"The Sting" (1973)
We back y'all! "The Sting" reunited the dream team from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"—Redford, Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill. Even the advertising for the movie winked at the fact that the two were back again, playing lawless criminals in a different period film. "This time, they might get away with it," a trailer for the movie's post-Oscar-spree re-release touted, referring to the free-frame final moment of 'Butch Cassidy.' Taking place in 1936 Chicago, Redford plays a young con man who seeks out the guidance and leadership of Newman after double-crossing a powerful gangster (played by Robert Shaw) has left his partner murdered and him on the run for his life. The movie's poster is styled after the cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine as are the old-fashioned title cards, which pop up throughout the movie (they say stuff like "The Set-Up," "The Hook" and, of course, "The Sting"). Redford plays a con artist who's also addicted to gambling ("He's a sucker for lady luck and a sap for lady love," according to the advertising for the movie), and he brings that charmingly wise-ass prickliness to the role, his eyes alight with electric curiosity. Everyone loved this movie (it won a whopping seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for George Roy Hill), and they loved Redford in it (he received a nomination for his acting but lost to Jack Lemmon in "Save the Tiger," a movie nobody talks about anymore). It was so successful, largely thanks to Redford's charisma, that Universal planned both a sequel and a prequel to the movie. Neither star returned for 1983's "The Sting II." The film flopped. The prequel was scrapped.
"The Great Gatsby" (1974)
Some actors inhabit certain roles but Robert Redford, with his irresistible handsomeness, mannered stoicism and occasionally rakish personality, seemed to have been born to play Jay Gatsby in the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby." The movie is a bit dusty and dated by today's standards, with Jack Clayton's direction occasionally approaching "moss-covered," but Francis Ford Coppola's script is tightly constructed and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway remain delightfully whacked-out casting choices, even if their success in their respective roles varies. Still, this is totally Redford's movie. For one thing, he's never looked prettier. Outfitted in period clothes that appear more like a second skin than a costume choice, the movie is like one of Gatsby's many houseguests: you feel entangled by his gaze, almost hypnotized. There's a great moment when Farrow and Redford reach out to touch hands, and it's such a heightened, highly romanticized moment that it feels like the screen could melt away and all that would be left are the two of them. But mostly him. Filmed in soft-focus pastels, looking back on this version of 'Gatsby,' it makes Baz Luhrmann's recent, overcooked version seem even more like a delirious headache than it already did. Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio's somewhat creepy interpretation, with Redford's Gatsby, you could understand why people were drawn to him and how he could orchestrate an elaborate lie to get a girl. It's hard not to swoon.
"Three Days of the Condor" (1975)
The joke surrounding "Three Days of the Condor" was always: what happened to the other three days? James Grady wrote the novel on which the movie is based, only it's called "Six Days of the Condor." So what happened to the other three days? Who cares. Once again Redford plays a man alone. This time he's a CIA agent (nicknamed Condor) who has to untangle a conspiracy after his entire team in the New York office has been killed. What makes the movie so engaging is that Redford's character is something of a nerd ("I'm not a field agent, I just read books!" he bellows to the agency lackey after the hit has gone down), and unequipped with this level of danger. Redford has a gun and his wits about him, and when he hijacks Faye Dunaway he is, at least for a little while, no longer alone. The chemistry between Dunaway and Redford is palpable, and the supporting cast is just as great—Cliff Robertson as a shadowy spook who knows more than he lets on and Max Von Sydow as a killer, are absolutely dynamite. But, once again, it's totally Redford's show, and what's wonderful about the movie (like "All Is Lost") is that he uses both his searing intelligence and his raw physicality to great effect. Just the way that Redford wears his glasses tells you so much. What's really amazing about the movie, too, is how influential it is, clearly having a huge impression on things like the first "Mission: Impossible," "The Hunt for Red October" (in its depiction of a nerdy action star) and even this summer's superhero romp "The Wolverine." It's plot, too, is oddly prescient, concerning oil reserves in the middle east and murderous plots in New York. Redford, once again working with his frequent collaborator Sydney Pollack, finds a niche that he can make himself at home in: the paranoid '70s thriller. Which brings us to …
"All the President's Men" (1976)
Up until "All Is Lost," the most dynamic performance of Redford's career was probably as Bob Woodward in Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men," alongside Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein. Supposedly Redford and his costar Hoffman did a whole bunch of research in advance of their performances, visiting the Washington Post offices for months and conducting endless interviews with actual reporters. (When the filmmakers wanted to film there, they were denied, and so the office was recreated at what was then a stagger $200,000.) The movie is meticulously detailed, from William Goldman's crackling script to Pakula's direction, particularly those long shots like the one in the Library of Congress where you just don't think it's ever going to end. Oftentimes Redford seems to be a part of a project not particularly because it's the showiest role for him but because he knows how good the final product is going to be, and he just wants to be a part of that. It was Redford who first optioned the book by Woodward and Bernstein and saw it through what can charitably be described as a "hellish" development process. Redford has always been amazing at conveying his thoughts, and audiences have delighted in watching him put together puzzles for his entire career, so getting to see him uncover the Watergate scandal is positively thrilling. There's a reason that "All the President's Men" has been a model for similar procedurals in the years since (most notably "Zodiac" and "Zero Dark Thirty"). Redford's performance should also be a model for anyone in one of these movies. It's that damn good.