time in a scene to accommodate the music-or a little less-he would try to make the adjustment. He also would ask my opinion about certain scenes in the movie and how they played. That's a rare collaborator."
by Andrea Passafiume