Magazine article American Cinematographer

Academy Award-Winning Art Direction for "The Sting"

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Academy Award-Winning Art Direction for "The Sting"

Article excerpt

An "Oscar" for the wonderful visual mood of the 1930's created by a combination of studio sets, backlot exteriors and actual locations

The fascinating and elaborate anatomy of the confidence game, as revealed in "THE STING", a Zanuck/Brown Presentation and a Bill/Phillips Production for Universal, took off like a rocket at the box office and ended up with 10 Academy nominations in a tie with "THE EXORCIST".

Part of the film's extraordinary charisma can be attributed to its faithful reproduction of the Chicago of 1936, and the major credit for that achievement must go to Oscar-winning Art Director Henry Bumstead.. Working closely with three-time Academy Award-winning Director of Photography Robert Surtees, ASC, Bumstead blended studio interiors with backlot exteriors to match actual locations in and around Los Angeles and Chicago to re-create an especially colorful atmosphere of by-gone Americana.

Bumstead made several location-scouting trips to Chicago's seamier sides, only to find that Mayor Daley's crimefighting efforts, e.g. the brilliant sodium vapor street lights, updated many city streets too radically for their use in a period film. Scrupulous scouting yielded a series of seedy alleys and side streets unmarred by modern bric-a-brac and these were used for a chase sequence with Robert Bedford as the hunted.

Chicago, however, is still rich in rails. To represent the train terminals of three different cities (Joliet, New York and Chicago), the company utilized Chicago's Union Station, the Penn Central Freight Yards, the USaIIe Street Station and the Illinois Central Station.

And the train look didn't end there. Universal's backlot bristled with an ominous gray superstructure, 20 feet high and 250 feet long. The "el," or the Chicago elevated (a construction originally built there for "GAILY, GAILY") served as an important background for much street action. Moving trains of the period were matted in to rattle across the "el" through the wizardry of special effects.

Several local locations provided settings that Art Director Bumstead found unrivalled. The Green hotel, built in 1894, is probably Pasadena's oldest building, a cherished heirloom and landmark. One of its plush parlor rooms was dressed to appear as an exclusive New York gambling house. Pasadena also lent "THE STING" the prestigious Commercial and Savings Bank. The seven-story structure, dated to 1912, contains a teller's lobby rich in Italian marble-a perfect look for a cosmopolitan bank of Chicago's prime.

Down in San Pedro, the old Koppel Plant, a storage building for grain shipments, served as an FBI hideout. Its dramatic exterior, flanked by silos, provided an ominous visual to enhance the mood of "THE STING".

The wonderful period carousel at the Santa Monica Pier, another old landmark whose days seem to be numbered and which was recently threatened by fire, was used for key scenes, its exterior weathered for the filming. The carousel operation served as a front for the brothel where the con artist played by Paul Newman was holed up.

In the following interview for American Cinematographer, Henry Bumstead discusses some of the unique problems encountered during the course of his assignment as Art Director on "THE STING":

QUESTION: Had you ever worked with Robert Surtees before "THE STING"?

BUMSTEAD: No. This was the first time, but I've always wanted to work with him. He's a really wonderful cinematographer. I was very happy when I heard that he'd been assigned to the picture, because I've admired his work for a long time. Coincidentally, I've worked with his son, Bruce Surtees, on two Clint Eastwood pictures: "JOE KID" and "HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER", which was made up at Lake Mono in the High Sierras.

QUESTION: Creating on the screen the atmosphere of a bygone period of American history is never easy. What would you say were your major challenges in executing the art direction for "THE STING"? …

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