Skip to main content

He’ll feel a lot better after he’s robbed a couple of banks.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(1969)

(SPOILERS) I’m doubtful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could have been made in the form it was a few years earlier, but you won’t find it identified with “New Hollywood” that was percolating at the time of its release (it merits a mere three mentions in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls). Elements – trendy, “cool” nihilism – were, if not informed then fanned by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, but this was very much a big Hollywood production, with a then bank-busting sum commanded by William Goldman’s screenplay and the studio martialling the talents of top stars and composers.

One might argue its assimilation of counter-culture was the equivalent of selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, of a PG-rated, non-threatening kind. There was no weight to sticking it to the man because Butch and Sundance simply weren’t that way inclined; the duo ultimately continue in a life of crime and unto death not through anarchic tendencies or high-mindedness, but because going straight is too much like hard work. Perhaps the film has endured so well because of that all-embracing attitude; these are simply likeable guys, ones who even go to their graves in a chipper frame of mind.

I mean, you can cite the iconography, the self-conscious sepia that opens the movie, complete with “news reel” footage, and the magisterial freezeframe ending that evokes exactly the appropriate air of melancholic uplift (we know they’re dead, but we don’t actually see them die – Thelma & Louise aimed for something similar, but pulled its punches), and Goldman in his self-reflexive way comments on this throughout, the passing of time and innovation pushing the outlaw way of life to the fringes and beyond (“Your times is over, and you’re going to die bloody” the duo are rather bluntly told at one point), but Butch and Sundance isn’t – if we going to give genre comparisons – founded on the elegance and opera that feeds every frame of a Leone film, or obsessed with the masculine mythmaking in the manner of the same year’s The Wild Bunch. Butch and Sundance is a beautiful movie – courtesy of DP Conrad Hall – and it feels immensely satisfying, but it’s hardly elegant.

Goldman could be found singing the praises of George Roy Hill, ranking him up there with David Lean (I mean, really?), but I rather think what the director brought to the picture was a knack for recognising what was needed in any given scene rather than a cohesive style (that said, Hill also began second-guessing himself, worried it was too funny after mirthful test screenings so chopped a load of laughs out); Butch and Sundance carries a tone and sense as a whole, but individual parts diverge widely, as widely on the one hand as the musical interlude of Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head (a US No.1 hit) and two striking montage sequences, the first a travelogue of stills as Butch, Sundance and Etta journey to Bolivia, the second one of Burt Bacharach’s finest compositions, South American Getaway, as the duo/trio rob Bolivian banks and are pursued by the law. Raindrops might be deemed the intrusive equivalent of Partyman in Tim Burton’s Batman, but to me, it has always fitted perfectly; it’s the simpler, carefree moment before their paths change for ever. Plus, it’s indelible; it wouldn’t be the same film without it.

Then, at the other extreme, there’s the conclusion, in which our anti-heroes are left bloodied and worse, very much at variance with the larks they got up to earlier in the movie. It probably isn’t a wonder the initial reaction to the movie was mixed – even though it snowballed into seven Oscar nominations a few months later – since it pulls off a difficult feat of testing audience expectations that hadn’t often been (successfully) tried.

The glue that holds the movie together is Paul Newman and Robert Redford – initially envisaged as Newman and Lemmon, then Newman and McQueen, and even Newman with Brando or Beatty – forming what is even now the ultimate buddy pairing. I revisited The Sting a few weeks ago, though, and that picture is evidence that it isn’t just sticking these two together that made Butch and Sundance work. It’s the deceptively straightforward characterisations Goldman has come up with too; Butch the affable goof, the bank robber who has never shot anyone, teaming with Sundance the taciturn killer. Together, they’re so damn likeable, but the real tester of a good buddy pairing is that neither should be as interesting on their own, and I think that holds true here (the same is the case with the later Midnight Run). Together, they’re complete.

It’s Katherine Ross as Etta who is the extraneous sidekick to “Tracy and Hepburn”, ostensibly leaving them when she knows they’re going to die. But she’s really leaving them to each other, the really mutually adoring relationship of the movie. On those terms, it’s a curious set up; other actors than Newman might have been uneasy about the imbalance of Butch’s curiously asexual paternal presence, content to be a hanger-on as the kids canoodle, and given laughs to play (“I’m a terrible comic actor” Newman professed), but what he brings is effortless cool, and the sense of a thinking man, but not necessarily a wise one (“That’s what you’re good at” mocks Sundance). In contrast, Redford has a dangerous air about him as Sundance, something you’ll never say about him again. I’m fairly convinced it’s the moustache. It’s curious that this was the role that defined him as a star, yet his subsequent carrer is much more in line with protecting an image of a wholesome, airbrushed bleach-blonde movie star (I say that mostly in a good way, and acknowledging several great subsequent parts… Well, Woodward and The Candidate, anyway).

But then, I don’t think anyone here has outmatched themselves later. Newman’s had meatier acting parts (The Verdict) but this is the one that boosts his natural star quality the most. Hill did nothing very remarkable prior, and afterwards had a similarly patchy time (best were his solo pairings with these stars, Slap Shot and The Great Waldo Pepper). Goldman’s All the President’s Men might be the more remarkable achievement in finding a way to tell that story, meanwhile, but this just feels like his career-defining moment; he knew as much, and rightly predicted his New York Times obit giving it precedence.

Goldman tells it that the realisation of the “phenomenal material” attracted him, that here was a story that disproved F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “There are no second acts in American lives” (they were more legendary in South America than they had been in the old West) and honed his dinner guest anecdote of the unlikely elements he had to wrangle to sell the idea, such as making his heroes running away heroic. In truth, once Butch heard about the super posse, they simply high tailed it; the screenplay solution is still the most satisfying sequence in a movie filled with them, from Butch kicking Harvey (Ted Cassidy) in the nuts onwards. The “Who are these guys?” pursuit is brilliant, all the more so for keeping the reactions one-sided, their pursuers always a dogged distance away, and culminates in a great death-defying escape. Like I say, though, the movie’s replete with lovely little moments. The first ten minutes pass by in a sepia flash, not because of the editing, but because the writing is spellbinding. Butch’s personability allows unlikely impediments to their progress to give rise to the humorously memorable (Woodcock), and we’re never far from being reminded that our heroes are rather hapless (being laughed at by Percy Garris (Strother Martin) for worrying about being robbed on the way down the mountain, before they have anything to be robbed of).

I mentioned that the picture was less than universally lauded when it first appeared, but few decried it more pitilessly than Pauline Kael, who called it “a glorified vacuum’, commenting that “Not every movie has to matter…” before suggesting that its fault is exactly that it’s one that doesn’t. It’s sometimes difficult to work out just why Kael took against a picture (some have suggested it was just a desire to be different, a charge also levelled at Armand White) or a star (she really had it in for Redford). She seems offended by the cheerful immorality on display, making heroes of villains and having no truck with their crimes and killings, but you won’t find that as a remotely consistent position in her divining good from bad movies.

She more particularly seemed to take issue with the very things most of us who like it relish, from Goldman’s opening title (“Yet everything that follows rings false, as that note does”) to its irreverent tone (“It’s a facetious western, and everybody in it talks comical”). She reserves particular scorn for Goldman’s (Oscar-winning) writing (“all banter, all throwaways… it isn’t witty and it isn’t dramatic… decorative little conceits passing for dialogue”). It is, as ever with her reviews, a great read (“It’s all posh and josh, without any redeeming energy or crudeness”) while being entirely impossible to agree with. I relish the film’s “damned waggishness”, “hip-cute quips” and the manner in which it was “a put on that took its mockery seriously, kept straining towards the lyrical and the legendary”. All those complaints go toward making it a classic (to be entirely fair, however, Goldman appeared to agree with Kael, at least in part; “There’s a lot about the screenplay I don’t like, the smart-assness being just one of them”).

But yes, I’ll give her a couple of points. I don’t think the “put-on rape” plays very well (and remember thinking it was an odd thing to pass as a joke even when I first saw it way back when), and “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals” draws attention to itself as a bum line, but mostly because so many of them here are great ones. You could argue that the picture plays surface respect to thematic depth, but I’d suggest it’s a film that’s more important for the effect it has on the viewer (unless you’re Kael) than what it “says”. It has such a strong sense of mood, an imprimatur, if you like, whereby it remains fondly and wistfully with you; it’s very aware of ensnaring a nostalgia that’s simultaneously false and shallow, while conscious to resist the kind of over-emphasised substance Kael would have liked (Goldman cites the final scene’s conversation, where the characters studiously do nottalk about what’s obvious, that they’re mortally wounded and about to die). There’s an ephemeral fizz to their lives, something Bacharach only underlines, and before they know it, they’re over, and they’ve had no time to reflect. One might relate that to any of us.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar (it did take the BAFTA, though – in fact, it took nine out of the ten it was nominated for, and only didn’t take the tenth because it was a dual Best Actor nomination), but it should have. No one talks about the costume drama (Anne of the Thousand Days) or the musical (Hello, Dolly!) any more, although the political entry is still respected (Z, like this year’s Roma a rare foreign language nominee for the big one; and like Roma it had to content itself with Best Foreign Film). Really, the contest was between Butch and Sundance and Midnight Cowboy, though, and since I’ve always held that the latter was rather overrated (but that’s for another time), there’s no contest. Butch and Sundance did win the most Oscars that night (four besides Goldman’s: song, score, and cinematography), but the Oscars being what they are, it was a year where a self-important reflection of the times was called for, and the cowboy-in-title-only fitted that bill.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Play to them, then! Fickle, brainless idiots.

Waltzes from Vienna  aka Strauss’ Great Waltz (1934)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock was dismissive of this adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, ironically minus the musical element. Waltzes from Vienna is a rather low-watt picture, with a rote romance/jealousy plotline running through it (Johann Strauss is offering his services to Countess Helga, much to the dismay of intended Resi). The film comes alive only intermittently with bits of comedy, Strauss’ rivalry with dad, and the central composition.