Saturday, 1 October 2011

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

“Oh, good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble”

This 1969 film directed by George Roy Hill recounts some the escapades and close calls of two of the most enigmatic outlaws in American history. I only saw this film for the first time recently and fell in love with it; and although I generally think westerns are brilliant as a genre, this is something very different from most of them. So here are 5 reasons why I love Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.

1) Chemistry

Of course I’m referring to the onscreen chemistry between Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance), rather than an H2O2 kind of way. Both actors are fantastic, and the banter between them feels so natural and organic (chemistry again!). Newman is lively, cocky, quick-witted, and looks like he’s really enjoying himself. Robert Redford is a lot more brooding, and has many a smouldering look (if blue eyes can be smouldering).

I think that there are two scenes early on that really demonstrate the characteristics of these criminals, and their relationship. The first is a card game that Sundance is playing with two other guys in a gloomy bar. Throughout the scene the camera is fixed on Sundance as we see how calm he is under pressure, with total belief in himself. We also find out that his reputation precedes him, as the other gambling fella changes his attitude when he finds out his opponent is the Sundance Kid. Robert Redford is very good, and his eye-acting is equally good! Initially his eyes are flicking between his cards and his opponents, but soon they are just staring out into the middle distance in incredulity; he really can’t believe this guy is accusing him of cheating and is now challenging him.

The second is a scene where Butch’s dominance of his gang is challenged by Harvey Logan. Butch has a quick scrap with him (obviously he comes out on top), but the way he wins is by quick thinking and (sort of) cunning. This really sums up Butch. Just before the fight, there is a brilliant little exchange between Butch and Sundance. Logan announces that if he beats and kills Butch then Sundance is welcome to stay. Butch whispers to Sundance: “Listen, I don't mean to be a sore loser, but when it's done, if I'm dead, kill him.” Sundance simply says: “Love to.” and waves like this:

Certainly a lot of the best scenes have an element of humour in them as Paul and Bob play off each other, such as the scene before they leap from a cliff into a river, or just before the iconic last scene when Butch suggests that they should go to Australia.

2) Cinematography

Thanks to Conrad Hall (who won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work here) the whole film is gorgeous; as well as wonderful vistas the characters are beautifully framed, and often shot from behind foliage/buildings. Having watched the “Making of” documentary on the DVD, it seems that Conrad liked to shoot into the sun giving the film an overexposed washed out feel to it; a lot of it has a sepia look to it which matches so well with all the still photographic sections of the film.

As I've already mentioned, near the beginning of the film is a scene where Sundance is playing cards with two other fellas (one is Sam Elliott but you don’t really see him). A lot of the exchange between the players is done in one shot, focussing on Sundance (this time being shot from behind the other players), and the lighting for the whole scene is very subdued, adding to the uncertainty of the outcome. Especially brilliant is the last shot as Butch and Sundance burst out guns firing, whereupon the picture freezes, the colour bleeds out to leave a sepia image that the camera then pulls away from. Brilliant and iconic.

3) Script

Of course, one of the reasons that the banter between Butch and Sundance is so good is the quality of the script. Throughout the film the writing is sharp, witty and lively. Of course it helps that Newman and Redford’s on screen relationship is such that the script really comes alive. However, as Newman says in interviews, the script was so good that it would have worked with almost any actors. Presumably it was this genuine quality that the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw in writer William Goldman’s script when he won the award for Best Writing.

4) We’ve been there!

Apologies for bringing up our amazing holiday again, but films become so much more fun when you can specifically picture being in that landscape. Some sections of the film were shot in an abandoned town called Grafton in Utah, just round the corner from Zion National Park. Unfortunately we only discovered after we had left the area that Grafton was only 5 miles down the road from where we stayed! But some of it is shot in Zion National Park itself:

5) Woodcock / You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

Woodcock is a minor recurring character, whose role it is to safeguard the safe of money on the Union Pacific Railroad that Butch’s gang periodically hold up. The fact that having blown him up once, Butch recognises his voice when they next hold up a train is a great touch. Unfortunately for Woodcock, having reinforced the safe, more dynamite is required with alarming results:

One thing that you might not like: The slightly silly scene where Paul Newman rides around on a new bicycle, while Katharine Ross sits on the handlebars and Burt Bacharach sings “Raindrops keep falling on my head”! It’s a fairly ridiculous scene even if the song won the Oscar for Best Song!

So there you go, that’s my love letter to Butch and Sundance. What do you think? Is it that good, or am I seeing it through rose tinted glasses after my holiday?