Today’s feature should probably be called Scenesters, because I’ll be looking at not one, but three different scenes from the classic Western, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. And, no, one of them will not be the “Raindrops” sequence, because, honestly, what the hell was that? Before we go any further, here’s a fun little fact. This is David Fincher’s favorite movie and was his inspiration to pursuer a career in filmmaking. How many of you could have guessed that without previously knowing?
At the heart of this film are the performances given by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Getting even more specific than that, it’s the chemistry between these two that I’m really going to focus on today. In my opinion, it’s the some of the best, if not the best, chemistry I’ve ever seen in an American film. The two play off each other in a way that’s so perfect, you honestly believe they’ve been best friends for years. And in a buddy movie like this, not having that chemistry can make your entire story come apart. Rorie wrote an interesting post asking who’s to blame when chemistry fails to show up onscreen. While actors and directors mailing it in or having personal squabbles certainly has an effect, I think truly great chemistry, the kind you see in a film like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, just kind of happens. It's like falling in love. Sometimes you just can’t fake chemistry, people either have it or they don’t. And when they do, you get pure magic on the screen.
Fittingly, I’ll kick this off by talking about the opening sequence in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid:
“Most of what follows is true.” That little line sets up the film a lot more than you might think at first glance. Most films or TV shows would have gone with something like, “The follow is based on a true story.” Which is a far more rigid and formal statement. Phrasing it this way, let’s you know you’re about to have a little fun. Now, the first thing that you probably notice is that this opening sequence has been shot in sepia, which falls in line with the sepia-toned “newsreel” footage of the gang that rolls over the opening credits. What this does is present an atmosphere of realism right off the bat. It’s as if you’re watching footage of a real event. And the sepia color scheme only serves to help take you back in time.
The first character we’re introduced to is Butch Cassidy in a tight close-up. But the shot after that is the one I really want to talk about. In it, we see Butch from behind a set of bars blocking a window of a bank. By framing him behind a row of bars, George Hill is basically telling you this man is a criminal. And you see just how far these banks are willing to go to keep men like him out. But, even more than that, this shot can be interpreted as showing Butch as a prisoner, since he’s behind a set a bars. A prisoner to what, you might ask? His need/desire to rob banks and live a life of crime… something that plays prominently into the duo’s eventual downfall.
Once inside the bank, every shot that follows is a close-up. What that does is immediately give us a sense of claustrophobia, which heightens the tension in the scene. At this point, we don’t know if Butch is there to rob the bank or just take a look. So, when the guards start to lock up and see you all the alarms, you can’t be sure if it’s just closing time or if they’ve got Butch pinned down. It really is a great piece of filmmaking that keeps you on edge.
Next, we meet Sundance as he’s playing cards in a bar. The first shot on him is a long over-the-shoulder take. And, when things start to get a little testy, we still never cut to the face of the man threatening Sundance. This is a brilliant move, because it builds up the threat of this man and makes him appear far more imposing than he actually is. More than that, however, it subtly takes you into the mind of Sundance. To him, this is just another guy. He’s a nobody, so why give him a face to identify with? So, when Butch says, “I can’t help you Sundance,” and we finally cut to the face of this man and see how scared he is by the revelation, it is that much more powerful.
Now, I said I would focus this on the chemistry between Redford and Newman, so let’s get into that. Chemistry is a really hard thing to describe, because it’s something that you just feel in a scene if it’s there. The second Butch steps in, you immediately know the dynamic between the two characters. Butch is the smooth-talking brains of the team, while Sundance is the quiet, stubborn muscle of the group. Of course, a lot of the credit has to go to the writing of William Goldman and the directing of George Roy Hill, but Newman and Redford are what really makes the scene pop. They play off each other so smoothly, you understand this is a routine they’ve been through countless times. And what makes it even more fun, is that Butch obviously knows Sundance can take this guy. He’s just putting on a show for his own amusement and Sundance’s ego.
To build on the amazing chemistry present in the film, let’s take a look at another scene:
Really quickly, I want to touch on Joe LeFors. He’s the lawman pursuing the men throughout the film. You never really see him, except once or twice in a long shot. What this does is build his overall mystique, making him feel like even more of a mythological gunslinger. But, back to chemistry. One of the big reasons why these two play off each other so well is because of the subtlety they bring to their characters. Sometimes an actor will step all over anyone else in a scene, because the emotion they bring to the table is entirely too overpowering. Here, Redford and Newman refuse to fall into that trap. They give each other room to breathe and what results are extremely truthful reactions and responses.
Sundance’s insistence on making a last stand comes off as stubbornness at first, until he screams out that he can’t swim in a great little reveal of character. What happens next is the chemistry I’ve been talking about all along. Newman breaks out into laughter, while Redford holds an amazing look of steaming resignation to his embarrassing revelation. And, all of it feels entirely real. Like the two were best friends sharing stories over a beer. On a quick aside, isn’t it pretty crazy how much of a ringer Brad Pitt is for a young Robert Redford?
To finish this, I want to take a quick look at the finale of the film:
Sure, the emotion and tension at this point are great, but chemistry seen here is almost tangible. Both men stay so painfully truthful to their characters and the relationship they have even when they both know the end is on the horizon. Speaking of which, remember what I said about Butch being a prisoner to his own outlaw ways? Well, he's still plotting his next move even this late in the game. And, of course, Sundance is still shaking his head. Seriously, the way they play off each other in this scene is simply amazing. No words I write can do it justice. It's just that good. To top it all off, the ending exchange of dialogue perfectly encapsulates the charm and charisma of the movie and its duo. "You didn't see LeFors out there, did you?" "LeFors? No." "Good, for a moment there I thought we were in trouble."
The film ends with a sepia freeze frame of Butch and Sundance running out to their deaths at the hands of the Bolivian Army. The restraint show by George Hills here is a thing of beauty. Most directors would have shown Butch and Sundance getting gunned down. By not showing their deaths, and bookending the film with a return to sepia, he keeps the myth and legend of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid alive and well. He doesn't tarnish their larger than life status by showing us their brutal end. And, he puts that small shadow of a doubt in your head, something you really want to believe, but know can't possibly be true. Maybe, just maybe, they made it out of there alive.