David S. Ward got the idea for this movie when he was working on the script for Steelyard Blues (1973), which includes a pickpocketing scene. Researching this, Ward found himself reading about con artists. Ward had shown the other screenplay to Tony Bill, so he now gave him an outline of this story. Bill liked it immediately and brought in Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; the three then produced both films. Ward wrote the script with Robert Redford in mind as Hooker, but Redford initially turned the part down. Even after changing his mind, he didn't expect the movie to be a hit. Robert Shaw got the part of Lonnegan only after Richard Boone and another actor had declined it. George Roy Hill saw the screenplay by accident and asked for the director's job. He routinely showed his projects to Paul Newman, and Newman was pleased to join this one. Hill wanted to film the picture on location, but Henry Bumstead was adamant that it would be much too hard to get the period appearance right; for example, things like lane markings on the streets. In the end, the only location shooting was a few days' worth in Chicago and Los Angeles; most of the exteriors were filmed on Universal's back lot.
The movie was filmed on the backlot of Universal studios and the diner in which Hooker meets Lonnegan is the same diner interior used in Back to the Future (1985) in which Marty McFly first meets his father and calls Doc Brown.
The rigged Black 22 at the roulette wheel, where Hooker loses the bet at the beginning of the movie, is the same spot that Rick Blaine uses for both Captain Renault and the Bulgarian couple to set them up to win in Casablanca.
Technical advisor John Scarne doubled for Paul Newman's hands in the film. It was he who did all of the card manipulations and deck switching in the film. It would have taken a long time for someone to be able to master all of the card routines shown. In the film, we see Scarne's hands disappear off screen; a clever invisible cut hides the switch; Newman's hands return, and the camera pans up to his face.
Just prior to Elizabeth Taylor's presentation of the Best Picture Oscar for this film, the streaker Robert Opel darted across the stage as David Niven was introducing her. It was this incident (among others) that inspired singer Ray Stevens to write the song "The Streak" that went to the top of the US charts the month after the awards. Incidentally, Opel was found murdered in his San Francisco gallery in 1979.
The movie is based on the real-life exploits of grifter brothers Charley and Fred Gondorf, whose experiences culminated in a scam similar to the one shown in the film, known in 1914 as "the wire" or "the big store". Unlike the movie, however, the actual "mark" was more than happy to testify against Charley Gondorf, the front man of the scam, and he spent time in Sing Sing, as did his younger brother a year later for running another scam. Both served a few years and were released. As late as 1924, when Charley was 65 and Fred 60, they were still active, and running new scams.
Robert Shaw injured his knee and incorporated the resulting limp into his performance. According to "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again" by Julia Phillips, Shaw split all the ligaments in his knee after slipping on a wet handball court at the Beverly Hills Hotel a week before filming started. He had to wear a leg brace during production which was kept hidden under the wide 1930s style trousers he wore.
The score of the film consists of Scott Joplin ragtime compositions, which were composed between 1900 and 1910. Although The Sting (1973) helped bring Joplin's ragtime back into American popular culture, they actually predate the period of the story by 25 years.
The Chicago Elevated stop used in the sequence where Snyder chases Hooker is the 43rd Street station. There is still a stop there, on the current Green Line, but the building shown in the film was destroyed by a fire in 1974 and replaced in 1976. Though shown painted white in the movie, the old station probably would still have been the original natural brick color in the 1930s. The A/B signs on the platform are also an anachronism: skip stop service was not introduced until after WWII.
Edith Head won her 8th and final Best Costume Design Academy Award for this film. "Just imagine," she said during her acceptance speech. "Dressing the two handsomest men in the world and then getting this."
Julia Phillips, one of the film's producers, became the first woman to be nominated for and to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, when The Sting (1973) won the award that night. It became a historical milestone for acceptance of women doing greater positions in film productions, than just merely acting roles or others.
According to costume designer Edith Head's biography, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, both of whom have blue eyes, wanted their shirts to be blue in order to emphasize their eyes. As a compromise, Head outfitted each man in blue in alternating scenes. Unfortunately, although it is an attractive story, it's a complete myth. A simple viewing of the film reveals the truth. Newman is never outfitted in blue in the whole film. He is first seen in a white vest in the brothel scenes. On the train he alternates between a brown striped shirt and a white one, which may or may not be a continuity error. From then until the end of the film, he is seen exclusively in a dinner jacket and white shirt. Redford wears a blue shirt on a couple of occasions, but even this doesn't really fit with this oddly persistent legend.
Characters Henry Gondorff, JJ Singleton, Kid Twist and Eddie Niles have names similar to genuine con artists of the first quarter of the twentieth century, whose exploits are detailed in Maurer's "The Big Con".
During filming Robert Redford was recovering from a broken right thumb sustained in a skiing accident a few months before, and was supposed to be wearing a cast. Numerous times in the film he uses his right hand oddly to avoid using the thumb, such as holding a fork with four fingers but not the thumb.
The meaning and relevance of a "Sting" is that it can be defined as a confidence trick, a scam, confidence game or a con. The use of the word sting to mean this is a metaphor based on the hurt or pain of a bee sting doubling for that of being a victim of a swindle.