Sunday, July 13, 2014

Flashback Film: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)

I don't remember the exact date that I saw "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" for the first time, but I do remember where I saw it (the original version of the Arden Fair Cinemas, long gone and missed by few) and with whom I saw it (my cousins Bill and Mary).  This was a rare treat - all of the parents had seen the movie, deemed it suitable for young viewers such as us, and let us go into the theater all by ourselves.  We were 13, 10 and 9 at the time, so that may not seem like such a big deal today, but trust me - it was a big deal for us.

Back in the days before Blu-Ray, DVD, or even VHS, "big" films with box-office potential even years after their release would see a second life in the cinemas.  Butch Cassidy was such a film, so in the spring of '76 I saw it for a second time, this time with my brothers Andrew and Pat.

As the years have gone by, I've watched it a lot, and since it is available on Netflix Streaming, decided to give it another go a couple of weeks ago.  Back when I was a kid, this was a magical film - even having seen few movies in the "grown up" theaters, this pretty quickly became the best film I'd ever seen.

Watching it now, I still think it's great - but it isn't quite that good, and it certainly doesn't hold up as well as its spiritual twin, "The Sting" (which is one of the few perfect movies ever made).  And frankly, it's a bit of an odd duck. Why?  Consider the following:

First, when you get right down to it, it's really three movies in one:

Part 1 is the setup, when we meet Butch and Sundance for the first time and are introduced to Etta, the love of their life, and the grungy but highly entertaining members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.  Even within this section of the movie, there are abrupt shifts in tone: parts are very gritty, others are close to pure comedy.

Part 2 is the chase, where Butch and Sundance are pursued by a posse with almost mystical powers ("Who are those guys?") to, literally, the edge of the abyss.  This is the best section of the film, even though there isn't a ton of dialogue, because it allows Newman and Redford to just be themselves, developing an onscreen rapport that is justifiably legendary.

Part 3 could be called "Fishes out of water in Bolivia," and it's the least successful part of the film, if only because we've seen better examples of everything that it tries during the first two acts.  But this is where you get to see Strother Martin in action, only one of the all-time great character actors, so it's not a total loss.

Second, the music.  It doesn't have what you would call a traditional score, but it does have music, credited to composer Burt Bacharach.  Don't get me wrong - I think Bacharach is a genius, but this is far from his best work.  I know that "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" won the Oscar and all, but it's pretty pedestrian for a Bacharach/David tune, and the scene in which it appears (though cute) is entirely gratuitous.

And then, during the Bolivian adventures, there is an extended scene where we see glimpses of Butch and Sundance going back to their old ways, which is accompanied by music that is as out of place as anything I've ever heard in a movie.  It's sounds like the score to a really bad Broadway musical, and it just destroys the momentum of the movie.  A previous, similar interlude was much more successful, showing Butch, Sundance and Etta during their trip down to Bolivia, where they lived and were treated like royalty.

But those are really small quibbles, nit-picking if you prefer.  In addition to Strother Martin, it's got an incredible cast of character actors: Henry Jones, Jeff Corey, Ted Cassidy, Kenneth Mars, Cloris Leachman.  And it's got Newman and Redford, demonstrating with ease why they deserved their legendary status.  That's film history right there, folks.

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