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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
George Roy Hill wanted the film to be a stylish one that accurately reflected the feel not only of 1930s Chicago but also of old Hollywood films from the era as well. Hill along with Art Director Henry Bumstead and Cinematographer Robert Surtees devised a colour scheme of muted browns and maroons for the film and a lighting design that combined old-fashioned 1930s-style lighting with some modern tricks of the trade to get the visual look he wanted. Edith Head designed a wardrobe of snappy period costumes for the cast, and artist Jaroslav Gebr created inter-title cards to be used between each section of the film that were reminiscent of the golden glow of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations - a popular publication of the 1930s.
As he researched old Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s for inspiration, George Roy Hill noticed that most of them didn't use a lot of extras in the scenes. "For instance," said Hill as quoted in Andrew Horton's 1984 book The Films of George Roy Hill, "...no extras would be used in street scenes in those films: Jimmy Cagney would be shot down and die in an empty street. So I deliberately avoided using extras."
George Roy Hill made choices that would utilize certain stylistic techniques of the 1930s. For instance, he decided to use an old-fashioned Universal logo from the period at the beginning of the film, immediately evoking a nostalgic tone for The Sting. Hill also employed devices such as editing wipes to transition between scenes and iris shots - all stylistic choices that would help place the audience in a 1930s time frame.
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.
George Roy Hill tried to find locations in Chicago and Los Angeles that had not been touched by modern civilization to use for some of the scenes. In Los Angeles, locations such as The Green Hotel, the Santa Monica Carousel and The Biltmore Hotel were all used. Chicago's Union Station was also used along with LaSalle Street Station. Producer Tony Bill also contributed to the film's authentic look by helping to round up a number of period automobiles in the Southern California area.
Having to shoot location scenes with Paul Newman and Robert Redford proved challenging at times. Crowds would inevitably gather and reactions would be akin to the arrival of The Beatles in 1964. "I used to go see Sinatra at the Paramount in New York when I was a kid," said one observer as the cast and crew shot a scene at Chicago's Union Station, "and, my God, I never saw anything like that. I bet the temperature in here went up 22 degrees when Newman walked in." Added another onlooker at the time, "I never saw anything like it, either. Myself, I think we ought to rope off that centre aisle and never let anybody use it again." Newman and Redford made a point of not taking such attention seriously and concentrated on the work in hand.
When George Roy Hill first approached composer Marvin Hamlisch to adapt Scott Joplin's music for the score, Hamlisch was reluctant. He was a composer of original music, after all, and not in the habit of adapting other musicians' work. "I agreed to see a first cut in the screening room," said Hamlisch in his 1992 autobiography The Way I Was. "I quickly realized that this was one of the best pictures I had seen in years...David Ward had written a witty, stylish script, George Roy Hill had directed it faultlessly, and Newman and Redford were the best screen couple in years...One of the things that drew me to The Sting was that George had been shrewd enough to leave little oases without dialogue for the music. He built montages and sequences into the picture for this purpose. Whenever I see patches in a film that are talkless, I'm in heaven." Hamlisch agreed to take on the job.
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.
In a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, Robert Shaw commented on the attention Paul Newman was getting from onlookers, "...I did notice that it was Newman everywhere we passed through. I mean, I picked up about two fans on the way, and those two ladies guided me back to the station, and with great joy they introduced me to people along the way...and none of these absolute layers of girls knew who the hell I was. But they all recognized Newman, to be sure. I mean, everybody would come up and kind of swoon over him, but they didn't in Redford's case, not at all."
In the final chapter board drawing 'The Sting', the horse shown on the lead is wearing blinkers with blue and white blocks. Those were the colors Secretariat wore while winning the Triple Crown in 1973, the same year as The Sting.
Rob Cohen (later director of action films such as The Fast and the Furious (2001)) years later told of how he found the script in the slush pile when working as a reader for Mike Medavoy, a future studio head, but then an agent. He wrote in his coverage that it was "the great American screenplay and ... will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film." Medavoy said that he would try to sell it on that recommendation, promising to fire Cohen if he could not. Universal bought it that afternoon, and Cohen keeps the coverage framed on the wall of his office.