Thursday, February 9, 2017

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

There’s a moment, about a half hour into Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Sheriff Bledsoe, a sympathetic lawman the titular duo visits to help them escape a posse, tells Butch, “You’re the most affable man I’ve ever known.” And I realized, after seeing the film, that he speaks for the audience too. We like Butch – and Sundance – and therein lies the key to the film’s phenomenal success. Through their adventures, mis and otherwise, the two men converse, trading sarcasms, understatements, overstatements, quips, witticisms, ribbings, etc, etc…. just like real people. By the end, they feel like friends to us, or at least proxies for people like that we’ve met in real life.

Outlaws? Perhaps, but it just so happens to be what they’re good at. One of the great themes f the movie is that for many, crime is just another job, much like any other. And even moreso, they’re better people as outlaws, an irony revealed when the duo goes straight in Bolivia, as payroll guards, and wind up cold-bloodedly murdering a posse of bandits to get the money back. When they go back to being outlaws, we’re happy for them, despite our better nature admonishing us otherwise.

But Bledsoe goes on to tell Butch and Sundance that they’re gonna die, and that the only thing they can do is choose where, and that also makes the film as gripping and powerful as it is. Because creeping underneath our chummy affinity with these guys lies the seething discomfort of knowing that eventually their luck will run out, and so it does. Yet, when it does, Butch and Sundance remain cleverly upbeat, even going out with a one-liner. That’s just how they roll.

But let’s back up. When we’re introduced to the notorious Western outlaw Butch Cassidy, he laments the design of a new bank, with bolstered security, and wonders why. “People kept robbing it,” informs the teller. “That’s a small rice to pay for beauty,” answers Butch, foreshadowing a new era, one that he and his cohort Sundance will find increasingly unfamiliar.

B&S’s crew, the “Hold in the Wall Gang,” are a loose confederation, so much so that they’ve elected a new leader to replace Butch, and one which he promptly decommissions, taking care of that idea. But train robbery seems to be Butch’s new interest these days, in particular the “Flyer,” a locomotive he robs – twice – much to the neurotic discontent of the safe’s guard, Woodcock. But these robberies have the effect of increased notoriety, and pursuit by the law. A dogged lawman named LeFors, with the help of an Indian tracker, are hot on their trail. They decide to take it on the run – to Bolivia – along with Sundance’s girl, Etta, hoping for a better, easier life abroad.

Not such a hot idea. Bolivia is pretty much the armpit of the world, although they d have banks, which B&S waste not time in emptying. But fearing that LeFors is still trailing, they both decide to go on the up and up, taking a job as payroll guards under the employ of a crusty fellow Yank named Percy. But they get robbed, and Percy is murdered; B&S go after the banditos and, self-defensively, wipe then all out. Disillusioned by the straight life, they go back to robbing, but when a boy recognizes the brand from one of their stolen mules, the local law, and later federales, surround them on all sides. The famed duo, realizing their time is up but not admitting it, come out with both guns blazing to meet their maker, and enter immortality.

Not such a cheery ending but then, 1969 audiences were used to it, having made a hit of the similar-themed Bonnie and Clyde some two years earlier. But that movie’s ending was far more graphic (Butch’s freeze-frames and turns to sepia before we see any carnage), and it also had a different message – Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed their killings and violence, spurred by the thrill of bloodlust and the media which celebrated their misdeeds; its trenchant ending made more palatable by the notion that somehow they deserved what was coming to them. Butch and Sundance never killed (as outlaws) until the final scene; their crime was a job they were best fitted for, and they dealt with it, warts and all (including their tragic deaths). Nothing particularly legendary about it, and they’d be the first to admit it. In fact, they’d make a joke about it.

But it wasn’t just its treatment of violence that made Butch so groundbreaking. With writing that cracked, that shined… that came alive as you were listening to it, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid redefined the Hollywood screenplay. William Goldman’s masterful script was perhaps the first not to sound dated, like some relic from a bygone, Gunsmoke era. John Wayne was a towering icon but he never talked like you or I would, and I can’t possibly remember a single scene of his with a snappy, sarcastic retort. One could even make the case (and many critics have) that this isn’t even a Western at all, but a closely-observed, thoughtful male-friendship flick, in which that friendship is al they have in a new word turned topsy-turvy. In this way, it functions as allegory, and commentary on the current era of the late 60s when the era of the white-male domination was also disintegrating, or at least being threatened.

I could continue this analysis forever, but I’ll just move on to clean-up comments. Strother Martin, two years after playing Newman’s greatest nemesis in Cool Hand Like, reverses gears and plays a marvelous, beloved codger, with some fantastic lines at his disposal (“That’s what this does to ya, it makes ya colorful”). Katherine Ross in both doe-eyed and smoldering in her role as Sundance’s squueze, and she manages to get some affection from Butch as well. And the gunplay, although minimal, is well choreographed and engaging, particularly the final standoff. Of course, it helps when conducted by engaging characters; it so rarely is in the movies.

Oh, and how can we forget the classic “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” sung by B.J. Thomas and penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It’s used over the scene of Butch and Etta fooling around on a bicycle, historically significant for its time period of 1898 but also well-used as a symbol, for its days would be numbered too. The rest of the score is okay, too, but some of it perhaps dates the film (particularly that “doo-be-doo-be-doo” interlude after arriving at Bolivia).

In short, a true classic, hands down. And it also happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies.

Rating:  ****

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