Movie Takes

The Exorcist and The Sting

By From the June - September 1974 issue

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WHILE I WAS waiting in a long, cold line to get into The Exorcist, a girl who was with a group of people behind me detached herself from the group and went to sit on a stone stoop.

"Hey, I hope you freeze your tail off," one of her friends said.

"Hey, I hope you get a hemorrhoid," one of her male friends said.

When I got inside the theater and The Exorcist started, the dialogue did not get any better. But the movie was terribly scary.

The Exorcist is a movie which is so bad that one must stand back and watch the full scope of the retreat on which it has led modern moviemaking to fully understand its significance.

Such story as there is concerns the devil's taking up residence in a human body. And not just any old body. The devil enters the body and soul of a lovely, not-yet nubile twelve-year-old girl. She is the daughter of a movie star who is temporarily living in Washington, D.C., in a mansion in Georgetown.

(Why the devil, who could presumably go anywhere, should go to Washington is never explained, which is just as well.)

We know that the girl is inhabited by a devil when she starts urinating on the floor and talking dirty. She also does many other stunts, such as vomiting upon people far across the room and twisting her head all the way around in a circle.

Well, what's a mother to do?

She takes the tyke, whose name is Regan, to a series of doctors who suspect brain damage and put the child and the devil through a series of medical procedures which make anything the devil does look positively beatific by comparison.

Of course they find nothing and neither does a psychiatrist, whom Regan knocks across the room with a single punch. So Regan has to go to the hospital for the insane, where nothing can be done either. Finally someone has the presence of mind to suggest an exorcist from the Holy Mother Church, and then the contest begins.

While all of this has been going on, there is a parallel plot about Damien Karras, S.J., a psychiatric priest, whose job it is to treat priests who think they have lost their "vocation" while he is rapidly losing his.

All of this is about half as exciting as an examination in trigonometry. But the movie is punctuated at regular intervals by individual horror events, such as the highly touted scene in which Regan abuses herself with a crucifix.

That is the problem.

The whole movie is just a backdrop for one horrible event about every seven minutes--a beating, some super-filthy language, vomiting, tons of blood. The movie is just a carnival of scary scenes. It is strung together without any sensible connective tissue whatever. All of the scenes between the horror are pure filler. They are utterly unmemorable and serve only as prelude to each new shock.

Basically, the show has no more plot or development than would a visit to a freak show. The movie would have been just as good (bad) had the theater simply gone dark for a few minutes between each violent scene. That way the contrast between the scary scenes and the vacant interludes would have been even more stark.

The Exorcist is a good movie for those who want to be scared for a few minutes. But for anyone who believes that movies should be about the development of human life and should elucidate anything about the human condition, or even that movies should be clever or witty, The Exorcist is a serious setback. It simply is only a series of gory tableaux. A typical spaghetti western is like Othello in terms of plot by comparison with The Exorcist.

If only there were some way to exorcise garbage like The Exorcist from the filmic system and put it in circus sideshows, where it belongs, the movies would be far better off.

Far more subtly destructive is The Sting. While it does not matter who starred in The Exorcist, it is vitally important to know that for The Sting George Roy Hill directed Robert Redford (Robert Redford! Far out!) and Paul Newman (Wow! Paul Newman!). That is the same team who conquered time and space in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

This time Redford and Newman get together to play two confidence men during the Depression who set out to swindle a gangster out of a large sum of money.

The film is richly and lushly atmospheric. Just seeing Newman and Redford in their wide-brimmed hats and waspwaisted suits is enough to guarantee a very substantial box office. But The Sting gives the audience much more than that.

It has wonderful supporting characters, excellent sets, and a plot which is both its doing and its undoing. The gangster whom Redford and Newman want to con, a blustering Irishman lovingly called "The Big Mick," has killed a friend of Redford. Money is so precious to the Irishman that the con men figure it would hurt him more to take his money than his life.

They somehow get together the money to put on a truly elaborate display for swindling the Big Mick. In the meantime, a hired killer is stalking Robert Redford. As a wonderful bow to the women's rights movement, the torpedo is a woman. The friendship between Redford and Newman grows extremely intense, and it is authentically upsetting when it begins to look as if one is going to sell out the other. At those moments the movie takes on an air of tragedy and starts to tell us something about the limits of friendship and the motive power of fear.

But then comes the cutesie-pie clever ending, with Newman and Redford in each other's arms and everyone in the audience astonished and delighted.

It is at just that point that The Sting plays its swindle on the audience. It is not the human tragedy we had been led to believe. Instead it is just a mockery of human tragedy, people pretending to be pretending to have human failings and weaknesses. At that point, The Sting shows us that what we took to be humans were just actors after all. And with its happy ending and invincible characters, the movie loses its humanity and becomes a big confidence game of its own. It had me convinced that it was the genuine article--a good movie. It turned out to be a theatrical movie made for television.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.