Thursday, June 16, 2011

'Bout Damn Time - BUTCH CASSIDY and THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)

Here's yet another series I'm starting up, which I'll attend to as much as I do my other blog-post series, which is, well, as soon as I can get to them all.  But this one sprang to mind as did along the lines of the Netflix blog I did back in January: using the blog format as a way to motivate me to get up (or I should say down) and get to one of the many films I have waiting for me to see that I've yet to come around to for so long.  Only this time it's a little more personal - it's films that I've OWNED, whether as a copy or an original, for maybe as short as a couple of weeks, or as long as a decade.

You all know what it's like, you reading in your comfy chair or while driving your car (on second thought, don't do that, please, be mindful!)  It's about how we all accumulate stuff, at sales with books or music or movies, and we just don't get around to them all (my wife, for example, has amassed the kind of collection of books that she'd need absolutely no time for anything else aside from reading for a year to get through them all).  I don't begrudge this kind of thing, it's just what it is.  But what better way to finally get through some of these things than to watch em and then write about em.

First up on the list... and can you believe it - George Roy Hill's near-masterpiece Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

You know about these fellers, doncha?  They robbed banks, among other things such as trains and anything that seemed promising of a good collection of thousands.  They had a good little crew too, the "Hole in the Wall" gang.  They garnered a reputation that was one of efficient and ruthless, yet also kind of... amusing, or amused, with the people they held up.  That was until they bit off just a little more than they could chew, and during one of their railroad robberies another railroad car pulled up, and out came the posse of Searchers to hunt them down, lead by a tracker and a couple other bad dudes who knew how to pull a gun.  So they high-tailed it to Butch's idea for an escape plan: Bolivia ("Where is that?" Sundance first asks, being geography probably not his strong suit), with a lady friend who they sorta shared as romantic interests.  But down South, it was a whole other story altogether...

It may sound like I just said all this as fact.  Really, I don't have much of an idea what is true or fiction made by William Goldman for the script of this film, and frankly I may not totally care either.  The film is it's own object, and I can take it as some of it, maybe little slices such as Sundance's lack of being able to swim, as being 'true' (or with what Stephen Colbert could call "Truthiness"), while the rest is just the author's imagination riled up for making a buddy-sorta-Western.  But it's a rip-roaring yarn all the same that allows for what is so good in filmmaking: showing, not telling, which Goldman and director George Roy Hill soak up to such a degree that you almost forget these guys can talk... until they do, and you want them to keep on talking as they have some of the best rapore of any on-screen male duo in American film history.

"I wish I knew how to quit you."  "Um... no you don't, we rob banks!"  ".. Oh.  Let's jump!"
Their story spans two countries, and probably at least a year give or take several months, and it's not quite until we see some of the technological advancements like, say, a bicycle, that we get a grasp on this being (like The Wild Bunch also released in 1969) about the Western as a time of transition into a more modern time, and gunslinger-robbers like Butch and Sundance finding themselves in a tighter and tighter spot.  It's a strong story, but that's actually not entirely what made me (mostly) love the film.

It's these two guys, and naturally how Paul Newman and Robert Redford make them their own.  Newman is a born charmer, and has the kind of comic timing that makes him such a wonderful presence even as you know he can whip a gun out like it's anyone's business (but firing one, that's another story), while Redford surprised me with how well he played off Newman (as an actor he can be hit or miss for me, and here he hits with amazing intensity, real and comic).

::Turning neck to see how big Paul Newman's balls were... and they were mighty::

Seeing this pair is what makes it so compelling, since we have to be with these guys every step of the way, and on their side as they're criminals and the supposed "villains".  So soon after Bonnie and Clyde it could have seemed to be taking from that film's anti-authority/anti-hero thunder, but the difference lies in perspective: there's just no accounting for how far Bonnie and Clyde will go, but with Butch and Sundance there is some pause and some doubt and they do try to go straight in Bolivia, with some upsetting results.

And while Penn's film may ultimately be better - for a specific reason I'll get to in a moment - I felt much more of a connection to these two, as they have that kind of close connection and, yes, chemistry that makes them indelible in our minds long after the movie's over.  And while we're with them, it's not any kind of slog: it's a fun time, even when there's real danger as they're being chased across the desert and plains and woods of the West, with cynical jabs and jokes at each other's (and the situation's) expense.

So it's a combination of witty and very human writing, direction that takes the story to the exact beats where it needs to (the pacing is fantastic), and Conrad Hall's cinematography is not to be underestimated, especially in the quieter scenes like when Redford comes back to 'home' and startles Katharine Ross, having her strip slowly in front of him (a scene with good tension since we don't know who her character is really at first).

Not to mention the music by Burt Bacharach which, when it comes up - often Hill has no music during those extended chase scenes, which is the right decision - is a hoot to listen to, elegaic and sweet and just right for the period... except for one flaw, which, I'm sorry fans of the number, his song "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."  While the sense of humor of the film isn't exactly subtle, it doesn't fit with this scene that feels crowbarred in with Newman and Ross on a bicycle frolicking to this song; a moment involving a giant bull almost makes it fun again, but it's mostly stupid and dated, the only part of the film that sticks out like a sore-thumb.

Matter of fact, take that out and you got a really great film, one loaded with pathos and heart and a whole lot of laughs.  Just watch how Butch treats dissent in his group with the giant lummox who tries to usurp him, and how he interacts with the others (Sundance mostly watching), and then strikes pretty quickly and yet the whole scene, suspenseful as it is, is totally played for laughs.  These leads are iconic figures, yes, but also grounded in some kind of reality that makes it relatable, and comical.  It can be rough and gritty and holy shit what an ending of course (almost on par, if not in violence then in the epic scope and pacing, with The Wild Bunch), and there are passages that are moving just on cinematographic terms like the photo-montage of the leads in layaway in New York City... but I'd dare say that I wasn't laughing through a lot of it.  That takes guts for a serious "dramatic" action-Western.

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