We knew it was never like this, but wouldn’t it be nice to think so. A movie steeped in nostalgia begins with the statement: “Most of what follows is true.” A movie about moviemaking begins with the sound of sprockets running through the film projector, of men robbing trains, jumping onto horses effortlessly. Then we see Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) in black and white approach the teller’s window, the black and white accentuated to stark effect, the sharp sound of a window closing. The nostalgia of old westerns is replaced by this new hip version in 1969. The photography by Conrad Hall is beautiful. Newman and Redford are beautiful. The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is first seen winning a game of cards, his attitude so cool you wonder if he is imitating Newman in Cool Hand Luke, another movie that could only have come out in the late 60s.
The movie turns to color, a much done convention now to show a change in the narrative, but back then it was fresh (since The Wizard of Oz, an interval of 30 years). Butch and Sundance also launched a slew of male buddy movies. And William Goldman’s very smart script is full of sarcasm, with Sundance complaining to Cassidy: “You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” There are gags, and humor, and a chemistry between two leading men who should have been better with the ladies but somehow just perfected being with each other.
Kindness is shown to the man on board the train (this may be mythologizing) who wants to protect his boss’ payroll from being stolen. Even though the outlaws try to start over in Bolivia, they don’t know Spanish. Etta, the only woman in the movie, also seems to be the only one with any brains. She tries to teach them some basic phrases. Men are always chasing them. “Who are those guys?” became a joke we would tell each other in the 70s when somebody was bugging us, a line from this movie that refers to the skilled lawmen, team of trackers, and others with a vested interest to stop the two outlaws.
Butch’s leadership is tested in a humorous scene that establishes Newman’s and Redford’s chemistry and sly dealings. The music is excellent, buoying the picture with a light tone in even the most violent proceedings. The girl — Katherine Ross– not only looks good, but provides a bit of class. The movie is above all about two men who work together and have a lot of laughs.
When Etta goes back to the States we know they are doomed. What they sought was a lark, easy pickings, but it became a quixotic journey, failed getaway, and fatal end. I don’t know how many times I have seen this movie, but it always amuses me.