Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(SPOILERS) I’m doubtful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could have been made in the form it was a few years earlier, but you won’t find it identified with “New Hollywood” that was percolating at the time of its release (it merits a mere three mentions in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls). Elements – trendy, “cool” nihilism – were, if not informed then fanned by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, but this was very much a big Hollywood production, with a then bank-busting sum commanded by William Goldman’s screenplay and the studio martialling the talents of top stars and composers.
One might argue its assimilation of counter-culture was the equivalent of selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, of a PG-rated, non-threatening kind. There was no weight to sticking it to the man because Butch and Sundance simply weren’t that way inclined; the duo ultimately continue in a life of crime and unto death not through anarchic tendencies or high-mindedness, but because going straight is too much like hard work. Perhaps the film has endured so well because of that all-embracing attitude; these are simply likeable guys, ones who even go to their graves in a chipper frame of mind.
I mean, you can cite the iconography, the self-conscious sepia that opens the movie, complete with “news reel” footage, and the magisterial freezeframe ending that evokes exactly the appropriate air of melancholic uplift (we know they’re dead, but we don’t actually see them die – Thelma & Louise aimed for something similar, but pulled its punches), and Goldman in his self-reflexive way comments on this throughout, the passing of time and innovation pushing the outlaw way of life to the fringes and beyond (“Your times is over, and you’re going to die bloody” the duo are rather bluntly told at one point), but Butch and Sundance isn’t – if we going to give genre comparisons – founded on the elegance and opera that feeds every frame of a Leone film, or obsessed with the masculine mythmaking in the manner of the same year’s The Wild Bunch. Butch and Sundance is a beautiful movie – courtesy of DP Conrad Hall – and it feels immensely satisfying, but it’s hardly elegant.
Goldman could be found singing the praises of George Roy Hill, ranking him up there with David Lean (I mean, really?), but I rather think what the director brought to the picture was a knack for recognising what was needed in any given scene rather than a cohesive style (that said, Hill also began second-guessing himself, worried it was too funny after mirthful test screenings so chopped a load of laughs out); Butch and Sundance carries a tone and sense as a whole, but individual parts diverge widely, as widely on the one hand as the musical interlude of Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head (a US No.1 hit) and two striking montage sequences, the first a travelogue of stills as Butch, Sundance and Etta journey to Bolivia, the second one of Burt Bacharach’s finest compositions, South American Getaway, as the duo/trio rob Bolivian banks and are pursued by the law. Raindrops might be deemed the intrusive equivalent of Partyman in Tim Burton’s Batman, but to me, it has always fitted perfectly; it’s the simpler, carefree moment before their paths change for ever. Plus, it’s indelible; it wouldn’t be the same film without it.
Then, at the other extreme, there’s the conclusion, in which our anti-heroes are left bloodied and worse, very much at variance with the larks they got up to earlier in the movie. It probably isn’t a wonder the initial reaction to the movie was mixed – even though it snowballed into seven Oscar nominations a few months later – since it pulls off a difficult feat of testing audience expectations that hadn’t often been (successfully) tried.
The glue that holds the movie together is Paul Newman and Robert Redford – initially envisaged as Newman and Lemmon, then Newman and McQueen, and even Newman with Brando or Beatty – forming what is even now the ultimate buddy pairing. I revisited The Sting a few weeks ago, though, and that picture is evidence that it isn’t just sticking these two together that made Butch and Sundance work. It’s the deceptively straightforward characterisations Goldman has come up with too; Butch the affable goof, the bank robber who has never shot anyone, teaming with Sundance the taciturn killer. Together, they’re so damn likeable, but the real tester of a good buddy pairing is that neither should be as interesting on their own, and I think that holds true here (the same is the case with the later Midnight Run). Together, they’re complete.
It’s Katherine Ross as Etta who is the extraneous sidekick to “Tracy and Hepburn”, ostensibly leaving them when she knows they’re going to die. But she’s really leaving them to each other, the really mutually adoring relationship of the movie. On those terms, it’s a curious set up; other actors than Newman might have been uneasy about the imbalance of Butch’s curiously asexual paternal presence, content to be a hanger-on as the kids canoodle, and given laughs to play (“I’m a terrible comic actor” Newman professed), but what he brings is effortless cool, and the sense of a thinking man, but not necessarily a wise one (“That’s what you’re good at” mocks Sundance). In contrast, Redford has a dangerous air about him as Sundance, something you’ll never say about him again. I’m fairly convinced it’s the moustache. It’s curious that this was the role that defined him as a star, yet his subsequent carrer is much more in line with protecting an image of a wholesome, airbrushed bleach-blonde movie star (I say that mostly in a good way, and acknowledging several great subsequent parts… Well, Woodward and The Candidate, anyway).
But then, I don’t think anyone here has outmatched themselves later. Newman’s had meatier acting parts (The Verdict) but this is the one that boosts his natural star quality the most. Hill did nothing very remarkable prior, and afterwards had a similarly patchy time (best were his solo pairings with these stars, Slap Shot and The Great Waldo Pepper). Goldman’s All the President’s Men might be the more remarkable achievement in finding a way to tell that story, meanwhile, but this just feels like his career-defining moment; he knew as much, and rightly predicted his New York Times obit giving it precedence.
Goldman tells it that the realisation of the “phenomenal material” attracted him, that here was a story that disproved F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “There are no second acts in American lives” (they were more legendary in South America than they had been in the old West) and honed his dinner guest anecdote of the unlikely elements he had to wrangle to sell the idea, such as making his heroes running away heroic. In truth, once Butch heard about the super posse, they simply high tailed it; the screenplay solution is still the most satisfying sequence in a movie filled with them, from Butch kicking Harvey (Ted Cassidy) in the nuts onwards. The “Who are these guys?” pursuit is brilliant, all the more so for keeping the reactions one-sided, their pursuers always a dogged distance away, and culminates in a great death-defying escape. Like I say, though, the movie’s replete with lovely little moments. The first ten minutes pass by in a sepia flash, not because of the editing, but because the writing is spellbinding. Butch’s personability allows unlikely impediments to their progress to give rise to the humorously memorable (Woodcock), and we’re never far from being reminded that our heroes are rather hapless (being laughed at by Percy Garris (Strother Martin) for worrying about being robbed on the way down the mountain, before they have anything to be robbed of).
I mentioned that the picture was less than universally lauded when it first appeared, but few decried it more pitilessly than Pauline Kael, who called it “a glorified vacuum’, commenting that “Not every movie has to matter…” before suggesting that its fault is exactly that it’s one that doesn’t. It’s sometimes difficult to work out just why Kael took against a picture (some have suggested it was just a desire to be different, a charge also levelled at Armand White) or a star (she really had it in for Redford). She seems offended by the cheerful immorality on display, making heroes of villains and having no truck with their crimes and killings, but you won’t find that as a remotely consistent position in her divining good from bad movies.
She more particularly seemed to take issue with the very things most of us who like it relish, from Goldman’s opening title (“Yet everything that follows rings false, as that note does”) to its irreverent tone (“It’s a facetious western, and everybody in it talks comical”). She reserves particular scorn for Goldman’s (Oscar-winning) writing (“all banter, all throwaways… it isn’t witty and it isn’t dramatic… decorative little conceits passing for dialogue”). It is, as ever with her reviews, a great read (“It’s all posh and josh, without any redeeming energy or crudeness”) while being entirely impossible to agree with. I relish the film’s “damned waggishness”, “hip-cute quips” and the manner in which it was “a put on that took its mockery seriously, kept straining towards the lyrical and the legendary”. All those complaints go toward making it a classic (to be entirely fair, however, Goldman appeared to agree with Kael, at least in part; “There’s a lot about the screenplay I don’t like, the smart-assness being just one of them”).
But yes, I’ll give her a couple of points. I don’t think the “put-on rape” plays very well (and remember thinking it was an odd thing to pass as a joke even when I first saw it way back when), and “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals” draws attention to itself as a bum line, but mostly because so many of them here are great ones. You could argue that the picture plays surface respect to thematic depth, but I’d suggest it’s a film that’s more important for the effect it has on the viewer (unless you’re Kael) than what it “says”. It has such a strong sense of mood, an imprimatur, if you like, whereby it remains fondly and wistfully with you; it’s very aware of ensnaring a nostalgia that’s simultaneously false and shallow, while conscious to resist the kind of over-emphasised substance Kael would have liked (Goldman cites the final scene’s conversation, where the characters studiously do nottalk about what’s obvious, that they’re mortally wounded and about to die). There’s an ephemeral fizz to their lives, something Bacharach only underlines, and before they know it, they’re over, and they’ve had no time to reflect. One might relate that to any of us.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar (it did take the BAFTA, though – in fact, it took nine out of the ten it was nominated for, and only didn’t take the tenth because it was a dual Best Actor nomination), but it should have. No one talks about the costume drama (Anne of the Thousand Days) or the musical (Hello, Dolly!) any more, although the political entry is still respected (Z, like this year’s Roma a rare foreign language nominee for the big one; and like Roma it had to content itself with Best Foreign Film). Really, the contest was between Butch and Sundance and Midnight Cowboy, though, and since I’ve always held that the latter was rather overrated (but that’s for another time), there’s no contest. Butch and Sundance did win the most Oscars that night (four besides Goldman’s: song, score, and cinematography), but the Oscars being what they are, it was a year where a self-important reflection of the times was called for, and the cowboy-in-title-only fitted that bill.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.