REVIEW: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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After its release in 1969 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” made a lot of money and garnered a lot of critical praise. It’s been called the ultimate buddy movie and some give it credit for reinventing the Western genre for a new generation. It received a total of seven Academy Award nominations, winning four of the golden statues and it has been lauded by many as a bonafide classic. But over the years there have been a few critics who have looked at the film through a more critical lens. Could it be that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” hasn’t aged well or are there some legitimate issues that have always been there?

For me “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a terribly uneven film in several ways. It features several great and truly memorable moments but it also has stretches of redundancy which grinds things to a halt. Then there are lines of dialogue that are crisp and snappy but others that are glaringly lame or simply don’t feel like they belong in a western of its time. This movie rides a tonal roller coaster which made it feel a bit scattered and difficult to take seriously.

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Paul Newman was a megastar at the time and he was intended to be the centerpiece playing Butch Cassidy. This annoyed Steve McQueen who was set to play Sundance. After a disagreement over who got top billing, McQueen said adios which opened the door for a young Robert Redford. This turned out to be Redford’s star-making role and his performance was the standout. Newman is obviously a fine actor but surprisingly I didn’t see the usual charisma he brings to a role. Newman certainly has his moments but I feel he could have offered more especially considering the substantial investment in him.

Things certainly start off on a high note. We get a great scene showing Sundance being accused of cheating at a card game (a scene which features Sam Elliot’s big screen debut). There’s also a fun bit where Butch and Sundance return to their gang’s hideout and face a small mutiny (In the movie they were called The Hole in the Wall Gang because Cassidy’s real gang name The Wild Bunch was the title of the Sam Peckinpah film also due out that year). After squelching the uprising, the gang takes to holding up trains. The first robbery goes well but after botching their second attempt in a hysterical sequence, Butch and Sundance find themselves being pursued by an ĂĽber-posse put together by a wealthy railroad tycoon.

Up to this point everything is popping. The movie sets itself up well and with the exception of the well-known bicycle scene filmed to B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (which I feel is overly long and oddly out of place), it’s impossible not to be taken in by the story. But then the movie hits a wall. We get a long, drawn out series of shots features the pair on the run from the posse of all posses. We see them riding across the Badlands, running up rocky cliffs, and then stopping to see if they have lost their pursuers. With a near mystical-like presence, the posse is always in the distance. We go through this cycle several times before finally moving in a new direction.

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Realizing the severity of their wanted status, Butch and Sundance round-up Etta (played by Katharine Ross), a young lady with an unusual relationship with the boys, and the three head to Bolivia. Once there the story follows almost the same blueprint as the first half – some really funny moments, some memorable scenes, and a dull stretch. And that is what makes “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” such a hard film to score. It has those times where it’s an absolute blast. It has its funny moments and the chemistry between Newman and Redford shines at certain points. Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography is outstanding and it’s hard not to be smitten by the look of the film as a whole.

Unfortunately it’s hard for me to overlook the inconsistencies found in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. There are some obvious missteps which make me question how this film can be considered an all-time classic. But it certainly isn’t a terrible movie and I definitely recommend seeing it. Redford’s star launched from this flick and it still made a significant mark on movie history. It’s just not a movie that will find its way into my pantheon of all-time favorites.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

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After a relatively slow start to his career, playwright Tennessee Williams struck gold with a series of hits that captivated audiences on both stage and big screen. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of those hits. The film adaptation is loaded with Williams’ signature sizzling dialogue and rich, complex characters. A brilliant cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, and Jack Carson spark this story of fractured relationships, family dysfunction, and the word of the day mendacity. It’s sharp, edgy, and chock full of fiery energy.

Williams’ play first hit Broadway in 1955 and it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The film opened in 1958 and was a big success. Richard Brooks co-wrote and directed the adaptation which (as was usually the case) slightly dulled the edges of the play in order to adhere to the Motion Picture Code. Williams didn’t like the changes, so much so that he often pointed people away from the film version. Many of his plays took from his own tumultuous and contentious life making them deeply personal but sometimes turgid and overblown. Judging the movie on its own merits, I find Brooks’ version to be overflowing with great scenes, a perfectly captured setting, and dialogue that pierces with shards of realism.

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With the exception of two brief scenes the entire story takes place on a huge family estate in the Mississippi Delta. It places us with the Pollitt family, an assortment of deeply flawed and sometimes contemptible people each with more emotional baggage than any world traveler. The family patriarch is Big Daddy (Ives) who may be struggling with some life-threatening health issues. His two sons and potential heirs each have their own problems. Brick (Newman) is a raging alcoholic who hobbles around on a crutch after breaking his ankle pulling a drunken stunt. His relationship with his wife Maggie (Taylor) is as stormy as the Deep South weather. The other son Cooper (Carson in what turned out to be his final role) is more interested in his inheritance. Spurred on by his manipulative wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), Cooper is the quintessential brown-noser who hopes to be first in line for his daddy’s fortune.

There are so many complicated family dynamics at work. Brick and Maggie have a cold and bitter relationship that stems from harbored anger and pain. There is clear animosity between the brothers which is often fueled by their boisterous wives. There is also a disconnect between a wealthy and success-driven father and the two sons that simply wanted his love. All of these conflicts and others are woven together to create the stinging, vitriolic fabric that makes up the story. Amazingly the various family angles never conflict and there is almost a twisted poetic quality to the various contentions and quarrels.

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The story is fantastic but it’s the cast who makes it simmer. Elizabeth Taylor was never more beautiful and her sultry natural beauty and Southern charm is ever-present. Paul Newman is perfect as the angry and closed-off Brick. Surprisingly he was not the first choice. Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, and even Elvis Presley all turned down the role. Carson plays a character type that he was well known for and Sherwood is convincing as the hateful and conniving Mae. But I haven’t even mentioned Judith Anderson who plays Big Daddy’s wife Big Mamma (of course). She lives in a delusional bubble where she pretends everything with her family is okay. Anderson is wonderful and many times she is the glue that binds the various fits of dysfunction we see.

Brimming with Southern personality, big but fitting performances, and a script with a bite, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is as mesmerizing today as it was over 50 years ago. Perhaps some of the edge is missing from the Broadway production, but I found it to be a delight. It’s a beautiful cinematic creation that still proudly shows its stage show roots. And it only gets better when you consider the phenomenal cast lead by Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. For some it falls short of a more popular Tennessee Williams adaption “A Streetcar Named Desire”. For me this film stands right there with it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE VERDICT” – 4 1/2 STARS

I really enjoy courtroom dramas and “The Verdict” is a good one. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Paul Newman in one of his finest performances. David Mamet adapted the Barry Reed novel of the same name. The film received high praise from critics and Newman, Lumet, and Mamet each received Oscar nominations. It’s unique compared to other courtroom pictures in that the main case isn’t a huge unfolding mystery. In fact the case at the center of the film is pretty cut and dry. It’s the organizing of their defense, the fighting through the legal process, and the presentation of the case that fuels the narrative.

But “The Verdict” is also the tale of redemption. Underneath the courtroom drama is the story of a man who has watched his life crumble and but now sees a chance to get his life in order. Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a boozing Boston lawyer who has found himself resorting to ambulance chasing in order to pick up clients. In fact, he’s only had four cases in three years and lost them all. Just like his practice, his personal life is in shambles and he finds his only destructive solace at the bottom of a bottle. Newman nails this character and his Oscar nomination for the role was well deserved. It’s a nuanced performance that shows Frank as more than just a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Newman expertly conveys the inner conflict within Frank and it’s that internal, personal struggle that drives one of the picture’s most compelling components.

Frank’s luck appears to change when an old friend and former partner Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with a medical malpractice case that should be a slam dunk. But what kind of movie would this be if everything was all sunshine and flowers? Frank decides to take the case to trial and turns down a substantial settlement which baffles everyone including his clients. He then finds himself up against a biased judge and a prominent law firm led by Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by James Mason). It’s a legal David and Goliath story with Frank running into one complication after another. Add to it his personal and emotional fragility and you have the ingredients for a top-notch story.

David Mamet’s screenplay is intelligent and razor-sharp. The dialogue is well written and the pacing is methodical. While Mamet’s story intentionally moves deliberately, it does seem to spin its wheels a little during the middle of the film. And some people may argue that the movie isn’t the most detailed and cohesive courtroom drama. But Mamet doesn’t use the courtroom as his main focus. It’s a vehicle that allows this tired and broken man to try for redemption by doing the right thing. Lumet’s direction is fantastic and his ability to capture emotion and intensity through silence is impressive. He also gives the movie a gritty edge and authenticity that perfectly fits.

While Lumet and Mamet’s work is solid and there is a wonderful supporting cast, everything comes back to Paul Newman. Almost always seen on-screen as the handsome and vibrant performer, here he looks old, worn-down, and defeated. He perfectly captures this character and we never doubt him for a second. There’s no hard-to-believe miracle transformation. Instead we see someone taking one step at a time trying to dig himself out of the hole he made. Newman sells all of this with a down-to-earth genuineness that is easy to buy into. “The Verdict” may not be the most highly polished courtroom movie but it certainly holds its own. It’s an emotionally charged drama with a redemptive subtext that worked for me on so many levels. And how can you not love watching Newman dominate the screen in what is arguably his greatest performance.