Whenever I see Redford in this movie, I think of E.E. Cummings, and Buffalo Bill’s Defunct: Jesus he was a handsome man. So much so, you could almost miss how good an actor he was, and how great his comic timing, as he bantered with not-exactly-hard-on-the-eyes-either co-star Paul Newman in this, surely the greatest buddy movie of all time, with 1988’s marvellous Midnight Run (in which Charles Grodin proves the perfect deadpan foil for a perpetually frustrated Robert De Niro) its only possible rival.
The dialogue in this little scene is for the ages. There they are, cornered, trapped, the situation hopeless, and Butch is still scheming: “the next time I say let’s go someplace like Bolivia, let’s go someplace like Bolivia.” Next time, snaps Sundance, in an exasperated tone that acknowledges that of course there’s never going to be a next time – but then maybe there will be, because Butch has another of his bright ideas: they’ll jump off the cliff into the rocky rapids far below. Of course! That’ll work for sure, if the water’s deep enough, and they don’t get squished to death, right?
Butch: They’ll never follow us!
Sundance: How do you know!?
Butch: Would you make a jump like that, you didn’t have to?
Sundance: I have to, and I’m not gonna.
It turns out the Kid’s main objection is that he can’t swim, upon which comes the punchline, as Butch points out how absurd that quibble really is, being as the fall is going to kill him. Classic.
I could have picked a half dozen other scenes. There’s the famous Guns or Knives, Butch? confrontation with the insurrectionist (and monstrously intimidating) Harvey:
…in which Harvey proves correct that there aren’t any rules in a knife fight. Or there’s the train robbery, and think you used enough dynamite there Butch?
…which explosion is caused by an excessive amount of dynamite thought necessary by Butch, noting how the ever-dedicated Woodcock, stalwart employee of railway mogul Mr. E.H. Harriman, has fortified the safe after the last time they robbed it; there’s the entire chase scene, in which the crack dream team posse of trackers and bounty hunters proves unshakeable, which is how the boys wind up cornered on the cliff face in today’s selection (who are those guys?); the tryout to serve as a Bolivian mine operation’s payroll guards, run by a skeptical Strother Martin, who only wants to know if Sundance can accurately shoot a gun, please, so never mind with that pistol-twirlin’ gunslinger crap (I’m better when I move); Sundance confronting Butch as he playfully woos girlfriend Katherine Ross, Butch flat-out declaring “I’m stealing your woman” (Sundance with a dismissive wave: Take her. Take her.) ; the sheer comedy of their arrival at the train station in Bolivia, where they find themselves deposited at a sort of Nowheresville that still has a ways to go before it can boast of being a one horse town; and so many others. Take your pick.
It’s such a beautifully shot movie, too, and while it doubtless sugar-coats the exploits of the protagonists – one doubts that the real Butch and Sundance were quite so affable, charming, and fundamentally decent while they robbed all and sundry at gunpoint (and they sure as shit weren’t that good-looking, first because nobody is regardless, and second because in real life they were actually rather ordinary-looking) – but it had the guts not to contrive a happy ending, and stuck to the consensus view that the pair met their doom down in South America. There’s actually good reason to suspect they might have faked their deaths, and got away after all, but the filmmakers likely didn’t know this, and anyway it was the late Sixties, and a new, brief era was dawning in which dark, unhappy (or at least vaguely unsatisfying) endings became common (think Easy Rider, Klute, French Connection, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, etc.), a trend that 1977’s Star Wars decisively reversed, maybe permanently.
Reaction to Butch Cassidy was so positive that the Hollywood mavens itched for a sequel, tough to do since Butch and Sundance get killed at the end, which is how we ended up withThe Sting. It wasn’t bad or anything, but there’s nothing like the original, I guess because you can only catch lightning in a bottle so many times.