Saturday, March 28, 2009
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) [M] ****+
A film review by James Berardinelli, for ReelViews.net.
Despite arriving during the era when this kind of movie was beginning a slow but inexorable fall from public favor, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains one of the best crafted and most beloved of all the Westerns. In addition to launching Robert Redford's career into orbit and polishing Paul Newman's reputation as a leading man, Butch Cassidy also solidified screenwriter William Goldman's position in Hollywood. (Goldman would later claim that, of all the movies he was involved in scripting, he was only fully satisfied with two: The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy.) Despite early negative reviews from a brigade of curmudgeon critics, the public flooded theaters exhibiting this film, making it one of the most popular tickets of 1969. Butch Cassidy went on to gross nearly $100 million at the box office (an astounding total at that time) and earned seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), of which it won four (Cinematography, Score, Song, and Original Screenplay).
The primary differentiator between Bruce Cassidy and the hundreds of other films littering the genre is its lighthearted tone. The movie is jovial without being silly; it retains the sense of adventure that characterizes the Western, but replaces the often somber mood with one that is airy and, at times, almost comedic. As directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone took the Western in one direction, George Roy Hill and William Goldman threw audiences a curve ball by opting for the road less traveled - and were rewarded with a success. Of the countless offerings tossed out by Hollywood during the heyday of the Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the few standouts. To go along with its upbeat tone, it has a little of everything - comedy, action, adventure, drama, romance, and whimsy. It's hard to ask for much more than what this movie delivers.
The film opens with a caption informing viewers that most of what they are about to witness is true. However, like the Coen Brothers in Fargo a quarter of a century later, Hill and Goldman are toying with the audience and its expectations. Indeed, only select aspects of Goldman's script are based upon the established facts. Instead of looking deeply into the historical record, he developed the film around the legend of Butch and Sundance. Bits and pieces of the filmed story conform to what really happened, but most of it is based on the larger-than-life tales that developed after Butch and Sundance had traveled to the Great Beyond.
The real Butch Cassidy, whose given name was Robert Leroy Parker, was an outlaw at a time in the Old West when modern day civilization and technology were making gunslinging gangsters obsolete. His gang, which included Harry Longabaugh (a.k.a. the Sundance Kid), robbed trains and banks during the 1890s. When a super posse was formed to capture them, Butch and Sundance, along with Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place (who was either a schoolteacher or a prostitute, depending upon the information's source), headed south to Bolivia, where they lived in relative peace and seclusion for several years. By 1905, however, they had returned to robbery. Their trail ended in the town of San Vincente, where Butch and Sundance exchanged gunfire with a patrol. According to one story, Butch escaped under cover of darkness after Sundance was killed. The more commonly held version of events has the two outlaws committing suicide rather than facing capture.
When Goldman's script initially began making the rounds through Hollywood, two stars were already attached: Paul Newman, who was to play the Sundance Kid, and Steve McQueen, who was to be Butch Cassidy. Once George Roy Hill was signed to direct, however, he made a switch, electing to cast Newman as Butch. McQueen, unwilling to take on the role of Sundance, dropped out, and a subsequent attempt to lure Warren Beatty to the project failed. At that point, Hill approached a then-unknown Robert Redford about playing Sundance - an opportunity the young actor jumped at. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would mark the start of Redford's meteoric rise to stardom. Redford, Newman, and Hill collaborated one more time, four years later on The Sting.
Hill wanted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to be different from every other Western to make its way into theaters. To this end, he made several sweeping modifications. In the first place, he limited the violence. There are plenty of on-screen deaths, but none of them are graphic or gruesome. Secondly, he elevated the role of Etta Place from that of the traditional love interest to a more complex character. Thirdly, he rejected a traditional musical score in favor of something more contemporary - and limited the music to three specialized sequences during the film. Finally, he peppered the drama and adventure with wit and humor, never allowing the proceedings to become glum or grim. No matter how dangerous the situation, Butch or Sundance always has a one-liner ready.
The film can be loosely divided into three sections: the introduction, the posse chase, and the Bolivia adventures. Each has its own distinct mood. The introduction, when we meet Butch & Sundance and see them in action robbing a train, allows us a leisurely opportunity to get to know the characters. The posse chase, with the two protagonists being pursued by a relentless and seemingly unstoppable group of faceless bounty hunters, is the film's most tense sequence - 30 minutes of close calls culminating in Butch & Sundance's decision to leave the country. The Bolivia segment contains both the most overtly comical and the most dramatic sequences. At one point, the two men rob a bank where their inability to speak Spanish causes communication problems. Later, after Butch & Sundance have gone straight, they are forced into a gunfight with bandits. It is here that Butch, who avoided killing as a bank robber, takes his first life. Then, of course, there's the final shoot-out in San Vincente (the two go out more heroically on screen than they did in real life).
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is Burt Bacharach's score. In all, Bacharach composed only about 12 minutes of music, and it is used during three sequences: when Butch takes Etta for a ride on his bicycle, when the three companions stop in New York on their way to Bolivia, and during a montage that introduces their return to an illegal occupation in South America. Thrown into the mix (during the first sequence) is the hit pop single Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. As performed by B.J. Thomas, it became a radio staple during late 1969 and early 1970, but its placement in the film is atypical, to say the least - as is Hill's decision not to use music to highlight moments of tension and suspense.
There's little doubt that one of the assets of the film is the chemistry between Newman and Redford. There's a give-and-take dynamic between these two, and the way they deliver Goldman's lines replicates the kind of companionable repartee one expects between two larger-than-life buddies. At the time when Newman was signed to appear in the film, he was already a four-time Best Actor nominee (most recently for 1967's Cool Hand Luke). Newman brings his legendary easygoing charm to the part of Butch, making the character one of the Old West's true gentleman bandits. It's virtually impossible not to like Butch - and that's one of the keys to the film's widespread appeal. Men relate to him and women fall for him.
While Newman was at the height of his career, Redford was just getting his feet wet. All of his best roles were still ahead of him. Nevertheless, for someone with only a handful of credits to his name (including, most notably, Barefoot in the Park), he has no trouble holding his own with someone of Newman's stature. Like Newman, Redford captures the camera's attention, so it's no wonder that these two work so well together. Even though they only twice appeared in the same movie, their names have long been linked and they have constantly been on the lookout for another opportunity to team up. (According to both men, the problem hasn't been a lack of desire, but the absence of a good script.)
The third member of the trio is Katharine Ross, whose post-Butch career has not been as rosy as those of her two male co-stars. In 1969, Ross was a coveted young actress on the rise. At age 26, having recently appeared as Miss Robinson in The Graduate (for which she received her only Oscar nomination, as a Best Supporting Actress), Ross seemed ready to blossom into a major star. Sadly, after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, her career went into a tailspin. She never had another memorable role, although she did reprise the part of Etta Place in a 1976 made-for-TV movie called Wanted: The Sundance Woman. Hill cast Ross as Etta because he was dumbstruck by her sensuality. However, it didn't take long for tension to develop between the actress and her director (an incident in which she worked a camera caused Hill to ban her from the set when she wasn't appearing in a scene). Ross and Hill have always been circumspect in their public comments about one another, but it's clear that relations were strained. Fortunately, none of that comes across on screen. Ross is a delightful foil for both Newman and Redford. Ironically, although Etta was Sundance's girlfriend, the rapport between Ross and Newman is stronger than the one between Ross and Redford. This was perhaps intentional. Hill was determined to hint that the relationship between Butch and Etta was more than strictly platonic.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid features several noteworthy supporting performances. Mighty Ted Cassidy plays Harvey Logan, a man who challenges Butch's leadership of the Hole In the Wall Gang. A young Cloris Leachman is Agnes, one of Butch's favorite prostitutes. And the legendary character actor Strother Martin is Percy Garris, the cantankerous old man who gives Butch and Sundance their first honest job. Although his name may not be well-known, Martin's face will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than a handful of TV or movie Westerns from the '50s and '60s. In Cool Hand Luke, he delivered the immortal line, What we've got here is failure to communicate.
The success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made it a template for countless later films. The so-called buddy elements of the movie have been replicated and refined countless times throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Although Butch Cassidy wasn't the first movie to pair up a couple of wisecracking best friends in an action/adventure setting, this film became the model of how well that approach could work when done right. It's easy to see a little of Butch and Sundance in nearly every action duo to reach the screens during the last 30 years. And that, more than anything, is a testimony to the lasting influence of one of the most atypical of all the Westerns. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4]
Labels: biography, crime, western