The Sting (1973)

 

Before anything else, I’d just like to acknowledge a minor role in this movie, played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl.  His voice bears such a striking resemblance to his son’s famous baritone that I literally spent the first twenty minutes trying to place it before caving and looking it up.  He plays the likeable character Luther, who trains his protégé Robert Redford in the fine art of the street con – before they cross paths with the wrong mobster.

Also on the subject of family relations, there’s a bodyguard in this movie who is a dead ringer for Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  I will never be convinced that he is not actually Flea’s father.

  

Oh, yeah, also starring is the famous duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  Quite a few years ago, I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I must have been too young or something to appreciate it because I found it decidedly boring.  Oddly enough, though, I swear there was a makeover montage scene in that movie that was a dead ringer for the one in The Sting.  Was there just something about Newman and Redford that inspired shots of them being kitted out in fancy new duds in every film they were in together?

It is, in fact, my experience with films like Butch that have made me cautious about watching other classic movies because I inevitably seem to find them less than they’re cracked up to me.  However, I knew next to nothing about this movie (I do my best not to read much about an unfamiliar movie on the Best Picture list before I watch it in order to allow myself the freshest viewing possible.  Hey, you try shielding yourself from spoilers of decades-old movies.)

There’s a particular kind of film where a character who’s not exactly a good guy becomes sympathetic because he’s placed in circumstances where he’s the enemy of an even nastier guy.  In real life, you probably wouldn’t root for a con man, but if he looks like Robert Redford, anything goes.  I think the other appealing part about the story is that you can support the underdog, the guy who’s in over his head and now has mob bosses and cops all after him.  You kind of want somebody like that to catch a break.

Beyond that, I probably don’t speak only for myself when I admit that stories about poker and gambling are appealing in a vicarious way because I’d like to believe that I could be a poker master, despite an utter lack of evidence of any talent or innate ability in this area.  The actual work of memorizing probabilities and reading faces and all that is not nearly as attractive as the general sense of what it might be like to be able to, say, shuffle cards without awkward stray flutters.  We all want to be card sharks.  Or is it sharps?  I’ve heard it both ways.

With so many of the films on this list taking themselves way too seriously, it’s nice to watch something that just ends up being a fun romp.  Why is it, these days especially, that a movie is only considered Important if it’s serious enough to put you to sleep?

 

Theme:  crime spree

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Wins by a nose

Chicago (2002)

 

Well, this was a fun little flick to close out the month.  I’ve been living in a cave since 2002 (and probably earlier since this was originally on Broadway), so I didn’t actually know anything about this movie except that it was a musical.  Little did I realize it fell into one of my more favored genres, the dark comedy.  As an added bonus, the film features bad girls, glorifying them in the same way we’ve been admiring the moxie of our gangsters since the jazz age.  It’s like Orange is the New Black, or at least what I imagine it would be like, not having watched it myself.  There’s singing in OITNB, right?

It’s interesting, and rather fitting, to contrast this movie with the first one I watched this month, The Broadway Melody.  Both are female-focused musicals, with a sort of meta narrative about performance.  But where the first felt more like an attempt to replicate the exact on-stage theatrical performance, Chicago plays with both the musical genre and film itself to tell a story.  I especially loved the marionette scene, where dancers are choreographed as puppets, all of them controlled by the mastermind defense lawyer played by Richard Gere.  Just layers upon layers going on there.

I’ve never seen a musical on stage, I don’t think – certainly not a real Broadway show.  I guess technically, there was that one year Shakespeare on the Common did a mashup of Shakespeare with old Rat Pack songs.  Does that count?  I don’t even know.  But my point is, I realize that there are certain customs and tropes in musicals that I simply don’t get because I’m not familiar with the genre.  While that might bother me in some other cases, here it didn’t.  It felt accessible and engaging, even though virtually every moment of the film was a song.

In this particular case, it’s a little harder to run a Bechdel Test.  Does it count as a conversation if two women happen to be singing in the same song?  If they’re discussing ways to be cleared of a crime, does it matter that it was for a man’s murder if they don’t actually mention the man in dialogue?  Regardless, it’s an academic discussion, because there are enough moments between the many women in prison, discussing their respective crimes (of which all are perfectly innocent), to pass the test.  Why aren’t there more movies like this?  I might actually watch musicals in that case.

And so ends another theme month here at the ol’ Oscar blog.  As we hit the halfway point of the year, I’m pleased to report that I’ve officially watched exactly half of the movies on the Best Picture list.  Right on target.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep this up so long.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt a bit more strain about the whole process, like I’m always on the verge of having to watch another movie, post another blog, swing by the library for another pair of requested movies.  Warmer weather also makes me less eager to spend an afternoon in front of the TV.

There’s even a librarian who’s clearly a movie buff, taking note of all the classics I pick up, once or twice a week.  I tried to explain my project once, as I’ve tried to do with other casual acquaintances, but it’s hard to say why I’m doing it.  And if I’ve managed to keep up this habit, why not other more useful ones, like exercise or flossing?  I’d like to think I’m learning something about myself in the process.  But I guess I still have six months to figure out what it is.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?

Final Verdict:  There ain’t no justice in the world

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

 

I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t resist saying the title of this film over and over. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. It has a great rhythm to it, and Wikipedia tells me that this particular arrangement of meter is called an anapest. To be fair, though, I think the title stands out to me more vividly because of the late 1980s TV show derived from the film, which used to air on USA in syndication.

Though I’ve probably seen Sidney Poitier in something before, I never before now appreciated his presence. He’s amazing in this role as Virgil Tibbs, exuding quiet confidence in the face of blatant racism. Poitier’s character – an expert homicide detective with the police force in Philadelphia – has clearly earned respect in his position, but at the same time, isn’t surprised by his reception, not even from the very first moment he’s arrested in a case less of mistaken identity than of blame-the-first-black-man-you-see.

It’s so easy to depict racism in the South – Southern-ness itself as a sort of shorthand for racist – and yet Northerners don’t seem to be as willing to face culpability for the legacy of slavery and oppression in this country. Not our problem, we think. Or maybe part of it is shock. Not in the big, dramatic explosions of violence against an uppity black man, because we could do such a thing. It’s the small moments of inhumanity that shock us, jokes and dismissals, because if we really think hard enough, look deeply enough into ourselves, we might see a reminder of something familiar, something we’ve done to diminish the humanity of someone who wasn’t white.

This film was released in 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. In today’s Oscar climate, it’s hard to imagine such a bold decision as to award this movie Best Picture. I wonder how that came about, choosing this movie over the year’s other nominees, which included The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. What was it that made the difference – that famous scene where a white suspect slaps Tibbs and, for the first time in cinematic history, the black man slaps back?

I really liked this film, which is especially notable considering I don’t fully understand the resolution of the crime. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of crime-solver television and reading mystery novels (almost half of the last twenty novels I’ve read have been Agatha Christie’s). I’m always terrible at picking up on clues and figuring out who-dun-it, so I can’t say whether this film succeeds as a solvable mystery, but it does set the appropriate scene for a gritty crime drama with a more serious undercurrent. It makes sense that the pairing of Tibbs and Chief Gillespie inspired a television show, because they share an interesting dynamic and tension. It’s quite a stretch, though, that Tibbs would want to stick around a place like Sparta, Mississippi.

Virgil Tibbs has to be infallible among this group of mediocre small-town cops and backwoods hicks just to stay out of jail. Respect is even harder to come by, and it’s unclear whether he gets it from anyone by film’s end, except maybe the police chief. Strange how so many of the themes in a 50-year-old film ring just as true today.

 

Theme: Race Relations

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I’ll call him Mister Tibbs