Review: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

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Despite my general reluctance to say that the Western in its classical form was on the way out, it’s hard not to make such an assertion looking at the landscape of the late 1960s. The Wild Bunch is a common marker of the seismic shift leading to the complete obliteration of the classic western mythology, but there are some related themes strewn throughout Butch Cassidy that make it equally representative of an era or so one could argue.

The times were changing historically speaking and that plays out cinematically in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bicycles are the future, destined to replace the old reliable horse. And the western hero as we knew him has long since gone, replaced instead by vengeful tough guys and in this case a pair of bank robbing antiheroes. Bonnie and Clyde were the new standards and out of that trend, we saw more like them.

So it’s not just the fact that the film takes place at the tail end of the Old West, slowly evolving into the modern, or New West, but simultaneously the genre would never be the same. There’s a bit of a wistfulness to it all. The legend is fun. The mythology is something to be thoroughly embellished, but it too comes to an end. It’s only a wisp of a memory made of sepia tones and silent newsreels. But Butch Cassidy and Sundance will be remembered fondly by the audience just as the West is. Maybe that is enough.

Unfortunately, Butch Cassidy as a film does have its shortcoming which became more apparent with time. It’s possible to be a dated period piece as this film is (although it’s hard not to love “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head). Still, it can be plodding and some would argue it’s about nothing substantial, nothing meaningful at all. Still, it manages to be one of the greatest western comedies of all time only eclipsed by its own heavy dose of cynicism.

It’s funny watching Butch and Sundance go through their motions. Butch (Paul Newman) is the brains who bemoans the fact that banks are getting upgrades and shipments are being made by trains. After all, they are constantly on the move and it becomes a constant guessing game. He’s given more grief by his gang that looks to overthrow him led by the hulking thug Harvey (Ted Cassidy).

And on top of that every lawman wants him dead. In such moments, being the idea man that he is he entertains thoughts of joining the army for the Spanish-American War or even going to a far off land like Bolivia. Content with his gunplay and letting Butch do the thinking, Sundance rides by his side, certainly his own man but also part of this comic duo.

William Goldman’s script is brimming with wry wit that’s almost inexhaustible. But Paul Newman and Robert Redford loom even larger as the titular stars in this epic buddy comedy. In the age where winning charm and star power still seemed like a genuine box office draw. You came to see actors and in 1969 there were few actors as commanding as Newman and Redford. They had looks and charm. Cool and comedy. Charisma goes a long way. For those very reasons it’s an impressive film and enduringly entertaining. If we cannot watch a film and enjoy it as pure entertainment at least on some level, it really is a shame because that’s one of the many joys of the cinema.

But there’s also something admittedly depressing in how their story evolves. It can no longer be about snide repartee and living the good life robbing banks, continuously augmenting their legendary notoriety. It’s light and funny for a time before slowly spiraling into a deadly cycle.

Perhaps my faith in Butch and Sundance wavered slightly but I will go on resolutely and maintain my immense affection for them that began as a boy. This is still a wonderful film. Outlaws do not have to be one-dimensional. They can be just as funny as they are depressing. That is their right and the legend of the Hole in the Wall Gang is exactly that type of story. We don’t have to see them die. Instead, we get the satisfaction to leave them in one last shining moment of triumph. One final triumph of the West as we once knew it.

5/5 Stars

All the President’s Men (1976)

allthepresidentsmen1You couldn’t hope to come up with a better story than this. Pure movie fodder if there ever was and the most astounding thing is that it was essentially fact — spawned from a William Goldman script tirelessly culled from testimonials and the eponymous source material. All the President’s Men opens at the Watergate Hotel, where the most cataclysmic scandal of all time begins to split at the seams.

And Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) joined by Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were right there ready to pursue the story when nobody else wanted to touch it. The Washington Post went out on a limb when no other paper would. Because if we look at the historical climate, such an event seemed absolutely ludicrous. Richard M. Nixon was the incumbent president. Detente had led to cooled tensions with the Soviets. And Democratic nominee George McGovern looked to be on a self-destructive path.

But the facts remained that these “burglars” had ties to the Republican Party and potentially the White House. It was tasked to Woodward and Bernstein to figure out how far up the trail led. And to their credit the old vets took stock in them — men made compelling by a trio of indelible character actors Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Jason Robards.

Woodward begins hitting the phones covering his notepad with shorthand and chicken scratch, a web of names and numbers. With every phone call, it feels like they’re stabbing in the dark, but the facts just don’t line up and their systematic gathering of leads churns up some interesting discoveries. Names like Howard Hunt, Charles Colson, Dardis, Kenneth H. Dahlberg all become pieces in this patchwork quilt of conspiracy. The credo of the film becoming the enigmatic Deep Throat’s advice to “Follow the money” and so they begin canvassing the streets encountering a lot of closed doors, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

allthepresidentsmen3But it only takes a few breakthroughs to make the story stick. The first comes from a reticent bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) and like so many others she’s conflicted, but she’s finally willing to divulge a few valuable pieces of information. And as cryptic as everything is, Woodward and Bernstein use their investigative chops to pick up the pieces.

Treasurer Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) stepped down from his post in the committee to re-elect the president based on his conscience, and his disclosures help the pair connect hundreds of thousands of dollars to the second most powerful man in the nation, John Mitchell. That’s the kicker.

It’s hard to forget the political intrigue the first time you see the film. What I didn’t remember was just how open-ended the story feels even with the final epilogue transcribed on the typewriter. The resolution that we expect is not given to us and there’s something innately powerful in that choice.

allthepresidentsmen4Gordon Willis’s work behind the camera adds a great amount of depth to crucial scenes most notably when Woodward enters his fateful phone conversation with Kenneth H. Dahlberg. All he’s doing is talking on the telephone, but in a shot rather like an inverse of his famed Godfather opening, Willis uses one long zoom shot — slow and methodical — to highlight the build-up of the sequence. It’s hardly noticeable, but it only helps to heighten the impact.

Furthermore, some dizzying aerial shots floating over the D.C. skyline are paired with Redford and Hoffman’s voice-over as they are canvassing the streets to convey the type of paranoia that we would expect from a Pakula film. Because, much like the Parallax View before it, All the President’s Men holds a wariness towards government, and rightfully so. However, there is a subtext to this story that can easily go unnoticed.

The name Charles Colson is thrown around several times as a special counselor to the president, and Colson like many of his compatriots served a prison sentence. That’s not altogether extraordinary. It’s the fact that Chuck Colson would become a true champion of prison reform in his subsequent years as a born-again Christian, who was completely transformed by his experience in incarceration. And he did something about it starting Prison Fellowship, now present in over 120 countries worldwide.

It reflects something about our nation. When the most corrupt and power-hungry from the highest echelons of society are brought low, there’s still hope for redemption. Yes, our country was forever scarred by the memory of Watergate, but one of the president’s men turned that dark blot into something worth rooting for. It’s exactly the type of ending we want.

4.5/5 Stars

The Candidate (1972)

CandidateposterTwo hallmarks of the political film genre are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men. The latter starred The Candidate’s lead, Robert Redford. However, in this case, the candidate, Billy McKay, is perhaps a more tempered version of Jefferson Smith. He’s a young lawyer, good looking and passionate about justice and doing right by the people.

But this is not a film about a monumental struggle between good versus evil. There are no blatant moments of scandal or obvious skeletons lurking in the closets (although there’s the suggestion that McKay has a slight fling). Still, both men, both the Democrat and the Republican seem like generally amiable individuals — not venomous monsters. If you were with them around a dinner table, no matter your political bent, it would probably be easy to strike up a conversation. But both men, the incumbent, Crocker Jarmon, and the young challenger are playing this game called politics to win the state of California. There’s no doubt about it.

It’s fascinating that the film was actually penned by the real-life speechwriter of Senator Eugene J McCarthy, Jeremy Larner, so you get a sense that there is inherently some truth to the backroom conversations going on between campaign managers, newscasters, and the Senate hopeful. There’s an ethos being elicited and it helps that The Candidate gives off the aura of documentary more often than film.

But what we do see, is the progression of a man. McKay begins resolutely in his ambitions. He’s not at all a politician and he was not planning to become one until he is called upon by a veteran campaign manager. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) thinks the lawyer has the pedigree (his father was a governor) and the genuine charm to win over votes. And finally, Bill agrees to it all as long as he gets to say what he wants. But as things continue to evolve, this beast that is the political machine begins to churn rather insidiously.

There’s not some dramatic moment of epiphany but there is a sense that McKay has started to allow himself to be sucked into this political popularity contest. His advisors are constantly setting up their next moves, putting together press junkets and public appearances to bring their candidate before the people. Meanwhile, his wife (Karen Carlson) is trying to support his cause and his famous father (Melvyn Douglas) eventually looks to get in on the publicity as well. And McKay is certainly candid and likable but he also soon learns what is expected of him. His answers become vague, he toes the line closer and ladles out the type of rhetoric the masses want to hear. The sad thing is that it’s this strategy which begins helping in the polls. Not astronomically but it’s a systematic shift giving him a good chance to win the contest.

But by election night, the votes are being cast, both sides are frantically preparing and Bill realizes he might be on the edge of a precipice he never foresaw. He’s being hoisted up as a champion of the people and yet he realizes he doesn’t want to be there but by this point, it’s too late. He can’t turn back. He can’t reimagine himself because he played the game already.

It’s hard to decipher where the film goes from here — what truly is next? His staff is happy. His wife is happy. His father is happy. Everyone else seems happy too. But the candidate is left to get whisked away by a mob — still wearing a glum face of bewilderment. In some ways, he’s a Jefferson Smith for the modern era. Duped by a system that he thought he could reform, only to find out he sold out. It’s somehow both comic and cynical — in a rather unnerving way — striking a tender nerve. Imagine if you have an election as volatile as the latest one. This film is no less true even over 40 years later. In some ways, everything still functions like a nefarious game. The question is, who is the joke really on?

3.5/5 Stars

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three_Days_of_the_Condor_posterIn the wake of Watergate, the 1970s saw the advent of many political thrillers with arguably the granddaddy of them all being All The President’s Men. Three Days of the Condor is another film that finds Robert Redford trying to get to the bottom of a web involving politics and intrigue. However, this film reminds me a great deal of The Parallax View which came out a couple years earlier. Similarly, this film has probably its most startling moments during its opening sequence and slowly unwinds after that into a thriller full of paranoia and uncertainty.

Sidney Pollack’s film kicks into high gear abruptly as all “Condor’s” colleagues at a CIA-backed literature research post are gunned down by unknown professional hit men. Joe Turner (Robert Redford) was literally out to lunch picking up sandwich orders, and he returns to find his colleagues dead. From that point on begins his life of constant fear, because he cannot know who is with him and who is against him. He can trust no one.

While taking a moments respite, Turner notices a patron named Kathy Hale who is about to meet her boyfriend on the slopes, and he follows her and holds her hostage so he can have a place to stay. It’s supposed to be a matter of chance, but I mean, it is Faye Dunaway so it cannot be that random right? No matter, she’s initially deathly afraid of him, and he does not give her any relief holding her at gunpoint and tying her up. They’re both afraid.

But whether it’s some form of Stockholm syndrome or the fact that she actually believes his predicament, Kathy agrees to help him, and they have the obligatory lovemaking session inter-cut with the stark pictures on her wall.

What happens after this is sometimes difficult to track with as Redford’s character begins his search for a government agent named Higgins, avoiding hit men, while trying to understand who is even after him. Why do they want him? He’s just a lowly bookworm with one cockamamie theory about the odd languages a certain thriller has been translated in.

This one idea has got him caught up in something much bigger than he can ever know involving a hired mercenary named Joubert, CIA Deputy of Operations Leonard Atwood, and oil! That’s what it was all about. That’s why 7 people died and Turner can do barely anything about it. After all, who will print his story? Who will believe him? That’s is the country and the era he lives in after all.

Redford gives an admirable performance, and I personally prefer him to Warren Beatty any day. Dunaway walked a weird line between being demure and submissive, while also dishing out some sass every once and a while. It made her character feel uneven in a sense and she came to like Turner rather abruptly. Then again it was Robert Redford.

All in all, this film’s plotting seems utterly ludicrous to me now, and it becomes more and more ambiguous by the end. It feels hardly like a conclusion at all, much like the Parallax View. And much like the other film I can understand how this story could really strike a cord, especially after Watergate, when so much governmental corruption seemed possible. The sky was the limit and so Three Days of the Condor was perhaps not as far-fetched as it initially appeared. That’s a scary thought indeed.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Not that it matters, but most of it is true…

The film opens with some old sepia-toned footage of a notorious gang from the turn-of-the-century and that is when we meet our two anti-heroes Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). Butch is the brains behind the operation (I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals) and Sundance is the brawn, with the most accurate gun in the West.

They make a living robbing banks and trains, but due to their lifestyle, they seldom come out ahead. Life becomes more difficult with tumult within the gang, a crackdown by the authorities and a price tag on the heads of Butch and Sundance.
Soon it becomes evident that their life of crime will never be the same with a professional tracker on their tails and a posse formed to see them hang. They are chased through hills, rock, water, and the like before finally getting away in one final desperate attempt at escape.
With one last brilliant piece of inspiration, Butch decides they should head for Bolivia to lay low, and soon enough they pack their bags and bring along The Kid’s girl (Katharine Ross) to the promised land of South America. They get more than they bargained for thanks to the language barrier and a lack of decent plunder. However, even abroad, their legend grows, winning them the new moniker “Banditos Yanquis.” The pair takes a stint on the right side of the law for once, but it somehow seems bleaker than their early days as bandits. It is evident that the hourglass is running out on them. And so it does, but not without one final glorious battle to cement the aura around two legends of the West.
I will not go so far as to call Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a masterpiece because I have read too many reviews to know that there has been a great deal of division over the film. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that I quickly grew to love this story. This appreciation stems from the spot on chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Their outlaws are not your typical thugs but lovable buffoons you cannot help but cheer for through all their screw-ups and pratfalls. Paul Newman has his ever-present mischievous smile plastered on his face, and Redford plays the cool and collected Kid to the tee. Perfect casting for the roles and to think it might have been Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty.
 
They got together again in The Sting, which was another good film, although I will always be partial to their first collaboration. William Goldman’s script can only be described as a fun romp that accentuates the comradery of Butch and Sundance. The musical score by Burt Bacharach with the inclusion of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” is often at complete odds with what we have come to expect with classic westerns, but that suits the film just fine.
 
You see this is not your typical western by any means. It’s not supposed to be. Butch and Sundance are working in the twilight of the West. The horse is soon to be replaced with the future: the bicycles. Bank vaults are becoming more complex, fervor for the Spanish-American War is at its peak, and lawlessness is no longer going to be tolerated. Whether people realize it or not, this film is one in a final wave of classic westerns that finally petered out in the 70s. Now the western genre, just like the West before it, is dead. A dying breed of genre much like film-noir or even musicals.
 
That’s why Butch Cassidy works for me. People have criticized the constant change in tones, but this story never claims to be the absolute truth, and it would not be the same film if it did. This story of outlaws is not a history lesson but a legend about two infamous bank robbers. There are moments where we love these antiheroes and moments where we do not know quite what to think of them. They become disillusioned and beaten down by the changing times. Their ambush in Bolivia has only one apparent conclusion. It ended in a bloody and violent death. However, we do not have to see that for the sake of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In one mythical moment, they regained their previous status. They went out as they came in, and they will forever be remembered as Butch and Sundance of the Hole in the Wall Gang. They have since been replaced by superheroes on the silver screen, but in their day and age, they were the original supermen — tarnished as they were.
What is amazing is that the film has not only resonated with audiences for generations, but with the leads themselves who really identified with their roles. That is perhaps the greatest compliment to its characters. 

5/5 Stars 

All the President’s Men (1976)

89d88-mv5bodaxmtc4odcxnf5bml5banbnxkftztcwndy0ntaymq-_v1-_sy317_cr80214317_Starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, this political thriller follows two young investigative journalists as they try to uncover the truth after a mysterious break in at the Watergate Hotel. The Washington Post is the only paper covering the issue that many have dismissed as an isolated event. These two men try to follow all the leads they have but they reach a dead end since no one seems willing to talk. However, with the help of the anonymous source Deep Throat, tireless searching, and a few witnesses, the pieces begin to come together. Little do they know the extent of what they have happened upon. Ultimately, their story about Watergate would lead to the scandal that ended in Richard Nixon’s resignation. This is not only an intriguing film, but it also holds tremendous historical importance.

4.5/5 Stars

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

b0ce9-butch_sundance_posterWith the great combo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the legendary outlaws, this movie is great fun. The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang became infamous for their exploits with Butch (Newman) being the brains and Sundance (Redford) the fastest gun around. Together these two robbed banks, held up trains, and all the while had a good time. At one point or another the law was after them so they fled to South America with one of Butch’s nefarious schemes in mind. However, it was not what they expected and they had to face their biggest challenge ever. With the odds against them, they went out fighting and the legend of Butch Cassidy and Sundance was forever solidified. This film is as much a lighthearted comedy as it is a western. Newman and Redford have hilarious dialogue that brings the film alive and you end up rooting for these two anti-heroes. Although it is a seemingly random addition the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” is an added bonus.

5/5 Stars

Butch: “Ah, you’re wasting your time. They can’t track us over rocks.”
Sundance: “Tell them that.”
Butch: “They’re beginning to get on my nerves. Who are those guys?”