Watching Old Movies and Asking Questions

I watched The Sting the other night, not for the first time, but for the first time in a long time.

It’s a 50-year-old movie set in 1936, but given the power of the myths and stories that it’s built on, it doesn’t feel particularly dated, unlike a number of other movies that I enjoyed in the 1970s but find unwatchable now.

I always did like Paul Newman/Robert Redford movies, though I tried to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid awhile back and found I couldn’t get into it. I’m not sure why The Sting still works for me and Butch Cassidy doesn’t, since they’re similar stories based on Anglo American mythology. Might just be that I can handle gangster stories better than westerns.

There are some reasonable criticisms of it. Robert Earl Jones (James Earl Jones’s father) plays a magical Negro role — the mentor to Redford’s young white grifter. He is, of course, murdered early on, setting up the reason for the revenge sting.

He and his family and one other guy are the only Black people in the movie, but they are portrayed well and treated with respect by the good guy white people (all grifters). It could have been worse.

Still, this is very much a movie about white men. There are a couple of women in key supporting roles, but this movie does not pass the Bechdel Test. That said, and in spite of the fact that one of those women is a madam as well as Newman’s lover, it doesn’t feel directly misogynist. Women are just mostly irrelevant in this world, even women who themselves are grifters.

I enjoyed myself, but since I wasn’t sitting on the edge of my seat — it’s a movie with a lot of twists and surprises, but I knew what they all were — I found myself thinking a lot about the underlying mythology and the various stories we’ve all been fed that purport to tell us our history.

To start with, this is a story about grifters with a heart of gold. After suffering through a grifter in the White House for four years, I’m not as inclined to believe good things about grifters as I used to be.

It’s set in Chicago — with nods to New York City — and the images convey the gritty urban setting we associate with gangster stories.

And, indeed, the images of people on the streets, struggling to get by, resonate quite a lot for me since I live in a city where a lot of people are living in tents on the sidewalk.

Of course, while I look at that and think about the failure of our politics, both in the 30s and now, some people look at it and build up the image in their mind of hellhole cities — part of the dishonest politics of today.

The good guy grifters in this movie put together a con to nail a very nasty gangster — the kind with minions and hit men at his disposal. I am a sucker for this kind of story, the kind where scrappy people go after bad guys, but the truth is that grifters tend to aim for foolish people, not dangerous ones.

And of course, bankrupting the bad guy — and I’m not sure that taking him for $500 grand would have bankrupted him even in the 1930s — doesn’t change anything, doesn’t fix the corrupt system that set all this in motion.

The only cop in the movie is a crook. Actually, that’s pretty accurate, near as I can tell. The kind of gangsterism this movie is about was built on dishonest policing. It had roots in Prohibition.

We all know this story. We believe it. We even relish it.

What we don’t do is ask ourselves why this is the history of our country. Why is it that gangsters have this kind of power? Why are the police so dishonest, picking on the little people who are just struggling to get by? Why does someone born in a poor neighborhood have so few options outside of small-time crime?

Why do we romanticize these stories about grifters fighting gangsters instead of stories about, say, union organizers fighting corporate overlords? (I mean, I’ve seen a movie or two about that, but the only one that sticks in my head is Matewan by John Sayles, and it was not a blockbuster.)

I grew up on western myths — not just on TV, but from my family history and growing up in Texas. That may be why I can’t watch westerns anymore. The real history has caught up with me and keeps me from suspending reality for the length of a two-hour movie.

But all those myths — the gangster stories, the westerns, not to mention the ones glorifying the Confederate traitors (also my ancestors) — why are those the ones we choose to keep telling?

There are other stories. Time to find them.

2 thoughts on “Watching Old Movies and Asking Questions

  1. I watched it again just a few weeks ago, too. I was expecting to dislike it more. I think the bottom line is that it’s a charming film, filmed with charming music and charming acting and… it does address any deep questions or solve any problems. This makes it comfortable until that moment hen you reminded us of Trump. That was the moment I realised that charm can support a whole heap of problematic culture.

  2. The fundamental corruption in our society that underlies it bothers me the most. We glorify that so much. I’m beginning to think that one reason we don’t seem to be able to do anything about some of our deep problems is that we’ve got all these nice sweet stories about outlaws with a heart of gold outwitting the nasty powerful criminals (on both sides of the law).

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