Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who Are Those Guys: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

| by Justin Thomas |

Parts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid haven’t aged well, which isn’t surprising when the most-recognizable sequence features a song penned by Burt Bacharach sung by B.J. Thomas. The ham chop sideburns that defined the 1970s, visible in the movie from 1969, date it too. The middle montage, after they’ve decided to head off to Bolivia, wherever that might be, probably shouldn’t be stills because we’re missing too much of Butch and the Kid but it’s “edgy filmmaking” for 1969.

Some parts of it hold up just fine, parts that could be called timeless, which is what happens when a timeless actor such as Paul Newman performs a role like Butch Cassidy.

Who else could have pulled off Butch and had it work? Who else has a smile so instantly recognizable and defining that all the camera needs to do is catch it for a moment to have it work completely and utterly? Who else could talk smack to a bicycle and have it not only add plausibility to the ridiculousness of it but make the audience say, “Well, that’s what Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy would say?” Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would be nothing more than a cute little safe Western from 1969 had anyone else been cast as Butch.

If Butch didn’t know he was the poster boy for the end of the outlaw era then he certainly did know it after Sheriff Bledsoe informs him of as much when Butch and the Kid try to get amnesty. We already heard from Butch that he once wanted to be a hero, and he’s as affable an outlaw as there was, but he didn’t know the curtain was about to drop and his death would be the final act. Rather than adjust his behavior and go straight, the idea is to head off to a place where the era might live on for just a little while longer. He didn’t want the future, the lousy bicycle could have it, so the only thing left to do was go where he wouldn’t have to acknowledge it.

After they’ve finally given the posse the slip, Butch says, “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him,” and that line gives everything necessary to know Butch because Butch believes it. Not only does he believe it, but in his mind it makes complete sense. None of Butch’s ideas seem ridiculous to him or to the Kid, who gives lip service to them being ridiculous but always follows along and would have been on the boat to Australia if not for the army waiting to butcher them. If they ever would have put his ideas to serious scrutiny they probably still wouldn’t have seen them to be ridiculous because Butch just couldn’t think that way.

Butch might not have been much of a stretch for Paul Newman, which is a polite way of saying he might not have done much acting in the movie, but it works. The lines don’t need to be said with conviction but with a wink indicating thought’s been given. The right course of action is to try to apply rules to a knife fight in order to win the knife fight. Newman could deliver that wink and not have it be detrimental to the movie.

There isn’t a case to be made that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the “best” anything type of movie. It’s a good movie to put in with a friend or two when things aren’t going smoothly. It’s a good movie when you want to spend an hour or two in the company of bona fide movie stars.

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