REVIEW: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969]

“For a gunman, you’re one hell of a pessimist”

Director George Roy Hill had a little success when working with Paul Newman: two Best Picture and Best Director nominees with classics The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with a cult classic in the hockey comedy Slap Shot. The Sting is one of my favorite films and so when the opportunity presented itself to see the first pairing of Hill, Newman, and Robert Redford on the big screen, I had to take advantage. Being the earliest success and having an image of one of the best westerns around, I must admit to being somewhat surprised at the humor tossed about at the start. Did I think this would be a serious film? Perhaps, but never did I anticipate it being a buddy comedy to the core with a witty, dynamic duo at the lead. While Newman and Redford definitely steal the show, Butch Cassidy is much more than just two outlaws having fun. Brilliant cinematography, directing, and a few impressive shootouts help prove why this film is held in such high regard.

The film is dated, for sure, in many parts. A cheesy rendition of the Oscar winning song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” showing Newman and actress Katharine Ross riding a bike through a farm is one instance, (especially since they weren’t even romantically involved), as are the silent time-progressing montages set to similar musical stylings. Heck, the movie even drags a bit due to the flimsy plot at its core. The crux of the story involves the end of robbing banks and trains on horse, and how these two men experience this truth. It is a dead artform and the police and hired hands have gotten too sophisticated to just let criminals getaway. Therefore, one can only witness so many robberies, no matter what country they occur in, without hoping for a little bit more. However, that said, you won’t be bored because our anti-heroes refuse to let you. Whether thieving, escaping, going straight, or just laying low, Newman and Redford work together as though they have their entire life. The comedic timing is perfect, the facial expressions genuine, and the audience reaction nothing short of laughter upon laughter.

Butch and Sundance, (Newman and Redford respectively), know they are a dying breed, even going so far as saying they may be over the hill in the business. Their return to the Hole in the Wall Gang Cassidy formed proves this with an attempt at usurping power by another member in lieu of a “welcome back” party. The confidence, or perhaps insanity, in each keeps our leads from ever backing down or giving up. Butch always has a new great idea to make things better and Sundance always has his guns at the ready to make sure those plans can occur. It is a pairing of brains and brawn like any other, two friends living the high life by stealing and spending lavishly, looking for the next big score, the next slice of danger, or, if they’re lucky, both. They’ve been at it for a long time at the point to which we are introduced, and they have a set system that has worked in the past. Sometimes people take things personally, however, and change the rules. You can only knock off the Union Pacific so often before its owner enlists a posse of hired hands to kill his enemies by paying more than they even steal from him. Now that is a grudge if I’ve ever heard one.

Hill and screenwriter William Goldman are never afraid to stick with the western aesthetic or with their lead actors for extended periods of time. Half the film is spent as the two try their best to get away from the bounty hunters on their trail—“Who are those guys?” indeed. The barren environments and always on the move flavor lend themselves well to the pair, though, giving a stark contrast to their colorful characters. You don’t need the distractions of minute-to-minute action when you have the brisk rapport, complete with a stunningly choreographed verbal back and forth, of Newman and Redford. A friend of mine told me that he believes this might be the film that started the trend we see every week at the multiplex now, having two disparate personalities clashing for laughs. It is two bad guys here, but the technique has been reinvented often, with a film such as Tommy Boy, two goofy good guys, and the combo cop/criminal work Midnight Run as well. It is something about this original, having the two outlaws at it, that works for me. These are generally amoral folk with a penchant for tempers and sarcasm, so the language and jabs just seem to be more believable.

You definitely can’t discount the Oscar-winning cinematography from Conrad L. Hall either. His use of blocking and framing is pretty great and the ability to always have the leads in the foreground while still seeing the hunters on their trail in the distant desert is an impressive feat. Scenes like watching the torch lights split up in the nighttime distance, only to see them join up again in pursuit show the kind of planning that went into this production. And Hill also decided to be inventive in his process of editing and progression as well. The movie begins nicely with old silent film footage of the gang stealing from trains on a projection while the credits roll to its right, showing how the medium itself will be utilized to help tell the story. While there are more traditional montages, like the exploits of the Bandidos Yanquis with help from Ross’s Etta Place in Bolivia, the most memorable sequence of time-lapse comes from a collage. Yes, the traveling from out west to New York to South America is told through sepia-toned photographs taken along the way. I can only guess that Roger Avary had this moment in mind when he chose to similarly show Victor’s European vacation in Rules of Attraction.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is by far more buddy comedy than weighty Once Upon a Time in the West fare, but that is not a bad thing. There are definite themes of time passing and men attempting to grow old, yet, sometimes, seeing that the job just can’t be left behind. You don’t become career criminals expecting to live a long life; you do it for the adventure and the fun a quick fortune can bring. The film does get a tad serious towards the end, especially when the world begins to fall around them and Ross starts to put into action her promise of following them anywhere as long as she doesn’t have to be there when they are killed, but at the same time never loses its comedic edge. These two affable bad guys smile in the face of fear and as a result give us a very memorable conclusion to the adventure. With a brilliant freeze-frame, letting the end occur in the minds of the viewers, Hill caps one heck of a ride with the best action and banter yet. There is nothing like saving one’s best for last to leave an impression.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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