Watch the classic 1973 film The Sting and if you’re from Pasadena, you will probably see some oddly familiar locations. That’s because while it takes place in Chicago and Joliet, Illinois, much of George Roy Hill’s film was shot in Old Town Pasadena. Set in 1936, the film centers around an elaborate confidence game orchestrated by two grifters (Robert Redford and Paul Newman), who seek to swindle a malevolent Irish mobster (Robert Shaw), in retaliation for the murder of Redford’s former partner (Robert Earl Jones).
While Hill wanted to shoot the film on location in Chicago, the production designer, Henry Bumstead, felt it would be too difficult and expensive to recreate the period detail. Instead, Bumstead, a San Marino resident, found an ideal substitute in Old Town’s decayed business district. In late 1972, when pre-production on the film began, many of the buildings dated from the early 20th century.
Most well preserved were Old Town’s iconic alleyways, some of which still had cobblestone drainageways. Con men themselves might have felt at home in the neighborhood, which was at the time a seedy meeting place for prostitutes and drunks, rife with fleabag hotels, adult bookstores and an adult movie theater.
From these disreputable surroundings, Bumstead and location scouts were able to find side streets and alleys that perfectly captured the era. Set decoration was meticulous; imitation brickwork and advertisements were painted onto walls and buildings; modern-looking fire hydrants were covered with mock trash cans; Chicago-style “dry barrel” hydrants were added; fake storefronts were built; and a wind machine was used to blow prop trash through certain shots to mimic the Windy City. Vintage cars and costumed extras completed the picture.
Among locations eventually used were Union Street, Mercantile Place, Morgan Alley, Kendall Alley, Smith Alley, Miller Alley, Hugus Alley and a segment of the former railroad tracks between Colorado Boulevard and Green Street. More elegant locales were utilized as well; the interior of the stately Castle Green doubled as a ritzy New York casino and a fancy Chicago hotel.
Not everything could be shot in Pasadena, of course; additional locations included Chicago’s Union and LaSalle train stations, 43rd Street El station and Penn Central freight yards — though this comprised only three days of the twelve-week shoot. The crew also shot at the Santa Monica Pier, the Biltmore Hotel and the Universal backlot. Filming lasted from January to April 1973, and the film was released on December 25, 1973. It went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Art Direction.
Though Old Town has changed considerably since 1973, certain locations can still be discerned through subtle architectural clues. Hugus Alley, where one of the climactic scenes was shot, retains the cobblestone drainageway seen in the film; while the side of a building at 101 E. Green Street is still recognizable, though it has been repainted and its windows lengthened. Several other original buildings remain, though they have been renovated.
Pasadena has starred in countless films over the years (even, surprisingly, in Gone With the Wind), but few films have made such extensive or clever use of the city as The Sting. Additional stills from the film and photos of the locations as they appear today can be found at History Buff’s new Flickr account.
Author’s note: Very special thanks to Duncan Baird, who served as fire prevention inspector on the film, and helped me track down the original locations and verify production details for this article.
A link to the theatrical trailer for the film.