'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid': THR's 1969 Review
On Sept. 23, 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid premiered in Los Angeles. The film, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, impressed critics and eventually claimed box-office glory and four Oscars. The Hollywood Reporter's review, originally titled "'Sundance' Beams With Joy: A Great & Profitable Film," is below:
For an industry whose portion of non-creative, irresponsible agents and system-bound producers have brought it close to collapse by over-pricing familiar failures whose liability to endless productions is the only clear measurable, it is a relatively promising event to encounter a screenplay which has been overpriced in direct ratio to its merit. 20th's release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a Campanile production, has both William Goldman's justly expensive screenplay and two stars who could not be better fitted to the realization of the title roles. Thus inspired, director George Roy Hill's intelligence and craft have never been so clearly and confidently manifest in bringing to the screen the aggregate virtues of the ingredients.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the story of two of the most likeable outlaws in western history, researched in facts and conveyed in joyous contemporary spirit, employing the broadcast spectrum of creative techniques to sustain the timeless aura of legend and the vital, damned-fool heroics of its characters. Both are still young, yet nearly over the hill, threatened by the increasingly dirty, mechanized resource of law-men and the railroads, who are taking the sport and the wits out of the chase. A Newman-Foreman presentation, produced by John Foreman, with Paul Monash as executive producer, the picture stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross. In no less degree, it stars cinematographer Conrad Hall. It is a great film and will be an exceptionally popular and profitable one.
Much like Citizen Kane, the film opens with a small screen, black and white, simulated newsreel, circa 1905, of the team known as "The Wild Bunch." Quick-witted Butch (Newman) and fast-draw Sundance (Redford) are already fabled, undefeated and seemingly undefeatable champions of their trade. Says Newman, "I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals." What he sees of late pleases him less and less and he looks to new frontiers, new pickings, beyond the reach of the hired killers the railroad has enlisted to stop their infernal raids on the train's money runs.
With Redford and Katharine Ross, Redford's hotblooded schoolteacher girlfriend, he seeks a new lease on life in Bolivia, after a wild tour of turn-of-the-century highlife in Manhattan and aboard ship. After an hilarious and humiliating series of rudimentary Spanish lessons necessary to inform the locals that "This is a stickup!"; after nearly being robbed by local bandidos who play dirty and force Newman to kill for the first time; too late to go straight, pursued with a vengeance more appropriate to their legend than their acts and code, they proceed straight to their destiny, which fittingly requires no less than a massed army to bring them down.
The film ends with one of the most appropriate uses of freeze frame since Truffaut's The 400 Blows. It freezes the characters' most unquenchably foolhardy heroics, as the soundtrack plays out the final action, a roar of gunfire that brings their lives to an inevitable conclusion, but also a cannonade whose reverberation perpetuates their memory and carries it in romantic legend through history. Early in the film, Newman visits the town of Power Springs, encountering a squat and ugly armory that is the new bank. "What was the matter with the old bank this town used to have?" he asks the guard. "It was beautiful." The guard responds, "People kept robbing it." "A small price to pay for beauty," Newman shrugs, aware that "the architects of this world are the enemies of mankind."
Another of the techniques frequently employed ill of late and used with perfect aptitude in this film is the musical interlude, underscored by song. The song is "Raindrops Are Falling On My Head," with music by Burt Bacharach and lyric by Hal David, sung in lazy-daisy pop style by B.J. Thomas to underscore the carefree celebration of the two robbers on holiday, as Newman and Miss Ross try out a new-fangled bicycle in a woodland idyll.
The film also balances black and white sequences and shifts to color exactly and creates a fine dramatic and historical tintype effect using a green-gold tint. Throughout, Conrad Hall's inventive and dramatically sound application of color and focal effects exploits the best potential of Panavision and Color by DeLuxe, which respond consistent to the artistic challenge.
John Neuhart creates an outstanding graphic montage of panned still photos of the period in which the faces of the three principals are cheated into period stills of Manhattan street crowds and Coney Island funmakers. These are augmented by whole brilliant sequences, such as the shipboard party and dance, shot in a progression of stills. The stills are the photo recreations of Lawrence Schiller, and the monumental and punctilious editing is in the superior command of John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer.
Second unit direction was wisely entrusted to Mickey Moore, working with second unit cinematographer Harold C. Wellman. The outstanding complement of key personnel at their best also includes young assistant directors Jack Martin Smith and Philip Jeffries, set decorators Walter M. Scott and Chester L. Bayhi and special photographic effects specialists L.B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank. Achievement of the latter pair, in concert with cinematographer Hall, is extraordinarily worthy.
Noteworthy, too, is the sound by William E. Edmondson and David E. Dockendorf.
One of the most inventive and appropriate participants in the buoyant and heady action of the film's witty character study is Burt Bacharach, who composed the score, not to neglect the contribution of those venerable orchestrators, Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes. From the first to the final solo piano memory theme, through a remarkable sax and guitar duet and the heavenly incongruity of a chase set to a Swingle Singer-like choral arrangement, Bacharach's score breaks every tradition while sustaining a perfect musical wedding to the style and action of the film.
Like Butch Cassidy, like no other, the film grants and gains from Paul Newman a performance to match the presence, a cresting achievement in a career whose disappointments have been less frequent than many and almost always with honor. Redford, whose contribution to the shrewdly timed comic interchanges with Newman are crucial and precise, profits most, with the best role he has had since Barefoot in the Park, a far better assignment and performance than that and one by which his stardom may at last be defined.
Miss Ross, while possibly a bit less earthy than the role prescribes, is very good, while Strother Martin is outstanding as the manager of the Bolivian Tin mines who hires the pair to ride rifles over his payroll. As the cordial company patriot who greets the robbers like old friends but insists upon being blasted from his post on guard of the railroad vault, Georg Furth creates an excellent comedy characterization. Ted Cassidy, Henry Jones, Jeff Corey, Donnelly Rhodes, Kenneth Mars, and Don Keefer, a victim whose admiration for the robbers is greater than his loyalty to the railroad, all contribute sound, clear and endearing characterizations under Hill's wise and winning direction.
Now if someone could just talk Goldman into breaking down and cracking his own novels for the screen. — John Mahoney, originally published Sept. 10, 1969.