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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

by on 2011/06/15


“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

* * * * *

Like the best songs of The Smiths, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gets to the heart of something true in a disarmingly jaunty way. Its sympathetic portrait of two dedicated criminals doesn’t excuse their flaws, but helps us to understand them. It leaves enough ambiguity for us to make our own decision as to what or whom they are dedicated, exactly.

Unlike many westerns, this one isn’t very violent. Without its sense of humour, I believe it would feel rather sad. Gunplay is a part of its world but, as in most such cinematic essays, robbery and theft are both “fun” kinds of crime.

Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) form the core of the “Hole in the Wall” gang. Impossibly young, charming, and affable . . . victims seem pleased to meet them, rather than scared. Butch is free and fun and wild, while the Kid is controlled and intense. Like Lemmon and Matthau, or Clooney and Pitt, their chemistry gooses the tale.

Katharine Ross (The Graduate) plays Etta Place, a 26-year-old single teacher, and their foil. Caught between the boys, she attracts — and is attracted to — both. She is their educator, protector, and possibly their saviour . . . providing they are ready, or even able, to learn from her.

William Goldman (The Princess Bride) crafts an involving story from the threads of their legend, and the actors infuse it with great spirit. Still, director George Roy Hill (The Sting) does more than simply cash a cheque. He brings a strong visual sensibility to distinguish and illustrate the tale and its themes.

In a manner similar to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, he bookends the feature in sepia frames. They gradually give way to full colour, briefly returning for a midpoint montage. In that montage, we see the protagonists occupied with the activities of a vanishing world. They eschew cars for carts, row boats, and swimming on a beach. They bridge the gap between separate lives, in transition between two countries.

They’re also bridging different times. They flirt with new-fangled bicycles, photography, and carnival rides, yet eventually leave these fleeting distractions behind. Despite embarking on a new life, they inevitably tend toward repeating their past again.

In fact, the bicycle is presented in a musical sequence — distinguished by its use of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” — shot through a wall’s missing slats, and suggesting the experience of a zoetrope. Instead of that antique’s cliched galloping horse, however, the scene acquaints us with a “future mode of transportation” to be abandoned later on.

Mind you, though its production touches impressed me fairly well, I did have a minor quibble. Early on there are points where the film is clearly spliced together from totally different takes. As a result, we find visible jumps when the Kid makes a quick shot and, later, when Butch kicks someone in a fight.

Otherwise I had no real complaints.

The sound design was impressive in its minimalist approach. Discrete effects are isolated, without an obvious background. Ambience has become such a common fixture, it’s initially jarring to lose it. In the absence of constant insects, wind, and other “filler” audio, a sense of interpretation becomes possible. Has everything gone quiet for a reason? Does the hush suggest expectation? A pause to laugh? A moment of dread?

The score, for its part, doesn’t answer those questions, and neither should it, I think. Personal hero Burt Bacharach provides a sparse variety of musical cues, upbeat and downbeat too. Festive times can be outright goofy . . . somber ones, plaintive and longing. The composer proves himself more complex than his aging hipster image might suggest.

I suppose it’s all down to interpretation. Whether you find it on balance happy or sad, the movie’s greatest strength might reside in its ambiguity. For me, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an elegy, describing the end of an era. I see it as a meditation on an inability to change, even given the gifts of insight and opportunity.

You may see something else: past sins catching up, perhaps. What matters is that you see it.

* * * * *

Rated PG

110 minutes

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