The Sting debuts on Blu-ray this week with some significant picture quality problems for viewers with the larger displays. The movie itself is an undisputed classic, an example of great casting and storytelling, surrounding Paul Newman and Robert Redford with a wonderful group of character actors who have as much fun conning the audience as they do each other. The new Blu-ray ports over the extras from the 2005 DVD and joins them with three of the current 100th Anniversary featurettes. Viewers with smaller displays will be able to enjoy the movie, but this will not be the case for those with the bigger screens.
Length: 2 hrs 10 mins
Genre: Period Confidence Man Comic Thriller
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
BD Resolution and Codec: 1080p, AVC @ 30 mbps
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.0 up to 3.8 mbps) French DTS 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Film Rating: PG (Language, Brief Violence)
Release Date: June 5, 2012
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning
Screenplay by: David S. Ward
Directed by: George Roy Hill
Before we get into the body of the review, I need to first put in a word of thanks to Joe Kane for allowing me to screen this Blu-ray on his optimal projector and screen. His counsel and advice about proper calibration and color values has been extremely helpful. I strongly recommend readers to please visit Joe’s website at www.videoessentials.com and look over the materials. I also want to put in a word of thanks to Robert Harris, whose kind advice has been a primary example of why I joined this forum in the first place. I am grateful to both men for helping me deal with what has been a really difficult title to review. The reason I’m taking this time is that this isn’t just a matter of a good or bad transfer, or whether I can recommend the title. The issue here is that there is a serious problem with the picture on the Blu-ray, which does not become evident until you get into a larger display. And the larger the display is, the worse the problem gets. If the purpose of making this Blu-ray was just to make a nice disc for people with smaller or mid-range HDTVs, then this will be fine. If the purpose was to make a future-proofed digital record that could be preserved and enjoyed for the next generation, then this release must be viewed as a failure. That’s a hard statement to write but, having seen the evidence, it’s a necessary one.
Film Rating: 5/5
The Sting should need no introduction to cinema fans. It’s a pure-bred classic, starring two of Hollywood’s most popular and charismatic actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, in a caper comedy that maximizes its period setting and feel in a way that invites the audience into the game rather than shutting them out. If you’ve already seen the film, you already know this. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll only briefly lay out the setup. Johnny Hooker (Redford), a low-level conman in 1936 Illinois, recruits veteran con artist Henry Gondorff (Newman) to create an elaborate scam on mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). The movie goes through a fair number of twists and turns, some more serious than others, but the whole enterprise is done with such a wink and a grin that it’s fairly irresistible entertainment. The movie has a wonderful period look and makes terrific use of Scott Joplin ragtime piano music that may be anachronistic but still FEELS absolutely right in this movie. And this is not to mention the supporting cast, which is a joy in itself – everyone shines, from Charles Durning as the local cop muscle to Ray Walston as a great deadpan conman to Dimitra Arliss’ wonderfully restrained performance as a local girl who catches Hooker’s interest. If we were only talking about the quality of the movie itself, this would be a no-brainer as a purchase. Alas, we are not.
The Sting is being released on Blu-ray this week as the latest of Universal’s 100th Anniversary Collector’s Series releases. The Collector’s Series Blu holds a new 1080p AVC transfer and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, along with the special features from the 2005 Legacy Edition DVD release, as well as three of the 100th Anniversary featurettes from this year. The Blu-ray package includes the DVD copy of the movie on a second disc and a 44 page booklet. Instructions for downloading a digital copy are also included in the package. As a minor note, this is another Blu-ray from Universal this year not to have a top menu. When you start the disc, the movie starts up, and you’ll need to access any functionality via the pop-up menu.
VIDEO QUALITY 2/5
The Sting is presented in a 1080p AVC 1.85:1 picture that has already been discussed by Robert Harris in his A Few Words About… column, and I’m going to embellish the details further here. The picture here is from a new transfer, and it shows in an improved color range from what had previously been seen on the HD-DVD release. The problem here is something that will not have a great impact on the viewer until we get into the larger HDTVs. If watched on say, a 32” or a 40” monitor, this Blu-ray will look great. But as you get into larger and larger monitors, the truth about the transfer becomes evident. To roughly paraphrase Al Pacino in The Insider – the more truth it tells, the worse it gets.
What happened here looks like a digital manipulation of the image to remove grain in some areas or to clean up the image in others. On a smaller monitor, which is what I suspect the transfer people were using, this will actually look very good. (The manipulation was not done as a blanket idea of just turning up the dial and walking away. This was done on a shot-by-shot basis. And we can see clear evidence of this in the transfer, as I’ll get into here.) However, on a larger monitor – say 90”, the image goes soft and loses cohesion. Wider shots don’t seem to have a clear area of focus – for example, the wider shots of the alley where Hooker and Luther con the bagman, or the master shot of the gambling parlor Hooker visits with Crystal. Dupe shots, such as the character titles at the beginning, have good focus on the credits but the film footage in the background is way too soft. But this isn’t consistent. When the shots are close-ups, like an OTS to Luther from Hooker, or the mutual closer shots of Hooker and Luther at his apartment, the shots are sharp and detailed, without the softness. Trying to watch a movie like this is maddening – you go from a soft master to a sharp close-up to a soft mid-shot, and back. I have a rule about this kind of thing – I can tolerate a lot of picture issues, so long as I am not jarred from the movie itself. This is why I enjoyed the transfer of Pillow Talk even though the grain levels were lower – because it was a transparent experience where I could simply watch the movie and enjoy what was on the screen. In the case of The Sting, watching on a 90”+ screen, I wasn’t only jarred – I was practically ejected from my seat, which is a profoundly depressing experience.
To be fair, there are some shots where there are definitely issues with the source material. The opening tracking shot that establishes the street scene and takes us to the stairs and the feet shows not only softness but something on the lens itself obscuring part of the picture. An early shot of Hooker arriving at a burlesque house is quite soft all the way through. But there’s not that much of that problem – and we should remember this is a movie that earned Robert Surtees an Academy Award Nomination for Cinematography.
To double-check the quality, I was given the chance to view the HD-DVD of the same movie, and found the earlier HD transfer to have more noticeable grain but a much more consistent picture quality without the softness issues. (The two shots I mentioned above notwithstanding – they will be soft in whatever iteration of the movie you see.) The HD-DVD doesn’t have the color range of the Blu-ray but it’s easier to watch – simply because the picture isn’t constantly varying wildly from focus levels.
As a third check, I watched the Blu-ray in its entirety on my own 65” Panasonic. At 65”, the softness issues are far less noticeable. There are some signs of digital work, particularly within the patterns of some of the period suit coats, but this is simply a smaller reflection of the softness that wrecks havoc with the larger monitors. If you look closely at the 65” screen, you can detect the softness in many of the shots, but you’d have to be looking for the problem – it certainly doesn’t take you out of the movie. This tells us that for most viewers – people with monitors of up to 65”, the problem I am discussing will not be a significant factor. And that’s probably taking us up into over 80-85% of viewers, if not higher. An argument can be made that this transfer will look great as a digital copy seen on an iPad or an iPhone. I’m not even going to touch that – other than to see that I seriously doubt that people who believe that to be a good idea are spending much time on this forum…
The thing is, if you’re picking up this Blu-ray, and if you’ve invested in a large home theater setup, you have every right to expect that the picture quality will be even better with a larger screen. A 1080p transfer should not be having a large quality drop like this. I have always thought of HD transfers as working better on the larger screens – the bigger you go, the better it should look and the more you should see. An HD transfer that works in reverse is troubling. A more disturbing issue arises, in that these new transfers are supposed to be the way the movies are preserved for the long term, for the way that audiences may enjoy them in the future on, one can only wonder, 4K monitors or higher, in better home theater environments. A transfer like the one used for The Sting will only look worse in that situation. And that is no way to honor the legacy of the movie or to preserve it for posterity.
AUDIO QUALITY 4/5
The Sting is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English that works very well to present the dialogue and the music with great clarity. Marvin Hamlisch’s Oscar-winning score adaption of the Joplin rags comes through all the channels, including a good use of the subwoofer for the bass lines. A French DTS 2.0 Mono mix is also included. I should note that the English 2.0 mix from the 2005 DVD is not included here, or on the DVD in the packaging.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3/5
The Blu-ray Collector’s Series presentation of The Sting comes with a trailer and the Making-of documentary from the 2005 Legacy Edition DVD, coupled with three of the 100th Anniversary featurettes from earlier this year. The DVD edition, containing the same bonus features minus the 100th Anniversary pieces, is included in the packaging. The packaging also includes a 44 page booklet and instructions for downloading a digital copy.
My Scenes – The usual Blu-ray bookmarking feature is available here, allowing the viewer to set their own bookmarks throughout the film.
The Art of The Sting (56:14, 480p, Full Frame) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON DVD & BLU-RAY) – This three-part documentary is carried over from the 2005 DVD. It’s a fairly thorough piece, including interview material with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Dimitra Arliss, Charles Durning, Marvin Hamlisch and David S. Ward. There’s a pretty full accounting of how Ward’s script wound up with director George Roy Hill and how the cast was assembled. Newman in particular has a great time recounting how much fun he had playing a key card game scene with Robert Shaw, and later in a practical joke war with Hill at the studio. Walston is full of stories about how Hill ran the set and how the cast worked together. Brennan and Arliss both contribute good stories about how the set operated and how Hill worked with them. The last section of the documentary is more of a fond look back at Hill, with Brennan becoming a bit more emotional at that time. Based on the participants and their apparent ages when interviewed, I strongly suspect that this documentary was actually assembled in the late 1990s for a potential Signature Laserdisc Edition that never happened once the DVD idea took over. The interviews mention Hill in the present tense, albeit being quite ill and no longer in the business, where a documentary assembled in 2005 would have to have mentioned the passing of Hill and Walston.
Theatrical Trailer (2:13, 480p, Non-Anamorphic Letterbox) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON DVD & BLU-RAY) – The re-release theatrical trailer (which spoils a good part of the plot) is included here as one additional extra not found on the 2005 DVD. The picture quality is not that great – looking very dark and murky.
100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:13, 1080p) (BLU-RAY ONLY) – This high definition featurette is repeated from the To Kill A Mockingbird and All Quiet on the Western Front Blu-rays.
100 Years of Universal: The ‘70s (11:01, 1080p) (BLU-RAY ONLY) – This high definition featurette showcases selected Universal releases of the 1970s, discussing the time as one of great freedom for filmmakers. The Sting, Jaws, Smokey and the Bandit, and inexplicably, The Jerk, are all provided as examples here. Of course, the featurette leaves out other elements of the 1970s, such as the three sequels made from Airport, and the sequels that stemmed from Jaws. More offbeat fare like Silent Running aren’t even included in the discussion. Nor is the whole era of Sensurround, which Universal used to spice up the subwoofer effect for movies like Earthquake, Rollercoaster and even the theatrical release of Battlestar Galactica. The 70s era of Universal television, which kept the lot running at past full capacity for years is also not discussed.
100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25, 1080p) (BLU-RAY ONLY)– This high definition featurette gets into the backlot itself and the various famous stages and settings. The ever-present Studio Tour is mentioned in passing – one of the interesting parts of shooting at the Universal Backlot is that you will regularly see Tour trams roll by your set. The famous “Phantom” soundstage where the set of the opera still stands is shown. The Bates House is also shown, including some information on how it originally only had the two sides you saw in Psycho but was later augmented to finish it off. Selected areas of the backlot exteriors are also shown, including the lake, the Western area, a Roman forum built for Spartacus and a pass by the other streets. (For the record, the European Street is a very interesting construct on the side of a hill which both looks realistic and is fairly simple to film.) But, of course, no mention is made about the fact that since the late 60s, it hasn’t been the movies but rather the TV shows that kept the lot constantly humming. Speaking from the experience of my crew, I can attest that during the 1970s, there was a heck of a lot of TV work and feature work keeping that lot running like a factory. In many cases, people actually worked for the LOT, and not for individual productions. Construction workers would report to the mill and then be sent off to the various stages to do work assignments for the different TV shows, reporting back to the foremen when done with each task. This is a part of the business we’ve lost over the years, and it’s one that probably hasn’t been documented that well. It’s the same sort of idea mentioned in the Wizard of Oz commentary by Margaret O’Brien – how in the 1930s, actors would be under contract to a studio and would report to the Makeup Building at their calltime in the early morning before being dispatched to whatever stage their current movie was filming…
SD DVD – (1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen) – As a bonus, the digibook also contains a standard definition DVD of this new transfer. The sound is presented in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (at 448 kbps) and a French Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. The DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes from the 2005 DVD are not included here, presumably to make room for the “Making of” documentary. The documentary is included on the disc, where in the 2005 edition, it was put on a 2nd disc. The trailer is also included on the disc.
Booklet – A 44-page commemorative booklet is included in the packaging. There’s a nice introduction by Leonard Maltin, followed by a few pages about the cast, some material on George Roy Hill, Marvin Hamlisch and costume designer Edith Head. A couple of pages of an early draft script with Hill’s notes are included, along with poster and ad art for various releases and awards campaigns, and some fun telegrams and correspondence to and from Hill. The booklet actually gets in a mention of David Maurer’s book The Big Con, a major source for the material in the script (and the subject of a lawsuit settled a few years after The Sting was released.) Not surprisingly, no mention is made of the disastrous sequel attempted in the 1980s.
Digital Copy – Instructions are included in the packaging for downloading a digital copy of the movie to your laptop or portable device. The instructions include a deadline of December 31, 2013 for activation.
The movie and special features are subtitled in English, Spanish and French. The usual chapter and pop-up menus are present. As I said, there is no Main Menu, but you can access everything you need via the pop-up option. I will again note that this tendency is a bit annoying, in that you have no option but to start the movie right away. You can pause it in its first moments, but I’m not a fan of the idea of being thrown right in. I’m sure that there are many readers who will have the opposite impression and would rather get on with it, but this is not a trend of which I’m a fan.
IN THE END...
The Sting is a classic caper comedy thriller that continues to entertain today, now nearly 40 years after its release. I wish I could recommend this title for purchase, particularly given the work that has been going into this year’s crop of Universal catalogue material. But I cannot – simply because the transfer on this title has the issues I have discussed above, and because that transfer should not be used for the future life of this movie on 4K and beyond. Viewers with monitors of up to 65” will likely have very few problems, but viewers with the larger displays will have some serious questions.
June 4, 2012.
Equipment now in use in this Home Theater:
Panasonic 65” VT30 Plasma 3D HDTV – set at “THX” picture mode
Denon AVR-3311Cl Receiver
Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray Player
PS3 Player (used for calculation of bitrates for picture and sound)
5 Mirage Speakers (Front Left/Center/Right, Surround Back Left/Right)
2 Sony Speakers (Surround Left/Right – middle of room)
Martin Logan Dynamo 700 Subwoofer