Thursday, 17 September 2015



In 1968 Paul Newman teamed up with Robert Redford, director George Roy Hill and writer William Goldman to create not only one of the greatest Westerns, but probably my favourite film of all time. I’ll attempt to explain why in some detail…

The plot is loosely based on the true adventures of two outlaws, Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longbaugh (known as the Sundance Kid). Butch was the extremely likeable head of the Hole In The Wall Gang. The Kid was the somewhat ruthless crack-shot killer of the group, a loner who had no friends except for Butch. After pulling off a series of robberies culminating in the looting of a sum from a train belonging to E.H. Herriman, their tycoon victim paid to assemble a Super Posse so impressive that the two fled to Bolivia with the Kid’s girlfriend Etta Place in tow, where eventually the two thieves were cornered and killed in a shoot-out by the authorities.

William Goldman was extremely smart and justly celebrated in how he wove the story together to craft one of the most brilliant movie scripts of the art form in both plot and priceless dialogue. Goldman wasn’t a fan of the Western genre, hated horses and knew nothing about the period but what appealed to him was the fact that Butch and Sundance ran away to South America. This created a problem: at that time Western films only featured heroic leading characters; you’d never see John Wayne allowed to be a cowardly runaway. Goldman solved this by staging a 27-minute extended sequence in the middle of the movie showing the Super Posse’s pursuit of the pair with almost supernatural and relentless skill. The on-screen staging supported this masterfully by Conrad Hall’s camera direction always filming them tantalisingly too far away to be identified, increasing their looming intimidation “Who ARE those guys?” the boys repeatedly declare in fearful wonder.
Also, Goldman initially struggled with the portrayal of Etta. He hated writing for women in action films as (with the exception of Ripley in the ALIEN series) they were never able to do anything influential. Plus, almost nothing was known about her except that that she was beautiful and possibly a prostitute. Goldman’s solution was two-fold. He gallantly gave her the benefit of the doubt professionally by making her a school-teacher, and conceived her such that in every scene she surprises us. (This ended up being true of the male leads as well).

In casting BUTCH CASSIDY, George Roy Hill, a renowned Broadway and film director of comedy stuck to his guns, so to speak, in wanting Robert Redford opposite Newman. Paul Newman was an established box-office name and the studio demanded Steve McQueen as the Kid. Redford had only done a handful of films at that point and was not an A-list draw yet. Hill knew that there would be great chemistry between Newman and Redford, using their own natural affinity for their parts. He was proved right in spades. Newman (who actually didn’t mind which of them he played)  gives Butch his own loose, warm generosity. Redford though also a likeable man could project an air of suitably cool reserve. They also looked extremely attractive on screen, enhanced even more by the addition of the enchanting talent of Katharine Ross. Redford was made by this film, his career and life changed immeasurably. Incidentally, Goldman’s writing title was THE SUNDANCE KID AND BUTCH CASSIDY until Newman’s star wattage caused it to be reversed to favour him.

The dialogue of the film is not only extremely witty and economical, it was deliberately composed with a contemporary feel to the characters, giving them a modern sensibility that audiences could relate to. In a lengthy pre-production phase, Goldman and Hill shaped the script’s tone to ensure that the comedy didn’t overshadow the careful relationship they wanted the viewer to have with the boys. Too many laughs would spoil our compassion for them when they die. This concern continued beyond the film’s initial release with some gags possibly being taken out to emphasise this. BUTCH CASSIDY also benefitted from Hill’s theatre background in giving the cast two weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting, an almost unheard-of luxury today.

Shooting went very smoothly, despite Hill being repeatedly hassled by the studio to finish quicker to meet a release date. He was under so much pressure that he slept in one of the dressing rooms to save valuable time in getting onto set fast each day. Newman and Redford developed a generous mutually-supportive bond on and off screen, the beginning of a life-long friendship. (After THE STING, also made with Hill, they hoped for further collaborations – never as sequels – but surprisingly one never materialised).

The one relationship that unfortunately suffered was between Hill and Ross. In her 1994 interview for the DVD, Katharine explained that one day when the crew needed six camera operators and had only four, she volunteered to helm one for them. She’d fancied possibly developing this as a skill. It was not a key position for the shot she filmed, but Hill, one or two of the camera team and stuntmen were angered by this ‘infringement’ and she was thus banned from the set from then onwards apart from her on-screen days, which sadly coloured her enjoyment of filming – although she did marry Conrad Hall. “I was the straight man”. she said self-deprecatingly of her role, which downplays Etta’s humanising of the men-folk. Equally, there is a nice modernity in how she stands up for herself. The Kid takes her for granted as coming along with them to Bolivia. Etta submits to being ‘den mother’, but then curtly supplies her own terms: “I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind”.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is a perfect blend of wry and sarcastic commenting humour and one classic scene after another. Watch how the Kid is introduced after Butch’s casing of the bank. We enter a card-game as late as possible (part of Goldman’s skillful construction), where he is accused of cheating. The camera stays on him as the tension mounts. Even when Butch enters, we are focused on potentially unavoidable violent resolution. Then Butch reveals who Redford’s character is and the Kid demonstrates his shooting prowess. Enigmatic, taciturn and dangerous -  a perfect introduction to Sundance – nicely undermined by Butch’s waggish teasing as they exit: “Like I’ve been telling ya. Over the hill…”.

The by-play between Butch and Sundance is never based on gags for the sake of it. Their bickering reveals character as all the best writing does:
“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”
“Boy, I got vision - the rest of the world wears bifocals..” Butch mutters in reply.

My favourite of their exchanges is at the end of the Super Posse chase, the seeming impasse of the cliff-top. Firstly, Butch is getting nowhere asking the Kid for his thoughts on escape:
“How come you’re so talkative?”
“Jus’ naturally blabbly I guess.”

Butch then realises the only way they can evade their pursuers is to jump into the precarious rush of the river below. It is then that the frightened Kid is forced to reveal he can’t swim. Butch laughs at this, reasoning there’s no other way out:
“Wouls you make a jump like that if you didn’t have to?”
“I have to and I’m not gonna”.
“Are you kidding? The fall’ll probably kill ya.”
Of course they survive it. By now we’ve grown to like them so much, we’d hate the chase to end any other way.

The lovely Burt Bacharach score deserves praise as well for how it helps to not only cement the warm playful chemistry between the three leads, but also bridges the comedy and seriousness of the developing plot - another vital and distinctive element of the film.  ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ seemed a bizarre non-sequitur idea, and let’s not forget it’s a very contemporary-sounding song, yet its joyful coupling with Butch and Etta’s romantic ride and his madcap bike stunts became very popular. (A stuntman was hired but wasted two weeks coming up with zero stunts so Newman did almost all of his own as you see). This idyllic sequence is hilariously undermined by another favourite dialogue gem. The Kid asks what Butch and Etta are doing as they embrace platonically afterwards:
“Stealin’ your woman.”
“Take ‘er”, burps the Kid, casually walking off.
“You’re a romantic bastard, I’ll give ya that” observes Butch.

Goldman never forgets the human drama at stake, and grounds the chuckles with the fearful inevitability of their demise when they seek refuge with their friend Sheriff Bledsoe (a brief but excellent Jeff Corey). He cares about them and tells it like it is: “Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody – and all you can do is choose where!”.

This melancholy edge infuses the rest of the film beautifully, even tingeing the fabulous Bacharach melodies, After the carefree ‘Raindrops’, the second of the three musical sequences is a terrific period sepia-tinted montage of still photos showing the three friends whooping it up in New York before taking the ship to South America. Notice though how the tune shifts in tone - from an amusing social whirl to the poignant on-board shot of Etta and the Kid dancing while Butch sits brooding on their fate at the side -  before grinning at it all. He’s not short of insane optimism for long. This montage along with the gorgeous multi-movement harmonic ‘ba-ba-ba’ piece for the Bolivia bank-heists later were designed not just to quickly expedite the story; they purposely add to Etta’s involvement in the boys’ lives - more at stake for them to lose by the end. This is wonderful economic story-telling by great talents.

By the time Butch and the Kid get to the dilapidated Bolivia, we know it’s just a matter of time before their crimes catch up with them. The ‘Banditos Yanquis’, equipped with Etta’s attempts to teach them basic ‘professional’ Spanish, soon fall foul of local thieves when delivering payroll for the great ‘colourful’ Strother Martin.  Knowing they have to kill the Bolivians to regain the money and live, Butch reveal his own secret: he’s never killed a man. The cold-blooded killing of the thieves is given due pause for grim reflection amidst the settling dust.

Ultimately, Butch and Sundance are cornered in the iconic marketplace climactic shoot-out, precisely filmed by Hill with meticulously prepared storyboards. By the time they lie wounded and resigned to going out in blazing abandoned style, we’ve become immensely fond of them. Butch has time for one last outlandish scheme - to head to Australia - before they rush out and are immortalised in that famous anti-heroic freeze-frame of defiance.

Watch BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID for a classic film of sensational writing, wonderful performances, sensitive directing, superb camera-work and all-round brilliance. Hollywood modern art is not an oxymoron.

No comments:

Post a Comment