I have yet to watch an HD-DVD that didn't look and sound better than its standard-definition counterpart. That is not to say that all HD-DVDs are great; it depends on the condition of a film's original print. But it certainly applies to "The Sting," which I have now owned in five different formats: first on a homemade Beta tape, then on a prerecorded VHS tape, followed by a regular-edition DVD, a Special-Edition DVD, and currently a high-definition DVD. Good things just keep on getting better.
In terms of the movie, I don't think there is much more that I can add that hasn't already been said about one of the most-honored and most-beloved films in Hollywood history, except to tell you how much I enjoyed it again on HD-DVD. "The Sting" was the second and final collaboration of stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford with director George Roy Hill. The resulting action-comedy caper was a smashingly successful attempt to recreate the charm of their first film together, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," made four years earlier. "The Sting" was the highest-grossing money earner of 1973, and it managed to win seven Academy Awards, earning Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Writing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, and Music. Universal was wise in bringing it to HD-DVD, because it actually looks better than I remember it in a movie theater.
In the film, Newman plays Henry Gandorff, a big-time confidence man now down on his luck, and Redford plays Johnny Hooker, Newman's protégé. The camaraderie between the two principal actors is almost as appealing as it was in "Butch Cassidy," although cynics will claim it is just as sweetly cloying and overdone. Nonsense. The two films almost single-handedly established the "buddy-movie" format and their first pairing elevated Redford to true star status (Newman was already there).
Anyway, Robert Shaw plays a mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan, who is the target of Gandorff and Hooker's elaborate scam, basically a complicated con game set in 1936, involving a host of con men all readily participating to bring down Shaw, who has killed one of their own. The plot, somewhat mechanical in its unfolding, is nevertheless full of twists and surprises everywhere, as well as full of fine comic-dramatic acting and great comic-dramatic characters. I say "comic-dramatic" because although the film is essentially a comedy, it has some decidedly serious turns of events along the way, particularly in the beginning and at the end.
The colorful supporting cast includes Charles Durning as a crooked cop, and Ray Walson, Harold Gould, Eileen Brennan, Dana Elcar, and Jack Kehoe as some of Newman and Redford's fellow conspirators. Everyone plays it lightheartedly, so don't expect the drama to become too serious or the portrayals of crooks and gangsters to be too realistic. These are all lovable rogues, more like personalities out of Damon Runyan than anything else.
Also lending to the mood of the piece is the director's extensive use of Scott Joplin piano rags. Never mind that ragtime had already run its course by the 1930s and historically didn't fit the period; the music works, if it is perhaps a little overused. The director's pace is slick, the settings are vivid, the action is deft, and the humor is clever. But if the movie's tepid sequel, "The Sting II," is any measure, it was Newman and Redford who made "The Sting" work. It's no wonder that fans ever since have been asking if they would ever work together again. They are a joy.
The thing is, when Universal first issued the movie on DVD, they presented the picture in a 1.33:1 ratio format only, which made people wonder at the time if the studio had derived it directly from the movie's original 1.37:1 camera ratio (from which they matted the theatrical release to widescreen), or whether they were giving us a pan-and-scan revision. When Universal issued their special edition in widescreen, however, it was clear from the trimming they made to the top and bottom of the screen that the studio had probably transferred the first DVD directly from the camera negative. Be that as it may, the 1.85:1 (rendered here at 1.78:1) ratio we have on the new SD-DVD and on this even-newer HD-DVD is pretty much what viewers saw in movie theaters, and that is what I would guess most home-theater enthusiasts want to see.
The 1080 high-definition video quality is fine, the colors vivid and well separated. There is some graininess in the opening scenes, but it decreases as the film goes on. Definition is crisp, with occasional shots, like those outdoors in broad daylight, having an almost three-dimensional quality to them. Black levels are properly deep, although in darker areas of the screen things get a tad murky. No cause for alarm, though; it's a good transfer.
The English soundtracks come in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and Dolby Digital Plus 2.0. They have come a long way from the old monaural soundtrack available on the VHS tapes and first DVDs. In DD+, one notices an appropriately thumpy bass in the Joplin rags, a midrange well-balanced with the rest of the sonic spectrum, and an especially well-extended high end. The front stereo spread is not too wide, but it suffices; the audio's overall clarity is outstanding; and the transient response is reasonably quick. However, there is not much opportunity to exploit the audio's strengths, nor is there much going on in the surrounds beyond some sporadically noticeable musical ambience. In all, it still does a nice job with the music.
The big extra here is "The Art of the Sting," 2005, a fifty-five-minute documentary on the making of the film, which comes in three parts that the viewer can play separately but which work better as a single unit. "The Perfect Script," "Making a Masterpiece," and "The Legacy" include recent comments by the stars--Newman, Redford, Walston, Durning, Brennan, and Arliss (Shaw having passed away years ago)--plus writer David Ward. Following that, there are text production notes; a theatrical trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
In addition, Universal's HD-DVD contains sixteen scene selections, pop-out menus, an indicator of elapsed time, "My Scenes" bookmarks, and an HD keep case with one of those annoying little latches on the side.
The HD-DVD edition of "The Sting" is probably about as good as gets, with the best picture and sound the film has ever enjoyed in the home and a perfectly acceptable slate of bonus items. In the parlance of the day, everything about it is jake.