Monday, August 24, 2009

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Waiting for Lefors

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid possesses the mixed blessing of the iconic film. We know and admire it as a series of greatest-hits moments, but we’ve lost the feel for the entire movie. Stumbling across it on cable, we might watch a moment or two, savor a beloved line, and then move on. It’s an old movie, after all, and we already know all the best parts: “who are those guys?”, the jump from the cliff, Katharine Ross riding on Paul Newman’s handlebars, the goofy Bacharach music.

But watching the 1969 film again in its entirety is a revelation. It begins slowly, sadly, with an extended faux vintage newsreel. It goes on with long stretches in which virtually nothing is said. Minutes pass in which we have only the sound of hooves and tackle and feet scrambling over dry ground. The generally languorous pace of this film fails to hide that it is nothing more than one long pursuit with a grim outcome.

Yes, William Goldman’s dialogue is witty throughout, and Newman and Redford bring true élan to their portrayal of the two bandits. But what emerges from a re-viewing of the film is its underlying melancholy, signaled right from the beginning by the mournful pianola sound that accompanies the sepia shots of robbers and trains.

While George Roy Hill made a name for himself as the director who played with the camera—using peephole and window-frame effects both here and in 1973’s The Sting—it’s his static, wide-angle frames that lend Butch Cassidy its unique look and give it its serious undertone. Time and time again, Conrad Hall’s cinematography contain two elements, one near, one far, their distance collapsed by a flat depth of field. Hall’s camerawork provides a visual correspondence for the theme of the film: connection and entrapment, and always the effort to get away.

George Roy Hill plays with the dualism of the western—here, the bad guy (who is actually a good guy, a lawman) wears a white hat. He turns the classic opposition into a partnership, and not just between Butch and Sundance but also between the two of them and the authorities who pursue them. As we watch frame after frame of the two bandits in the foreground with their pursuers a dust-cloud in the background, we come to see the two sides not so much as opposed but linked. It’s a stranglehold that none of the parties involved can escape.

Watching the whole film for the first time in many years, I was struck by the inexorability of this pursuit. No longer the starry-eyed adolescent who first came across the film on television or in some secondary release, I could see the worry, the fatigue in—especially—Newman’s eyes.

This time, the famous line “Who are those guys?”, repeated as the white-hatted Joe Lefors tracks Butch and Sundance to a dead-end cliff, seemed to me to echo the desperation of another well-known iteration: “Let’s go.” “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot.” Yes, Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon famously stay in one place, waiting for a mysterious figure who never arrives. Yes, Butch and Sundance are always on the move. They’re neither hoping nor waiting for the man they know is coming to kill them. But they are expecting him. And in that, they’re not so different from Didi and Gogo.

Aren’t all four men waiting for death and trying to stave off death at the same time? Aren’t they all bantering their time away, slipping occasionally into the despair that underlies their situation? “Who are those guys?” is, in a way, saying the same thing that Didi and Gogo say when they simultaneously propose departure and quash all hopes of it.

It’s easy to see Butch and Sundance as a sixties counter-culture movie only thinly disguised as a western (and that is how its trailers pitched it back then). Coming out just two months after Woodstock, the film has us rooting for the outlaws—and against the authorities—from the very outset. At times, with their sideburns and boots and corduroy, Newman and Redford seem to have wandered in from San Francisco or Harvard Square. But the movie is richer than that, more complicated, like the Sixties themselves, I suppose. Beneath the charm and the devil-may-care attitudes of its good-looking heroes is the sad fact that they are set on a course that will kill them.


  1. I can't watch this movie anymore, although for years it ranked among my Top Ten. Somewhere along the way I realized, as you wrote, that the inevitability of their end is etched into every second of the film and it tinges even the light-hearted moments.

  2. Interesting - your review immediately made me think of parallels with Thelma and Louise: the sympathetic outlaws, the inexorability of the pusuit, the long silent drive in the desert, Sarandon's face, knowing the ending but trying not to show it, the cliff with (as I remember it) the car freezing in mid-flight .. is that really how it ends?

  3. I'm not sure but I think T and L does indeed end like that. Any search you do for Butch Cassidy inevitably turns up the other film. It's a good parallel--and thanks for pointing it out.

  4. And maybe a slight echo of Jules et Jim in Butch Cassidy too - the threesome, the modern / period and comic / sad juxtapositions?

  5. I rewatched Butch Cassidy a couple years ago and realized that, as fun as it might be to watch Paul and Robert traipse about Mexico (isn't that where they end up?), there isn't a lot to it. Like you say, it's a chase with an ending that's forshadowed early on. It seemed very 60s, mixing the summer of love (Woodstock) with end-of-an-era violence (Rolling Stones at Altamont).

    Released the same year was The Wild Bunch, another western about a band of aging, out-of-date outlaws who can't change their ways and end up in Mexico to face certain death. But instead of signaling the end of an era, this movie ushered in a new one, of the anti hero (like Butch) but also of a new cinematic language of symbolic violence that Bonnie and Clyde, a couple summers earlier, hinted at. George Roy Hill had his moments, but Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpaw lived and died like many of his characters: an anti-hero living beyond the laws of filmmaking, often having his films taken over by studios who misunderstood his vision.

    If Butch Cassidy is shot through with a bittersweet melancholy, The Wild Bunch turned the inevitable human end into a bloody ballet that ushered in the violent anti-hero alienation of 70s classics like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Badlands, Chinatown, and Apocalypse Now.

  6. Thanks for that comment! There does se to be a straight line connecting Butch Cassidy to Peckinpah (whom I don't know almost at all) to Bonnie and Clyde. And definitely on to Badlands, by one of my favorite directors, Terrence Malick.