Friday, January 30, 2015

AFI Top 100: #73 "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"

Robert Redford & Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

Say hello to the anti-Peckinpah western! I mean, sure, this came first, but you couldn't get two films more different and still in the same genre as #73 on the AFI Top 100 list, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and our #79 flick, The Wild Bunch. Both westerns were made in a fast-changing Hollywood landscape, both glorifying the life and freedom of the Old West bandit... in completely opposite ways. Where Peckinpah was gritty and depressing, Butch & Sundance is sepia-kissed and carefree.

The story is pretty encompassing of what we know about these two outlaws. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) were primary members of the Wild Bunch gang, active at the turn of the 20th century. Their friendship, mutual love for the same woman, Etta Place (played by lucky-duck Katharine Ross), and eventual hop from the United States to Colombia to escape the law is the focus of the film. The leads gallivant around the countryside, robbing banks and train cars with a smile on their facenot opposed to shooting anyone or blowing up safes, but they would rather use their charm to talk the money out of peoples' pockets. Of course, this makes us love them even more.

We spend a lot of time with Butch and/or Sundance romancing their leading lady. In fact, we even get an oddly placed music video-esque sequence featuring Butch and Etta riding a bicycle around to the not-out-of-place-at-all tune, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." It's cute, until you realize that it takes you out of this obvious period piece by reminding you that you're watching a movie filmed in the 1960s. Inserting popular music into the film's soundtrack was the 'new thing' in movies during those days, so everything got the treatmenteven if it shouldn't have.

And here, it shouldn't have. Regardless, it doesn't destroy the tone. The script is written to be comedic, despite the mild sex and violence, and the music, the characters, and the way it's shot, contribute to that. There's even this fun side character that Butch & Sundance keep accidentally running into whenever they rob a train. Mr. Woodcock (George Furth), hired to watch over the money, keeps putting his life in danger, and Butch & Sundance, worried about his well-being, always try to convince him not to be a hero. It fun and silly and reminds us not to take any of this too seriously. The script is early William Goldman, and he is the master of integrating comedy into drama.

The film takes full advantage of montages, as well. It's effective, too, since there is a lot of information to convey, and only so much time to do it. My particular favorite is the "photograph montage" of Butch, Sundance, and Etta traveling the world by cruise liner, steamer train, and carriage as they enjoy the extravagances money can buy... before fleeing to Colombia. The photographs are beautifully styled and composed, and in a matter of minutes, we've witnessed years pass and experiences lived. I like it, because it keeps the movie from being long for no reason. Our focus is tight and our characters are playful, even up until the famous last scene. Adding in dragging sequences of travel or repetitive run ins with the law would only serve to lose audience interest.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lives on the cusp of Old and New Hollywood... the latter revving to full speed in the 1970s. There's still a bit of Hollywood-ized magic in the gloss-over of a tragic ending, making it hurt a little less by not really showing you what happens. But we can guess, because the movie does its job in steering us in the right direction. Unlike westerns made in the decades to follow, the blood is this film is just a little less bloody, the good guys are just a little more good, and the message is just a little less grim.

It may not make it the most ground-breaking movie, but it certainly makes it more enjoyable to watch. I forget sometimes that serious westerns can be funny, that outlaws can laugh and have a good time without raping or pillagingand I can walk away from it thinking that I'd happily sit through it again.

Rating:  ★★★½ / 5 stars

Check back next week for #72 on the list, The Shawshank Redemption — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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