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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)






Director: George Roy Hill - Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin, Henry Jones, Jeff Corey, George Furth, Cloris Leachman, Ted Cassidy

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is often compared to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. In both films the main characters are outlaws who are expelled from their home country by advancing civilization; like Pike Bishop and his gang, Butch and the Kid die in a bloody shoot-out with federal troops of a Latin-American country; both movies are recognized as authentic American classics and tell a story of people who have outlived their time and are desperately groping for a mainstay in times of change. While Peckinpah's movie is often called a 'dirty western', George Roy Hill's masterpiece has a more gentle reputation.

Cassidy and Sundance are members of the Hole in the Wall gang. Butch (Paul Newman) is the gang's leader and mastermind, always full of ideas; the Kid (Robert Redford) is his lieutenant, faster with his gun than with his mind. The opening credits are shown alongside a fake sepia-colored newsreel about their exploits, suggesting that these guys belong to another era, are part of a world that has disappeared. 

The narrative begins in medias res: we see them in the heyday of their criminal career: Sundance playing cards and showing his skills as a gunslinger, Cassidy kicking a gang member (who challenges his leadership) in the groin and making a bike ride with Sundance’s girlfriend. But the mood changes after their second train robbery, when the train company puts a super posse on their trail. Cassidy’s repeated question ‘Who are those guys’ emphasizes the growing concern of these two men on the run. They finally manage to escape by jumping of a high cliff into a river, but their glory days are over. The only two people in the world unaware of that, seem to be Butch and the Kid. 


Front row left: Harry Longbaugh (Sundance Kid); front row right: Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy)

When they were chased by ‘those guys’ from the posse, a friend has told them they were going to die in bloody fashion, and could only choose where. But when Butch and the Kid move to Bolivia, not to die there, but to pick up their old lives. Once arrived, they immediately start to rob banks again, but soon they are known as the ‘Yankui’ bank robbers and have their faces up on walls. Unlike her two friends, Etta (Katharine Ross) knows  their days are counted and there’s nowhere left to go now. Not willing to see them die, she departs. From this moment on, the tone really turns sour. In a desperate attempt to escape their fate, the boys accept a regular job as payroll guides, but they are recognized in a town they have previously robbed and surrounded by an immense force of government troops. Significantly, the film ends with a freeze frame. Modern times have arrived. These guys have become a memory. A still picture.

One of the most successful westerns in history, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has also become one of the most discussed of the so-called 'Great Westerns': virtually all elements have been criticized in the course of the years, from George Roy Hill’s direction (too traditional) to William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script (too whimsical), and from Burt Bacharach’s score (anachronistic) to Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning photography (superficial beauty hiding a lack of substance).

There's no doubt that the movie is a bit too cheerful for its own good. Basically it's a sad movie, and both Goldman and Hill seem to forget this a few times too many; some parts (notably the posse sequence - 'Who are those guys?') are also needlessly protracted. But the movie is helped enormously by the charisma of two leads and Conrad Hall’s breathtakingly beautiful cinematography. Instead of hiding something, the cinematography is part of the film’s meaning: Hall chose a very pleasing autumnal color palette for the happy days back home, more subdued colors during the posse sequence - the heroes’ Twilight of the Gods -  and finally strong, harsh colors for the grand finale in Bolivia. Often called a superfluous musical interlude, the bike ride on Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head’ underlines the care-free lifestyle of the duo, and the finale, culminating in the famous freeze frame, is truly mesmerizing. It’s one of those cinematic experiences you never forget.


The film was very important for both Newman’s and Redford’s career. Newman was cast against type as the smart, would-be wise Cassidy. His previous successes had been in roles where he was a fanatical, rebellious loner; Redford became not only a star, but a sex symbol as well. The movie was very important for Hollywood too: it was one of the first (and certainly the most influential) movies belonging to a type of art that has been typified by the author Tom Wolfe as 'radical chic': everybody loved the movie, even though the content was incongruous with most viewers' lifestyle and social ideas; everybody loved the two bandits, even though they were on the losing side of history and were not redeemed by any heroic or altruist act

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a more complex movie than one would say at first glance: Yes, it has this glorious, sophisticated look which may give you the idea that it's an optimistic, gentle movie, but in reality it more radical than The Wild Bunch, which is at heart a romantic movie, glorifying the old code of ethics of those men who have become obsolete. Butch and Sundance are simply cornered, they don't give their life for a gang member, they remain what they are, and will be remembered for what they were.

A crowd pleaser and one of the most successful films of the sixties, it was also loved by the Academy. The film received four Oscars and three more nominations.


References:

* Paul Simpson, the Rough Guide to westerns
* Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns
* Phil Hardy, The Aurum film Encyclopedia: The Western
* Philip French, The Western

2 comments:

  1. Nice post - thanks for sharing. I've always loved the movie even though it's so horribly sad!

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  2. Thanks for this assessment, as you say that ending is forever imprinted on one's memory!

    ReplyDelete