While the world today is transfixed by the impending bailout caused by scammers who put us on a path to economic meltdown, both Paper Moon and The Sting are about scammers who did their best work after it happened.
Can you say Great Depression? Can you say Great Depression II: The Sequel? Anyway, there must have been something in the water out here in Hollywood in 1973 to have triggered two such comedies within six months of each other. Both films give us characters who believe that the system has already proved itself to be so rigged against the average guy that it’s okay to lie, cheat and steal in order to get by. And they make it look good. These guys (and that little girl) would have killed on today’s Wall Street. We’ll give the “Defending Champion” designation to The Sting because it performed better at the box office and start the rumble…
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Despite the above picture, Paper Moon which is based on Joe David Brown’s novel Addie Pray was brought to the screen by writer Alvin Sargent and director Peter Bogdanovich in black-and-white. It’s best known because real-life father-daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal star together and she actually won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (youngest to ever win). It’s about a con job where the two of them team up to sell overpriced Bibles to unwitting widows (by claiming their husbands ordered them just before they died). This is not normally the kind of behavior one cheers on but, the truth is, you do anyway. Also noteworthy was the high-contrast, extreme depth-of-field cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Bogdanovich’s long, uninterrupted takes which lets the fast-paced, snappy dialogue shine without resorting to conventional cutting techniques and the exclusive use of actual period tunes from the personal collection of Rudi Fehr heard only when one of the characters is listening to a radio.
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The Defending Champion
If Paper Moon distinguished itself by its clever use of source material, then The Sting made its mark through an incredibly catchy use of Ragtime music, particularly Scott Joplin’s work. In fact, Marvin Hamlisch’s recreation of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” was and is a dominant film tune. All I know is that my parents really bought no music to speak on, but they bought this album. There you go.
The story of The Sting concerns a couple of Chicago con men in the Great Depression who go to incredible lengths to swindel a rich mark played by Robert Shaw. The film reunited Paul Newman and Robert Redford from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with their director from that film, George Roy Hill. Newman as Henry Gondorf and Redford as John Hooker are at the top of their game in this film and it’s a delight to see how the entire game comes together. The tone is as light and breezy as the movie soundtrack behind it. At its essence, this is a crime movie. We’ve seen these con games become kind of an indie staple. But this one isn’t mean or violent: it’s all about the humor and character.
These are two great films: infectious, fun, full of great actors, directed well and easy to love.
From an acting point of view, well, we knew Redford and Newman were heavy-hitters going in, so the revelation here is that Dad O’Neal and his daughter do such a smashingly great job in their roles. This was before Ryan got his public persona all mixed up in family squabbles and he was terrfic. His daughter was even better. Watching her these days on Rescue Me, it’s hard to imagine it’s even the same person.
The directors each set out a challenge for themselves and met it. Bogdonavich takes us back in time more effectively, but Hill surmounts time. His film was a family night out that people loved and wanted to see more than once.
The distinction is worth noting. Paper Moon actually manages to convey the real poverty and despair of living in the Great Depression. The Sting is like the movie people needed to see during the Great Depression — something to take their minds off their troubles. But don’t think that Paper Moon is grim. It’s funny and heartwarming. Heartwarming is not a word that you apply to The Sting. But it does have one whopper of a “Gotcha” moment that audiences loved.
Man, even as I write this, I’m just not sure. I remember the feelings I had watching them both originally and, on that score, I would probably go for The Sting. The person I was when I saw them first liked The Sting better.
Over the years, as DVDs have allowed me to revisit each film, I found I had the opposite reaction. The Sting wasn’t quite as wonderful and Paper Moon was so much more surprising.
One of our other Smackdown critics, Bob Nowotny, recently did Swing Vote -vs- Paper Moon (which is a review you should read anyway). I asked Bob what he thought about this one. He wrote me:
“Paper Moon” is the more ambitious and cinematic film
helmed by a talented director who was at the top of his game. All
aspects of the cinematic art were beautifully blended in a way that
thoughtfully examines family relationships by slyly questioning the
degree to which we will do anything to take care of our own. Simply
put, this film was, is, and will continue to be a classic. And, of course, THE STING has the terrific “gotcha” that made it an audience favorite. Having said this, I don’t think it was as well crafted cinematically — I’m talking about Laszlo Kovacs gorgeous B&W cinematography, Bogdanovich’s non-conventional editing style, the exclusive use of actual source music and the overall fabulous production design, etc. So, as someone who produces films (every once in awhile) and thus has a real appreciation for these kinds of things, I would vote for “Paper Moon.”
I can’t disagree. Bob’s got this one nailed, too. The winner is Paper Moon.