Friday, June 29, 2007

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I just saw this AFI top 100 entry and you know there's no greater feeling in movies than watching an established classic for the first time. That's why i haven't seen every movie on the AFI top 100, The National Society of Film Critic's top 100 list, or every Oscar winner: there are a lot of rainy days to save them for.

Butch Cassidy is a Western that's injected with more humor and a sense of casual ease between the characters that I've never seen in a Western before, except a flat-out parody like Blazing Saddles. The very nature of the two main characters even lends itself to comedy. Comedy is often based around characters who are insanely stupid or intellectually deficient in some area. Butch and Sundance possess great intelligence when it comes to pretty much everything except they cannot grasp the concept of how much trouble they're going to get themselves into by robbing. Consider the inherent humor of these situations:
  • You would think that they went to Bolivia to try to get away from being chased, but once they get down there, they go and start robbing every chance they get. Their excuse is that they don't think they'd make good farmers or ranchers. The scene in which they discuss this with Etta plays out as if they're going to a career cousnelor trying to figure out what their ideal job is and they have no sense of "well, maybe we should pick career choice A or career choice B because career choice C will severely increase our chance of getting killed."
  • They think that they're going to be eligible to join the army despite the fact that they're the most wanted outlaws in the West
  • They have Etta give them a crash course in Spanish so they can properly rob a bank as if the sight of guns and hand motions won't be enough. Butch also fumbles the presentation of the initial bank robbery and has to resort to some crib notes in his coat picket
  • They're chronically inefficient as bank robbers. You would think that like in "The Wild Bunch" or "Unforgiven," Butch and Sundance would try to score one big job that would be enough to be financially secure, but Butch and Sundance rob with no end in sight. They do almost as if it's a weekly 9-5 job they have to show up to work at, as if they have rent and bills that need to be paid. There's no sense of "this is how much we need to buy some land." I don't even get the sense that they're even keeping track of how much money they're making. Etta says that they take too many expensive vacations and are poor gamblers, but somehow I don't buy that explanation entirely.
The main strength of the film is the chemistry between the two stars. The verbal interplay between Redford and Newman is the work of a great screenwriter as much as it is the work of two actors on their game, and Katherine Ross's character seamlessly blends in with the other two. Although we can admire her character for being romantically faithful to the Sundance Kid, she romantically fulfills the desires of both men in a sense. Butch Cassidy has prostitutes to go to for his sexual desires but Etta Place fulfills Butch's need for a domesticator (an emblematic figure in Western). She's someone that can cook him a hot meal and someone he can show off his bike to. I think the line, "You're riding on my bycicle, in some countries that would mean we're married," has a lot more to it beneath the surface. The beauty of this threesome is that she can give Butch something along the lines of what Ethan Edwards never got to have with his sister-in-law in the Searchers, yet she never betrays the Sundance Kidd. More than anything else, she acts as the moral compass that women often portray in Westerns. She goes along with the two to Bolivia when we feel that the heroes are justified in their quest for survival but when they can't stop robbing like it's a disease, that's when she foresakes them. Unlike, the classic Western hero, the Sundance Kidd's life does not revolve around a woman. In High Noon, My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, Shane, or The Searchers, a woman or the awareness of a lack of a the domesticating woman plays a role in the resolution of the heroes' story. In this film, the characters are too oblivious to their goals to even notice she's gone, and perhaps if they noticed that she were leaving, then they might have known how far they'd have strayed.

Lastly, I want to touch up on another source of the film's greatness. The film is great because of the sense of suspense it builds up. Particularly when the railroad-possee is hunting them down and we don't even know who they are, it feels like the shark in Jaws where there's the thrill of an unkown enemy.