The penultimate episode in 2013 of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience visits the 1969 buddy Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film for which I have particularly intense, maybe even blinding affection – I would never go so far as to call it the “best” movie of ’69, but it’s absolutely my favorite, by a mile. Which makes it easier to pick a favorite shot (I know it mostly by heart) and also daunting (there are so many great images, courtesy of an especially on-his-game Conrad L. Hall). The hardest part of all is that the shot that leaps to mind first and absolutely dominates my feelings about the film, is as I expect it is for a great many people, is the very last shot, not least because of how openly the movie demands that we react that way to its closing moments. Calling it a lazy selection would be ridiculously underselling things; it’s not “lazy”, so much as it is “sitting on the couch doing nothing until Jerry Springer pays to airlift you out of your house”. So that shot was off the table.
The obvious place to go next would be to one of Hall’s many excellent shots of people against the landscape of the American west, but there were too many to select just one. Even limiting myself to the “who are those guys?” chase sequence left it too open. Time for tactic #3, too look for a nice storytelling shot. Which, I’m happy to say, doubles as a breathtakingly beautiful frame, too, though that was mostly not the reason I picked it.
It’s the second shot of the movie’s second part, after the Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s titular outlaws, along with Katherine Ross’s feminine third wheel, arrive in Bolivia – at which point I should mention that if you haven’t seen the movie, none of this probably makes any damn sense, and also you really ought to try and see the movie sooner rather than later. It is the quintessential Western for people who don’t like Westerns, and also for people who do like Westerns but are okay with them being a little less serious and mythic – and in one of the film’s less-forced cheeky touches, the most “exotic” location in the film ends up being far less exoticised than all the various California, Colorado, and Utah locations playing a dreamy, Romantic ideal of the Dying West.
The Bolivia sequence is, in essence, the realistic slap in the face that punctures the various legends perpetuated by the first half: of a wide-open American West, populated by charming gentleman-bandits whose lawbreaking is all in the spirit of comic good fun. The back half of the film is increasingly less charming, with violence and misery weighing down ever more on the characters as their freewheeling ways become increasingly untenable, and it starts right here, as the film’s central trio disembarks a train in what the Sundance Kid bitterly suggests is “the garden spot of the whole country”, a dismal little rundown station with dried-up prairie and scraggly animals as far as the eye can see.
So about that Best Shot: it’s the very instant that the movie’s bubble pops, with Butch and Sundance taking stock of their situation and realising that they’ve made a mistake; the shot, with its aching emptiness, stresses the embryonic sense of despair, and the way that the three characters are positioned, looking into three different empty spaces, emphasises their disconnection. We could push a point and say that they’re on three different planes along the Z-axis, but that’s not really true; it’s a three-tier shot all right, but the train is the third, with Newman and Ross lumped together at the middle – but even this is suggestive, for the receding train is, itself, a sign of their being dropped into the very same nowhere in particular that will eventually kill them.
But even though the framing is basically telling us to be hopeless, it’s handsome and painterly and the moving version of the same image actually plays as comic – Redford’s body language in particular is tense with a sardonic quip that’s right about to burst in the next shot. Because this is, after all, a largely lighthearted, playful movie, and even if it is ultimately about the passing of an era and the death of two men, it’s never a drag about it. It’s just so pretty! How can that much pretty ever be completely hopeless?