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Butch & Sundance: The Early Days/Death Hunt (Double Feature) (DVD Review)

7 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory/Vivendi
$14.93 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Tom Berenger, William Katt.

Less interesting by itself than as a harbinger of what else might be coming, this outdoor two-fer (a good programming concept) is one of three new releases that find Shout! Factory invading the 20th Century-Fox archives back from the days when “Century” and “Fox” were still hyphenated.

These opening salvos, if this is what they are, aren’t quite on the household-name level; they’re more akin to the caliber of titles that get run again and again (to the exclusion of a ga-zillion alternatives) on the wretchedly programmed Fox Movie Channel. But they’re not without interest and manage to include one release I’ve never seen (1974’s 11 Harrowhouse, that rare caper movie to star Charles Grodin) plus another I saw at the time. This would be 1975’s high-profile train wreck Lucky Lady, fascinating for the severe damage it did to the careers of lead Liza Minnelli, director Stanley Donen and the American Graffiti screenwriting team of Wilfred Huyck and Gloria Katz.

In contrast, this harmless pairing is just another night at the drive-in — the kind of time-passers that might have made you want to build a drive-in just to show them, as long as you didn’t spend too much money on it. In order of preference, which is also the order in which the movies were released, we are talking:

Butch & Sundance: The Early Days (1979): Notwithstanding Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes from the 1940s, Days is one of the first movies I can recall for which the dreadful term “prequel” was used and even utilized as a sales tool — a full 10 years (minus just a few months) after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which at the time seemed like a foolhardy time span. That it remains a respectable undertaking and certainly no disgrace isn’t quite the same as saying that this was a movie that needed to be made, but it did give some work to the great Richard Lester (who turned 79 last month) when his eccentric sensibilities were starting to make a him less of an obvious candidate for the kind of films that were then getting made.

In a fairly formidable stroke of luck, Hollywood had two up-and-coming young actors with one or two major credits each to provide more than reasonable facsimiles of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Coming off his I-sure-don’t-want-to-date-that-guy impression from Looking for Mr. Goodbar, relative newcomer Tom Berenger was as physically right for Butch as William Katt was for Sundance. To the limited audiences who’d seen Joan Darling’s First Love and John Milius’s surfing paean Big Wednesday, Katt and his blond curls had made a huge impression (at least on the women I was dating at the time).

Parts of Days are played fairly straight, but there’s also some comedy with someone’s stamp, be it Lester’s or screenwriter Allan Burns’. The latter was a superstar TV writer from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant” and, if you like, “The Munsters” — and earlier in the year, Burns had penned the screenplay for the sweet and in some quarters revered Diane Lane debut vehicle A Little Romance. There are some nice touches here to go along with Laszlo Kovacs’ first-rate photography. Bravo to the person who came up with the idea to commence a robbery with a skunk attack, and I also like the combination saloon/bank that gets robbed late in the movie (talk about one-stop shopping).

Death Hunt (1981): Royal Mountie Lee Marvin is out in the Yukon where there isn’t much romantic ambience, but still: In the sack with him is Angie Dickinson, and she seems to want to be there. Instead, Charles Bronson has gone into an ammo store, cleaned out the proprietor with a purchase and eventually begun shooting at marauding thugs from inside his log cabin. (With good reason.) Thus, Marvin has to follow the Canadian credo and “always get his man” — or at least try.

From the beginning, we’re on Bronson’s side after he opens the film by rescuing a canine from a Michael Vick kind of dog fight — one whose key perpetrator is played with his usual slimy expertise by Ed Lauter, who spends much of the film with what looks like an infected face (nice makeup job). Marvin is only fulfilling his job description by chasing Bronson, and the two develop a wary bond somewhat akin to the one William Holden and Robert Ryan have in The Wild Bunch (an incomparably better film). In fact, a lot of Death Hunt treads the man-vs.-progress territory that did so much to advance Bunch director Sam Peckinpah’s career. It’s 1931, and Marvin doesn’t like what progress portends. As soon as some cocky hotshot pilot shows up to begin chasing Bronson himself, we know that a crash into the mountains can’t be far away.

The director is Peter R. Hunt, who edited the earliest and best James Bond entries and also directed 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — which might have been more than the cult movie that it nonetheless is had it not been cast with one-shot oddity George Lazenby amid one of Sean Connery’s cranky periods. And speaking of lackluster performances, you’ve come to the right place. Mostly, the actors phone it in — yet, on the other hand, it really does look as if they’re out on arduous location with a lot of snow, earning their money.

Though Marvin’s follow-up movie would be his last respectable one (1983’s Gorky Park), this one is another of those late-career assignments where his character looks as if he sprinkles gin on his oatmeal every morning (which you can’t say doesn’t fit his role here). Because his Mountie here is kind of a maverick, we never get to see Marvin sport one of those famously bright red uniforms a la Gary Cooper in Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police. But a tenderfoot colleague played by Andrew Stevens does — at least until bunking with Carl Weathers (Carl Weathers?!?) and Marvin plus Angie, too, begin to make him devalue formality.

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