Who are those guys?
Things were different in 1969 when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was first shown in cinemas. There was no big simultaneous release into thousands of theatres to try for, what we are now told is, “that all important opening weekend”. Films were released into a small number of cinemas, carefully chosen to give the film makers a good idea of the way the film was being received (no I’m not talking about previews; they’d already been done) and to try to build some momentum in terms of a public following, before it was released nationally. Word of mouth was the big sales technique back then, and word of mouth had movie goers flocking to see this film when it eventually opened across the country. From day one a strange phenomena surprised the theatre owners as members of the audience began to join in with the actors and speak the lines alongside them.
The tradition continues. It’s infectious. You couldn’t watch it today, with a group of friends, without someone just beating Newman or Redford to the punch in delivering such favourites as: “Who are those guys?” and “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals”, and “Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?”
As well as a script that would have been sharp and funny enough for the Marx Brothers, and which certainly inspired the wonderful two-way banter of Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre in M*A*S*H, you have the casting of the two most beautifully engaging, if not the two most beautiful actors that Hollywood ever paired. There is something so perfectly right about the pairing of Paul Newman (Cassidy) and Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid) that it is quite a stretch to realise that, as a duo, they were well down the list. At least Redford was. Newman was one of the top 3 box office stars in the world at the time (only Steve McQueen and John Wayne could compete), Redford was practically unknown*. He’d been around a long time mostly playing character roles on television and getting a starring break two years earlier in Barefoot in the Park. But that was a Neil Simon comedy; an adaptation of an off-Broadway hit, a good film but not heavy hitting box office. Twentieth Century Fox were strongly opposed to casting Redford in the film, certainly not in one of the leading roles. Director George Roy Hill was equally convinced that something in his laid back, laconic style made him the man for the part.
He got support from Steve McQueen who said he was prepared to play either role if Redford was in the film. McQueen was offered the part of Sundance and walked away. Newman was originally going to play Sundance. The part was actually written for him. The role of gang leader Cassidy was, amazingly with hindsight, written for Jack Lemon. When he was unavailable it was variously touted to Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas before someone had the idea of switching Newman to the role of senior partner. And we can all be very grateful that they did. Would the film have been as successful with Lemon and Newman, Brando and McQueen? I think not. Lots of people can rightly take credit for the success of the film, but without a few twists of fate the movie may well have quickly joined the ranks of the soon forgotten. And we would never have been able to respond to anyone saying, “I can’t swim!” by chuckling with Newmanesque sparkle before adding: “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you”.
Everyone who has ever seen the film can remember the ending. The two stars caught running towards the camera in sepia tinted monochrome, guns blazing and facing their imminent death. The beginning is less well remembered but equally wonderful. It establishes a tone, a rhythm, a beauty. It begins as it ends, in black and white; it merges slowly into sepia and eventually into colour as we move from the urban and the individual to the wide open spaces of Wyoming and Utah and to the characters as a pair, a duo, a team. A couple?
The theatre lights dim. A black and white silent film is projected onto the left hand of the screen while conventional credits roll on the right hand side. The film is so well done that it can easily be mistaken for an authentic film of The Hole in the Wall Gang holding up a train in the 1890s.
Digression. Butch was one of only three outlaws who were aware of their own celebrity across the entire country. The others being Jesse James and Billy the Kid. The first feature film to be made about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1910. In this early film Cassidy and Longbaugh (real name) were killed. If the pair were killed in Bolivia (and this is disputed) then it took place in 1909 or 1911. It is entirely possible that Butch and Sundance sat in a South American cinema and watched their own deaths. George Roy Hill was so taken by the story that he filmed a second silent movie showing the pair, with Etta Place watching the silent film of their lives and exploits and with a long shot of Katharine Ross (as Etta) foreseeing the actual deaths of the pair and leaving the theatre alone. It isn’t known where this film is but it is strongly hoped that one day it will be released. It was shot as the intended ending of the movie.
Holding onto monochrome the film begins with closeups of Paul Newman studying something. The shots show either his face or the activity he is observing reflected in a succession of windows. The scene takes its time. The film is establishing both a pace and a convention that significant action, in this movie, is often in an observation, a glimpse, a throwaway remark. Eventually it is revealed that he is casing a bank and that changing times are reflected by the high tech security of that bank. While little seems to be happening, the audience are given a huge amount of vital information. That here we have a charming, witty and entirely lovable bank robber coming to terms with the advance of technology putting him out of business. Butch Cassidy was the last of the (great?) outlaws of the old West and the theme of anachronism runs through the movie. Banking and big business have suffered at the hands of robbers for years but they are now in charge and expect retribution.
The next scene is equally slow but bursts into action in the end. It is an important scene as it has to introduce Robert Redford as a screen equal to Paul Newman, to establish his back story as the Sundance Kid and to introduce the casually happy approach to the dangers of their world, through dialogue that skips with wit, joie de vivre and acceptance of fate, that characterises the pair. The camera holds steady on a sustained close-up of Redford. And by sustained I mean for nearly a minute which is a heck of a long hold for this kind of shot. He’s mostly looking down, cheeks sucked in as he concentrates on his cards; lit from behind and the side to make ample use of shadows and to emphasise his dark clothing, broad brimmed hat and moustache. In the scene he is accused of cheating at cards; cheating so well that a card cheat can’t tell how he’s doing it. He’s both the centre of the action and a detached observer.
The tension builds. It looks fairly certain that we are about to witness a death and quite probably the death of a major character. Cassidy appears and tries to mediate in the stand off. Sundance insists, irrationally, that the accuser must invite them to stay and then he’ll leave. It’s a variation of the “are you asking me or are you telling me?” convention of the independent minded western hero. Eventually Newman seems to resign himself to the possibility of his partner’s death (just as Sundance will do in a later scene), but his words have an electrifying effect on the other card player. “I can’t help you Sundance”. The accuser, played by Sam Elliott** in his film debut, quickly backs down on realising just who he has been tangling with. And as well as the conclusion of a brilliant scene we have Redford established as every bit the equal of Newman, Sundance as the equal of Butch and Butch established as having exceptional, but very human qualities of speech and humour and Sundance established as being a laconic straight-man as well as possessing the two super-human qualities that are conventions in the Western: brilliance at cards and speed with a gun. We’re five minutes into the film and a thousand feet deep already. I’d guess that anyone who watches the film this far will watch it through to the end.
*I know some will dispute this. I’m going on commentaries by George Roy Hill and William Goldman. They certainly regarded him as an unknown not only in casting but in the way they set about establishing his character in the film.
** Sam Elliott, who later became famous for his luxuriant moustache, never met Katharine Ross while filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but they eventually met and married.