Tuesday, April 18, 2017

CANON OF FILM: "BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID"

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)

Director: George Roy Hill
Screenplay: William Goldman



Years ago, when I was much younger, I would've easily ranked "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" as my favorite western; I think it's a lot of peoples' too. However, the older I get, the less I feel able to defend it. I barely think of it as a western these days, and that's part of the appeal; it's a western that doesn't feel like a western, even back then that was the appeal. The movie feels less like a western and more like, "Easy Rider". (Or more like, how "Easy Rider" should've sounded like.) It's one of the most beloved screenplays of all-time, from one of the most beloved screenwriters of all-time, and it is a great script, and one of the greatest lines of dialogue of all-time, at one of the most dramatic and iconic of moments of all of cinema. On the page, with the dialogue, and story, it works, but, still, there's a scenes where, the Oscar-winning song, "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" plays, in a western, and in bright sunny daylight, not a cloud in the sky. I mean, you can argue it's supposed to be anachronistic, well, having a modern pop song at all in this western makes it anachronistic, but that song..., in that scene, with Paul Newman and Katharine Ross trying to ride a bicycle?

The actual story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is basically there, although I'd have trouble calling it accurate. In fact, to some degree, it's so inaccurate that, I almost get the sense that this film would've worked better as a musical in the vein of "Hamilton" or "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson".

(Pauses. Idea lights up. Writes down note: "Look up musical rights to adapt "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"")

Ross's character, Etta Place was actually a prostitute not a schoolteacher for instance, and while they're claim to fame as legendary bank robbers of the Wild West is firmly in place, and yes, they're big claim is that they became successful heroic robbers on two continents, first in America, and then they went down to South America and did it again after the Hole-in-the-Wall gang disbursed. the movie, isn't so much about their success as it is, a comedy about it. Any attempt to watch the movie to get a sense of Butch & Sundance the people is a fool's journey; it's practically as dumb an idea as watching Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" in an effort to find out more about the real Hitler.

What do we find are two tragic, funny, modern-day heroic anti-heroes in the Old West. They act like their Buster Keaton, two funny things in a strange world, but they're more like Charlie Chaplin, where they're the funny thing in the real world, and the real world is coming to get them. These aren't John Wayne archetypes, they seem more like, two guys who probably idealized the devil-may-care tough guy attitude of Steve McQueen but grew up with the fragility and empathy of James Dean. And despite all the logic problems with that modern-day wit and sensibility, clashing with a time period western, it works, not in spite of it, but because of it.

The film has many aesthetics staples that are now copied so often, it’s hard to enjoy them for their originality, they've been overused to the point of parody now, like beginning the film in a black-and-white, with gray tints, and then switching to color as the story begins. Or the ending death scene, which may be interpreted as suicide, or may just be a prelude to Thelma and Louise type endings. (Well, actually “Thelma and Louise” would qualify as a modern-day Western) The movie, for all the faults of George Roy Hill, who was a good but impersonal director mostly known now for this and the other Newman/Redford combination film, "The Sting", is definitely salvaged by Conrad L. Hall's Oscar-winning cinematography. I didn't intend to do another Hall film so soon after "Road to Perdition", it just ended up that way, but when you go back, this western doesn't look like other westerns, but he did something kinda peculiar, by overexposing most of the film. It got cleaned up in post, but the effect is still there; there weren't that many westerns that looked this breathtaking, and yet seemed like they were grated with a dark edge to it at the time. 

Knowing the real story of Butch and Sundance, doesn’t take away from the movie, it helps to enjoy the film for what decisions were made in making this story. Does it matter that the Katharine Ross character in real life was a prostitute and not a schoolteacher? No. You get more sympathy from a schoolteacher, but the decisions she makes in the film would make more sense if she was a prostitute. They chose sympathy, and it probably makes more sense that a teacher would teach Butch and Sundance how to speak Spanish. (Although, I wouldn’t have any problem believing an old Western hooker would know Spanish, it might even come in handy {no pun intended}). It also makes perfect senseto me that Butch and Sundance would be talking about Australia right before they’re killed. There’s also something perverse about the town marshal trying to round a posse get pushed aside for a salesman selling a two-wheeled contraption that’s the wave of the future. Who notices the metaphorical castration of the Old West the scene represents anyway? I said awhile that Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" was for all-intensive purposes the death of the traditional Hollywood musical; you could argue the same thing about the western with "Butch Cassidy..." not because of it's impact, there were several major westerns, including classic westerns that came later, from Henry Hathaway's "True Grit" all the way too Clint Eastwood's opus, "Unforgiven", the later of which has a better argument for that, but perhaps in terms of approach, you can argue "Butch & Sundance" probably had that impact. There were other neo-Westerns too, but none that were so distinctly modern in tone. The movie has more in common with "Lethal Weapon", which is also a movie that took a popular genre and turned it on it's head with a comedic approach to the material and characters, than it does the spaghetti westerns of it's time or Sam Peckinpah's work at that period.

That's probably the real secret as to it's greatness, why it continues to survive and refuses to go away, not because of it's failings as a western, but cause it succeeds at  what this film actually is. It's one of the greatest and quintessential buddy comedies of all-time.
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