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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Impromptu Paul Newman tribute. Thoughts on BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

Paul Newman

Frankly, up until he recently passed away, my impression of Paul Newman had always been vague. I remember more of the old Paul Newman than the young Paul Newman who was at the height of his fame. I remember him best in the awesome ROAD TO PERDITION. (And also for the Newman's Own food products I used to see at Perth supermarkets).

One of the most beautiful scenes of ROAD TO PERDITION, but don't watch this if you want to avoid spoilers

The earliest film I've seen of him was considered a film made during the twilight of his career, Martin Scorsese's THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), which starred him and Tom Cruise and finally won Newman his first Oscar for Best Actor (one year after he received his Lifetime Achievement Award!). Unfortunately, up until now, I've never seen the films that were considered his classics, like HUD, COOL-HAND LUKE (Dad loves this film), THE STING and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, the latter two arguably his most beloved, and made the then-unknown Robert Redford into a superstar too.

Long ago during my teens (how old I've made myself sound now!), I used to devour through my dad's collection of books about the film industry (my love for reading is inherited from my dad, just that he prefers the non-fiction), and one of the most memorable ones is William Goldman's memoir ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. The book came with the screenplay of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (according to Goldman, this and THE PRINCESS BRIDE were the only screenplays he wrote that he was entirely happy with), which I read from start to finish, and despite many years have passed since then, I can still remember most of the plot.

So when my professor screened BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID for us two days during class, I thought it was good to finally watch a film I never had the time or the opportunity to watch earlier (despite my dad having the DVD at home).

Watching the film, the first thing that stood out to me was how bloody good-looking Paul Newman was during his youth (okay, he was 44 when the film was made, the same age Brad Pitt is now) And as it went on, the thing really unique about him is that, unlike the other icons of his era like Marlon Brando or James Dean, there's something really warm and inviting about his screen presence (or maybe it's just the role he played). Unlike Brando or Dean, whom I always detected some sort of detachment or sullenness when watching them in their films.

And then, there was the young Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, whom someone in class said reminded him of Brad Pitt. The same comparisons have been made about them long ago, so I don't find that surprising. And yes, I noted some similarities too.

Many have considered this the film that invented the 'buddy movie' genre, the type with two wisecracking heroes often trading quips and one-liners during their adventures. Many elements I saw in this film have been imitated so much to death now that it would've been considered cliched. Even so, I thought there was some sort of timelessness about this whole film, something I always felt about really good films. The mise-en-scene (most scenes were staged carefully), the amazing cinematography by Conrad Hall (he deserved the Oscar), and finally, the three musical montage...

The film almost had no music soundtrack, except during the three key moments. The first is the classic (and much-parodied and referenced) 'RAINDROPS FALLING ON MY HEAD' montage, which was shot so beautifully. I almost had goosebumps watching it...


And then the second one, which is actually an awesome extended montage of sepia-toned still photos chronicling the three primary characters' (Butch, the Sundance Kid and Katharine Ross' Etta Place) journey to Bolivia. At that instance, my reaction when watching the scene was instantly: "damn, this sure doesn't look like a film from 1969!" It's so audacious of the director to throw in some sort of montage like that in the middle of the film? And it lasted for 7+ minutes too! Don't think that many would pull something off something like this in a commercial film nowadays. Look at it below (but ignore the dub, dunno what language is that)


When the film ended, I had a brief chat with my new Chinese coursemate, whom I noticed was asleep during most of the film. The guy was put off by the film's pacing and length. Which was unsurprising, since even Roger Ebert himself complained about the same thing in his old review of the film. The part where Butch and the Sundance Kid were chased by this special posse (it made up nearly a third of the film) was quite unusual because the director didn't really try conventional methods to heighten the tension, no scenes of the duo escaping from near-death by avoiding shower of bullets, or having any close calls with the members of the elite posse. Their pursuers remained faraway, just small specks that audiences can see in the distance or in the background, but nothing more. By not giving faces or shapes to them, they become more like an unstoppable supernatural force. It's an interesting way of filmmaking, and once again, not something I see often these days.

Seeing Paul Newman onscreen for the first time, when he was at the height of his powers, I find myself thinking of the numerous articles I have read about him before and after his passing, a screen legend with an indescribably magnetic presence, a movie star smile, and oceans in his eyes, it was hard to really believe most of what I read back then, but throughout the film, I find myself gradually understanding them. Now, here's the most badass scene of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

Disturbingly, I realize that not that many of my own friends know who Paul Newman is. What about you all? Anyone have anything to say about him? Seen any of his films? Anything you seriously want to recommend and why? Let's just say this post is my own tribute of sorts to the screen legend (and an education to those who don't know him...)