April 27, 2010

#73: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The Hole in the Wall Gang, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are all dead now... but once they ruled the West!

I saw a lot of familiar names scroll by in the opening credits of George Roy Hill's 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Conrad Hall, an amazing cinematographer (awarded with an Oscar for his work here); William Goldman, your favorite screenwriter and mine (also Oscar'd); and Burt Bacharach, who I first knew from his cameo in the first Austin Powers (I know that dates me, but c'mon), who wrote the score (which also won an Oscar, somewhat strangely). These artists and their elements collaborated to make a movie which, to me, is less than the sum of its parts.

Company: just me this cloudy afternoon.

Cuisine: sauteed beef tips with zucchini, cherry tomatoes and onions -- a delightful summer lunch!

Cards is serious business.

The film introduces us to two bandits whose reputation proceeds them -- in fact, when the card player in the center of the photo above realizes for the first time that he is addressing the Sundance Kid (played by a swoopy-haired, mustachioed Robert Redford), he immediately concedes. He knows you don't mess with a guy who can shoot with that kind of precision.

The Kid and his partner, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman, of the dreamy eyes and the creamy dressing), are outlaws of the West, and leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang which near the film's beginning are questioning the duo's leadership. They're not always around, often pulling jobs by themselves. One gets the sense that they've all known each other a long time and these complaints have been a long time coming. In this way, we begin at the end of the duo's famed run.

Life is pretty peachy for the first half-hour of the film, which introduces the couple as a bickering but understanding pair. Cassidy seems to dream up schemes, while the Kid is usually skeptical of their worth. They both have feelings for the same woman, Etta Place (Katharine Ross, in a nearly thankless role), but it seems neither of them need or want her the way you'd want someone you truly love. Is it because they're too busy thieving to truly appreciate her, or are they cold, heartless bastards? The film doesn't really make it clear. In a sweet montage starring Newman, Ross and a bicycle (a new technology!) Burt Bacharach's Oscar-winning "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" grates on the nerves as a) the style of the music is completely anachronistic to the time period, and b) the lyrics have absolutely no connection or relevance to the romance unfolding before us, besides maybe "because I'm freeeeee... nothin's worryin' meeeeee..." It seems like a strange choice. And don't get me started on the chorus of "ba bada ba's" later on during a chase scene. It's nearly laughable. But moving on...

Suddenly, during one particular heist, a dark group of men on horses are unleashed and the duo is forced to flee. This score-less chase is over twenty minutes long, and it left me wondering how Bacharach was not allowed to score it while he added his dippy sixties chorus to the other chase scene. What we're left with is an intense cat-and-mouse game that leaves both men wondering how, if ever, they can really escape the law.

Well ... that's one way.

It just ain't what they pictured.

To escape the law for good, Butch suggests escaping to Bolivia, where he's heard the pickins are ripe and the livin' is easy. (It's shots like this one that make the movies worthy of art -- thanks, Mr. Hall.) He's met with hesitance by Etta and Sundance, but eventually, after learning basic Spanish, the pair fumble their way through enough bank robberies to live quite luxuriously. But still neither is satisfied of their success nor their safety. In fact, in America they were feared to the point that their victims would open the door and let them in without question; in Bolivia, they don't have the luxury of infamy. When Etta suggests she head back to America, neither has any objections -- what are these guys chasing? It begs the question: when will they stop? Neither is ever truly appeased by money, and neither is motivated by love. The film can only end one way.

And it does, in a famous, beautiful last shot that fades back into sepia, as though we're seeing it in a scrapbook detailing another time. In the end, the men seem to be symbols more than real characters, prototypes for what we like to imagine the West was like. It helps that both men are unbelievably attractive, but it's telling that while the film was nominated for seven Oscars (and won four), the actors weren't recognized. I suppose the film isn't about their performances, it's about creating a mood. The danger there is that the film's elements don't all quite fuse together effectively to leave a real lasting impression, and for that reason, besides a few choice moments, Butch Cassidy is largely forgettable.

Do you agree? Feel free not to. I'm torn on this one.

As an afterthought, I do need to add that when it comes to this or 1969's other acclaimed western, The Wild Bunch, there is no contest that Butch comes in first. Just sayin'.

Next up is another from 1994, this time adapted from a Stephen King short story: the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption.

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