*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*
Right from the very beginning, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has its tongue placed firmly in cheek:
The film came out at an interesting time in the history of American cinema. The influence of the European new waves (particularly French and Italian) was just starting to reverberate around Hollywood, particularly in films such as 1967's Bonnie & Clyde (if you're interested in learning more about this period and that particular film, I highly recommend Mark Harris' indispensable Pictures at a Revolution). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fits nicely into the new tradition: much of the film feels like the "new" Hollywood dialoguing with - and subverting - "old" Hollywood traditions.
Director George Roy Hill and screenwriter William Goldman structure the film around the idea that this is a Western based on the true story of legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and their gang, the Wild Bunch (the film changed the name to the "Hole in the Wall Gang" to avoid confusion with another 1969 Western, The Wild Bunch). The film follows the two as they go for one last robbery in the States, then follows them as they flee to Bolivia, where there will be new banks and payrolls to steal from (or, you know, maybe turn over a new leaf).
But instead of playing it straight, the film functions more as a buddy comedy disguised as Western. Throughout the film, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) let loose with the one-liners, dark sarcasm, and playful bickering, an irreverent tone that is only occasionally broken by bursts of "bullet ballet" violence (characters getting shot in slow-motion, much like the infamous ending of Bonnie & Clyde). In this regard, it helps to have Newman and Redford in the leads: their easy chemistry creates a very believable friendship, and both - obviously - are more than capable of handling the film's comedic and dramatic requests. Neither one was Oscar nominated for this film (though, in all fairness, neither give career-best performances here), but there's no denying that they sure do make the screen prettier together.
However, much of the credit for the film's beautiful visuals belongs to Conrad L. Hall, the legendary cinematographer (Cool Hand Luke, American Beauty, Road to Perdition). Though the film plays as a subversion of the classic Hollywood Western, it would never work without Hall shooting it in the style of those very Westerns. The introductions of our titular characters are even shot though a sepia filter, giving them the appearance of an Old West photograph from a wanted poster:
Butch is seen peering through a window at the bank across the street...
...while sharp-shooting Sundance (Robert Redford) is playing cards against a couple of rough-and-tumble types.
Though the film will eventually switch to a more contemporary color palette after the beginning, Hall (who won an Oscar for his work here) continues to paint a number of scenes using Western styles, with numerous colors coming splashed across the open plains and towering vistas. Nothing in the film would look out of place in a traditional Western, and the results are nothing short of incredible. See these selections:
Butch and Sundance attempting to outrun the law across a gorgeous sunset...
And, in my choice for Best Shot, perch at dusk, overlooking the plain as blue mountains rise out of the distance. It's a stunning image, iconic in it's own right while paying homage to the films that inspired it. That's what the best of the "new independent" films of the late-'60s and early-'70s did: presented what had become tired and commonplace and made it crackle in new, subversive, exciting ways.
Other great shots:
I never really did say anything about the famous "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence, where Butch and Etta (Katharine Ross) - who's involved with Sundance - ride a bicycle through the countryside. More than an entertaining diversion, it demonstrates how Etta is torn between the two men: one she is with, and one that she wants. I think that's more evident in this shot, though, from late in the film, in which she runs out to hug them both at the same time, rather than Sundance, then Butch. Ross delivers a fine performance, but she's absent for much of the film - this is Butch and Sundance's story. I also just love the lighting in this shot.
And of course, the final image: a return to sepia, a still frame drowned in the sound of hailing bullets.