#14 — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Periodically as I track through these decade-centered countdowns, I feel compelled to offer the reminder that I arrived at the order by combining critical assessments of aesthetic value with acknowledgement of those films that I have to helplessly slot into the category of “Favorites.” This isn’t because I feel some of these cinematic offerings are legitimately less worthy–I stand by the quality of every film I’ve included–but rather I have to concede that sometimes my main criterion for celebrating a film is that I simply can’t turn it off any time I encounter it, that is is so compulsively watchable. I’ve got plenty of praise to heap on George Roy Hill’s anachronistic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the bottom line is that I immensely enjoy it, helplessly so, each and every time I see it.
The Oscar-winning screenplay by William Goldman was only his third work to make it to the screen, and it’s undoubtedly the one that established him for the remainder of his career as a pure master of the craft, they kind of guy who could be brought in to enliven any piece of writing. There’s certainly an effortless quality to the words he crafted for Butch and Sundance, the famed outlaws of the Wild West. As opposed to other films of the era that were trying to reinvent the western through weathered solemnity and deconstructionist nihilism, Goldman’s script opted for gracefulness and humor, cowboy boots used to deliver a soft shoe routine. If other westerns were in love with vistas and frontier justice, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is thrillingly enamored with words and banter. When Butch barks out, “Next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” Goldman has perhaps flicked his fingertip against the first domino that leads to the worst indulgences of Aaron Sorkin and his ilk, but he’s also delivered a pretty fantastic line of dialogue that is both incongruous and perfectly suited to the film. The words fly like bullets, and in a time and place where there are no rules in a knife fight, that sort of deliberate tomfoolery seems perfectly fine.
George Roy Hill was probably the perfect director to realize this for the screen. Famously cantankerous, Hill had no evident interest in romanticizing the West or any films that had come before. He brought a terseness of thought to the film that helps the dialogue feel sharper, lessens the risk that it becomes a contrivance. The no-nonsense quality is present in the acting of the two leads as well, with Paul Newman looking like he’s having as much as he ever has onscreen as the grumpy Butch while Robert Redford’s natural surface charms and undercurrent informed by worries of inadequacy were ideal for the comparative upstart in the partnership. The whole creative team gives the film the pleasing contrast between invigorating looseness and disciplined control. It’s playful, but creative professionals are clearly in control, making sure it never explodes off the rails into nothing more than goofing around of the sort that’s far more enjoyable on the set than on the screen. Yes, I can’t stop watching it when it’s on, but there are reasons. There are reasons.