At the Ends of the West

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: written by William Goldman; directed by George Roy Hill; starring Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), and Katharine Ross (Etta Place) (1969): Pitch-perfect Western dramedy gives us terrific, charismatic performances from Redford and Newman and lovely supporting work from the under-rated Katharine Ross. The musical interlude set to “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” doesn’t seem so weird now that every film and TV show sets at least one scene to a pop song.

A distinguished member of a long line of Westerns that are also requiems for the Western, with this one set at about the same time as the dark and apocalyptic The Wild Bunch. William Goldman’s script and George Roy Hill’s direction keep everything zipping along merrily, even in the direst moments. The cleverest stylistic touch is the use of both period and fake-period photography and footage as chapter markers in the story. Highly recommended.

Shane: adapted by A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Jack Sher from the novel by Jack Schaefer; directed by George Stevens; starring Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marian Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Brandon de Wilde (Joey Starrett), Jack Palance (Jack Wilson), and Ben Johnson (Chris Calloway) (1953): George Steven’s elegy to the end of Western expansion, and the attendant end of gunslingers and open ranching, holds up pretty well: the things that might annoy us now also annoyed Francois Truffaut when it came out. Stevens loves having animal behaviour comment on the human proceedings, a love that sometimes borders on unintentional comedy. Well, he did cut his directorial teeth on Laurel and Hardy!

The other flaw, the annoying Brandon de Wilde as Joey Starrett, the boy who idolizes Alan Ladd’s melancholy gunslinger Shane, sometimes make one long for a CGI-corrected version of the film with someone less strident as the boy. So it goes. The adults are all great, from Ladd’s noble gunslinger to Van Heflin’s naturalistically played farmer and Jean Arthur’s hopeful wife to Van heflin, all the way to the grimy land baron and his ruthless mob and, at the end of it all, Jack Palance as the menancing hired gun brought in to drive the farmers off land the rancher wants for grazing. Looming above all the action are the majestic Grand Tetons, setting the affairs of humans against the Sublime and indifferent arc of geological time. Recommended.

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