I first saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when I was 12, the present age of my youngest son. One of the networks would announce it annually and it seemed like an event. I knew I liked it immediately.
It was a comforting film to sit with. Maybe it was the two stars, Newman and Redford, as likeable a duo as have ever been paired on film. Maybe it was Katharine Ross, impossibly cute and nurturing. Maybe it was the musical montage scenes, specifically “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” a scene so frivolous, yet full of tenderness and life. Or maybe it was simply the gun slinging action sequences – train heists & bank robberies – chases through the mountains and valleys – showdowns over cards, alpha status, or justice once and for all. What was not to like?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid premiered in Los Angeles on September 23, 1969. A turbulent time in America to say the least. Budgeted at a then substantial $6 million, the film was an instant box office hit. It was the ultimate “popcorn movie” for the times – escapism for sure – but still so smart and ridiculously charming, especially when held up to the brutally graphic Bonnie and Clyde, another bank robbing bio pic released a short two years earlier.
Marlon Brando was considered to play the role of ‘Sundance.’ As was Jack Lemmon who turned it down to shoot The Odd Couple. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman read the William Goldman script simultaneously and actually discussed purchasing it and starring in it together.
Directed by George Roy Hill and shot by Conrad Hall, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a craftsman’s movie, so well made it’s easy to take much of it for granted. The rich sepia tone visuals and the varying speeds and zooms of the cameras make for a sumptuous cinematic experience that reminds me what I love about film. The clothes worn by ‘Butch’ and ‘Sundance,’ selected by legendary costume designer Edith Head; the original score by Burt Bacharach. While the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director but did not win, it did win Oscars for Hall’s cinematography, Goldman’s script, and Bacharach’s original score and song (“Raindrops“).
“Who are those guys?”
Paul Newman and Robert Redford were movie stars of the highest order in the late 60’s. Newman had already cemented his leading man status with films like Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), and Cool Hand Luke (1967). Redford was a fresher face on the scene after opening eyes and melting hearts in Neil Simon’s romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park (1967) and a small role in Arthur Penn’s The Chase (1966). Newman is on record, in typical modest fashion, of praising the script to the extent that the picture would have been the same success with any number of actors in the leading roles.
I am certain that I am not alone in my disagreement with old blue eyes on that claim. This was a casting marriage made in heaven and the result was movie magic.
“You call that cover?” asks ‘Butch’ after the duo suffers a hail of gunfire in the film’s finale. ‘Sundance’ responds through clenched teeth “You call that running?”
Sitting back now in the relaxation of my home theatre and watching Butch and Sundance and then “The Making of” special feature is just as comforting as it was when I was a snot nosed whippersnapper. The film holds up well. Yes, the lengthy musical montages are unorthodox and Bacharach’s style dates the picture a bit, but I agree with the director’s argument that they helped establish a depth of relationship between the three central characters that would have been clunkier through conventional dialogue scenes. It was a bold stylistic choice that paid huge emotional dividends, providing a sort of whimsy and charm to an otherwise tragic tale that we know from the outset will end badly. Knowing that Newman did his own stunts on the bicycle only adds to his legacy. Learning that he and Redford had never met before the production began but were quick to forge a friendship that not only translated beautifully to the screen but lasted a lifetime warms the heart. Industry giants for sure.
I put my directing aspirations on the shelf years ago, right next to my American League batting title and my Stanley Cup ring. But when I settle in, kick back, turn the surround sound up and take in a classic like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I get inspired all over again to tell stories with pictures.
I felt the same way last year after completing and thoroughly enjoying the HBO series The Wire. Cops and robbers writing at its very best. I also got lost in the old school rough and tumble New England world of The Town. Watching Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, a lawman (a Pinkerton!), pace after bank robbing Jeremy Renner on the city street and ultimately pinning him down behind a paper vending machine – the moment Renner’s ‘Coughlin’ reaches for a soda cup before springing to his feet to face the music – my only thought was “Bolivia.”