Thursday, February 28, 2019
Whatever you think this has all been about, you’re mistaken. You can’t help it if you weren’t there. That’s not your fault. And it has to be true that some of the films you’re going to connect with, especially when you’re younger, are those films you connect with the most deep down because of some primal experience. You saw it with your dad, you saw it on a date, you saw it in a very special theater on a very special night with the greatest audience imaginable. If you haven’t had these experiences, sometimes a film eludes you. This is all my way of saying that I’d never given much thought to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID beyond its status as a legendary screenplay by William Goldman. Checking it out on TV or video through the years it seemed to me that it was fun but maybe a little thin and frankly I had little to no emotional response at all. And I accepted that maybe I had to be there at the time but I was just born a few years too late. Look, I’m not perfect but we knew that already. So what I’m saying is that getting to see the film for the first time in 35mm recently at the grand re-opening of a certain revival house here in town knocked me out, revealing it to be a work of depth and maturity to go along with all those famous wisecracks that had never really clicked this way for me before. I’m still thinking about how much it affected me and why. Sometimes in this life you eventually connect with something even if it is years later, which is maybe all that matters.
Shortly after Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) returns to Hole-in-the-Wall with the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) to reunite with his gang, they start up again with an idea to rob the Union Pacific twice, once for each way on its route. But the second attempt doesn’t go as planned not only due to Butch using too much dynamite on the safe but when a posse emerges clearly prepared to begin chasing Butch and Sundance through the landscape until they’re caught. Soon after their narrow escape, Butch decides to make good on his plan to take off for Bolivia and the two of them set off with Sundance’s girl Etta Place (Katharine Ross) coming along. But Bolivia isn’t what they expect it to be either and even as they start up robbing again it becomes clear how much times are changing and that it’s not going to be possible for them to run far enough to get away from all those people intent on chasing them until the deed is done.
John Wayne couldn’t have starred in this film. That’s one thing I kept thinking. In some ways BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID doesn’t feel anything like the westerns being made in the 60s, let alone earlier, whether John Ford or CAT BALLOU, and is maybe more of a buddy movie than truly part of that genre, not as interested in the expected tropes that so many of them are. These characters have lived in this world so long that they’re no longer particularly impressed by whatever the west represents and even when Butch talks about returning to his hideout in Hole-in-the-Wall he doesn’t seem to be doing it for any reason other than it’s what he knows. That seems to be what the film is about as much as anything—you can’t change. You can’t become anything else other than what you already are. Right from the opening credits of its wistful silent movie showing what these guys represented long ago, it’s clear how much the film is also about the end of something and how no matter what there’s nothing you can do to stop the future, no matter how far you run. And along with that I kept thinking how this was a western which couldn’t have starred John Wayne, even if he was a movie star who changed less than anyone over the course of forty-odd years. Of course, Wayne didn’t appear in every western made in Hollywood through the decades but except for maybe Roy Rogers-type stuff it’s almost like he could have starred in any of them with enough alterations to the script, even if he was wrong for the part, that’s how steadfast the genre was. Butch and Sundance are nothing like what Wayne represented, willing to run, willing to fight dirty and live by their own rules, which is a spirit that enters the film as well. They may technically be bad guys but that’s not how they think of themselves and neither do we so we love them anyway. They never represent anything else in my mind other than the legends they already are at the start and it plays like the beginning of the modern film hero living in the guise of wisecracking irony that several years later became solidified at the beginning of the Lucas-Spielberg era.
But there’s an added depth to these two which comes from their friendship and jovial nature, fearless in the face of each new obstacle, even if they are baffled by certain new developments it never slows them down. Most westerns we think of all seem set in that post-Civil War, pre-1900 era which in that mythos seems like a world without end. BUTCH CASSIDY feels younger in spirit while still just as intent on burning down that era as the same year’s THE WILD BUNCH was and the two do have a few vague similarities (TRUE GRIT was one of two Wayne westerns to come out in 1969, also the year of MIDNIGHT COWBOY and EASY RIDER, and of course it’s very much set in the familiar old west he was a part of) but this film is more wistful, not as angry, not as determined to clutch on to what’s slipping away. These guys are focused more on what they can still do instead of the world around them. As Sherriff Bledsoe played by Jeff Corey tells them in no uncertain terms when they roust him out of bed in the middle of the big chase, their day is over and if there was ever a chance to change with the times they missed it so now it’s too late. And in that sense BUTCH CASSIDY is a way to spend two more hours putting that off, putting off adulthood and the real world and everything all that represents in the hope you just might be wrong about what’s really coming.
Even removed from any context, BUTCH CASSIDY plays now as a hugely entertaining movie that has aged beautifully, an enjoyable lark with just enough of an undercurrent that offers a sense of how transient everything really is. The clanging of the locks at the bank Butch is checking out at the beginning serves as a sign that the glory days are over (or maybe they were just seen in the later prequel BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS that didn’t star Newman and Redford), burnt into ember along with the sepia-toned introductions of the two stars which eventually gives way to full-on color, turning the myths they already are into a present they can’t run away from. You can’t stop the future from happening and even as those signs begin to appear along with a near-mutiny within the Hole in the Wall Gang they’re simply intent to press forward and avoid thinking about it even as they take a few minutes to enjoy the bicycle that represents the future, the future they want no part of. George Roy Hill’s direction always seems effortlessly bemused by the duo, content to keep them in the frame no matter what’s going on as a reminder of how joined together they are and how much the title represents what the film really is. Even when Katharine Ross’s Etta Place agrees to travel to Bolivia with them regardless of the consequences, it’s the two of them framed together against her alone in a shot. Even if she’s technically Sundance’s girl it almost doesn’t matter; she knows which pairing is the real partnership here.
But along with its focus on the leads is a cockeyed view of the west populated by people who have no interest in things like joining a posse anymore and George Roy Hill always enjoys giving someone a few seconds to highlight their own preoccupations while never too impressed by everything else that’s happening, Cloris Leachman’s prostitute who Butch picks to hid upstairs with them or Henry Jones’ bicycle salesman using his opportunity to get the attention of the crowd. These are the sort of pleasures that Hill always brought to his best films through pure observation of character, the rust belt America of his later SLAP SHOT eighty years ahead of time. It never takes a break, with moments like that cut to the big explosion they don’t see coming surprising us with that big laugh, and the expected plot beats during the big heists are dispensed with quickly to get to the big chase which unexpectedly takes up much of the running time on its own and isn’t even scored as if just like the characters the film itself is so thrown by these developments it doesn’t know how to react. The future is mostly faceless with Lefors who leads the posse and railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman never actually seen but they’re each so vivid in how they’re talked about that all we need to know is they just want Butch and Sundance gone, no matter the cost, just to save any trouble later on. It’s the beginning of what the world is becoming in the twentieth century; these guys are nothing more than an annoyance to them and you just know George Furth’s Woodcock who worries about “poor Mr. Harriman” having his train robbed is someone who the big boss probably couldn’t care less about either. None of the little people are going to matter in the future and they’re the ones the film has affection for.
With those adversaries mostly unseen, the structure of the William Goldman script where ‘much of what follows is true’ as the opening title card tells us (we can say the same of our own lives as well) is all about the two guys named in the title, about the fictions they create in this buddy relationship that is so surface they’re still learning new things about each other, little things like their names. But they’re so easygoing, even down to Butch having no problem with Sundance having met Etta first, that their friendship only becomes more endearing, whether it’s their constant bickering during the chase or the way the film brushes over the good times of their stopover in New York via montage on the way to Bolivia. Like most films a little light on plot this lack of real incident is felt in the back half but this one gets away with it, partly because of how the Bolivian robbing montage is assembled, partly because a few scenes with Strother Martin yammering on helps any movie and partly because even though we know what’s coming in the last ten minutes, by that point we love them. The slow motion killings in the big Bolivia showdown are very much of the time, coming two years after BONNIE AND CLYDE and the same year as THE WILD BUNCH but it’s all for one of the only really serious moments in the film, a clear sign that no matter what they do now there’s no going back, there’s no changing. If that other film was called THE WILD BUNCH this one is THE LAID BACK DUO, more likable and endearing only not as eager to pull the trigger. But at the end of each film they still wind up in the very same place.
The legacy of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is unavoidably connected to Goldman writing about it in his essential memoir “Adventures in the Screen Trade” as well as the later “Which Lie Did I Tell?” and if you haven’t read them but have interest in any of this, you absolutely should. “Screen Trade” even includes the full script of the film, complete with all of his descriptive passages and for all his “Nobody knows anything” talk there’s the sense in all his talk about the dos-and-don’ts screenwriting that he was saying these are the things you need to do but I can’t tell you in what order or where and sometimes who the hell knows why. But he just knew. That’s why he was William Goldman, I guess. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID has many things thanks to what he wrote but what it doesn’t have is bullshit and the movie always knows how to add to what’s on the page, whether the timing in those laughs, the boom we hear in the gunshots or whenever it takes just a few seconds to dote on Conrad Hall’s cinematography, so the way the sunlight shoots through the fence as Paul Newman and Katharine Ross ride on that bicycle seems more miraculous each time I watch it.
There’s something about what it all represents to me and even while the mildly haunting easy listening vibe of the Burt Bacharach score locks the film into when it was made it’s in the best possible way as if that sound represents trying to hold on to some small semblance of that carefree feeling, literally running from the future, while knowing deep down that it’s impossible. The way it drops out all sound aside from that music during the Bolivia robbing montage makes me think Steven Soderbergh was directly influenced when he occasionally did the same thing in the OCEAN’S films, just one small influence films of that time have seeped into his work, a reminder of how everything was changing during that period. Looking at BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID now is a reminder of what movies were about to become and I guess what part of me wishes they still were. As much as I hate to admit it, by now it’s as much a part of the past as the old timey silent film that plays over the opening credits. It’s a shame that this has to happen, but it’s inevitable.
The two lead performances find the perfect balance in all this from how relaxed Paul Newman is in his confidence and how the charm of Robert Redford goes with how antsy he gets at times, still young enough that he can’t always relax into the moment especially when Butch isn’t as worried as he is. We can always see the wheels turning in Newman’s head no matter how small the stakes as he tries to find the bright side in each situation while coming up with his next plan and for me it may be his most effortlessly enjoyable performance. Redford plays it always hoping that his coolness holds, with Sundance self-aware enough to know how good he is but still worried that might not be enough especially if swimming is involved but you always feel his loyalty--he might argue with Butch but he won’t question him. It’s as if whenever Redford calmly smiles, like when he waves at Harvey Logan insisting on the knife fight, you just know everything is going to be ok and he couldn’t look more at home as this guy. The two of them go perfectly together and with Katharine Ross as well with a calmness always felt in her performance that grounds the high spirits among the trio as if she’s a person whose mind is always made up each time she speaks. She’s the one who seems fully aware of the inevitability of what’s coming which is why she’s willing to only go so far with them on the path they’re headed down, no matter what her feelings for each of them are. Some of the best moments from other actors in the film whether Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, George Furth or Ted Cassidy all go by pretty fast since the focus is never away from the leads for long—the familiar Percy Helton gets neither credit nor audible lines for his tiny role as Sweetface, sent outside to point Lefors in the wrong direction, but his body language in the payoff to the scene makes him unforgettable. It’s a movie filled with moments like that which makes it such a joy.
As for the other thing, this wasn’t about any of that. It was about my returning to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, a film that turns 50 this year, a little older than I am now. It won four Oscars, for screenplay, cinematography, score and the song “Raindrops keep Falling on My Head” which is likely the first thing connected to this film I ever had any awareness of. But more than all this was about a film that suddenly, finally, meant something to me. The way some films just have to, sooner or later. There are times in this life when you try to hang on to something, but it’s always going to blow away. So maybe what’s left is the hope of finding something new to hold onto. And there’s still the hope to see these things in a theater, if that’s ever possible, to finally have this revelation and I’m not kidding when I say this was one of the best 35mm prints I’ve ever seen in a revival house. That’s the thing, though. You have to keep hoping, even up until the end, and no matter how much trouble you find yourself in with any luck you won’t do anything else as long as you’re still alive.