Thursday, May 05, 2016

OVP: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Film: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
Director: George Roy Hill
Oscar History: 7 nominations/4 wins (Picture, Director, Sound, Original Screenplay*, Score*, Original Song*, Cinematography*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

We finish off our three-day look at the final AFI 100 Years list with the final film that I saw that completed both the original and the tenth-anniversary editions of the list, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yes, despite being a film fanatic for some twenty-odd years, I had somehow never seen the classic western before a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, I was excited.  There are very few bonafide American classics I haven't caught-in fact, I think this is the last one left that no one would dispute its importance and relevance.  As a result, I was truly hoping that I would love it as it was closing a long introductory chapter in terms of the world of cinema, and thankfully I did.  The film, warm and funny and still artistically-strong, is a joy to watch and something you'll want to see again and again.

(Spoilers Ahead...though this is based on real-life so spoiler alerts aren't really that necessary) The film is the story of Butch Cassidy (Newman), an intensely-charming bank robber who is joined by a gang that doesn't like his increasingly individualistic ways, but he is constantly supported by his right-hand man the Sundance Kid (Redford).  The two are in charge of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, a group that frequently finds themselves blowing up the safes on trains and taking the loot.  The two gain a bounty on their head about halfway through the film that feels disproportionate to the loot they've taken, but they realize the train owner has a personal vendetta against them and they know that they won't be able to escape the men running after them, so they flee along with Sundance's lover Etta (Ross) to Bolivia.  There they have a mildly successful career as bank robbers before justice catches up with them once again, and they die (presumably) from a flurry of Bolivian bullets.

The film's plot is relatively predictable, but it gains almost all of its power from the strength of the two leads and in particular the splendid cinematography.  Newman and Redford, who would re-team four years later for the Oscar-winning The Sting, have an almost orgasmic chemistry with each other in the picture.  Newman has rarely been so watchable as Butch, someone who flirts with everyone (including Sundance), and can get pretty much anything he wants from anybody (excluding Sundance).  Newman was such a game entertainer but he rarely showed off this comedic muscle-in many ways he reminds me of a classic Jon Hamm-so handsome you can't believe they're also funny.  The wryness with which he infuses Butch is mesmerizing, and really brings the script by William Goldman to life.  Redford is forced to play the straight man, but he finds the silliness in his character (that infamous "I can't swim" cliff scene being probably the best example), and is so beautiful it's easy to see why Katharine Ross can fall for him even if he's constantly a pain-in-the-butt.

The film won seven Academy Award nominations, and all of them were a worthwhile investment, but I want to speak specifically to the cinematography.  It's easy to make the desert look good, but there are techniques here that I don't recall seeing prior to 1969 even in the films of Frederick Young.  The twilight scenes, in particular, are gorgeous and Conrad Hall (who would go on to lens pictures like American Beauty and Road to Perdition late in his career), despite the fact that if IMDB is to be believed he didn't original come up with the idea, gives us a more essential picture by making these scenes darker and richer in color than you'd expect from what seems to be a truly great buddy comedy.  This is wonderfully contradicted with the famed "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence (which Robert Redford originally hated), which turned out to be one of the most celebrated in the film and wouldn't work if it weren't for the quick touch of Hall and Newman.  Overall, the film is a joy from start to finish-it's not a heavy, serious picture but it's one that it's impossible not to respect and admire.

Those are my thoughts on this classic movie, one I highly recommend if you've never gotten around to it-what are yours?  Do you have a favorite between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (I am perpetually loving Paul Newman)?  What is the biggest American classic film you've never seen?  And where does this rank in the (admittedly excellent) list of 1969's best movies?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

No comments: