Robert Redford’s Cinematic Life of Crime

The Chase Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection/Courtesy Everett Collection

Robert Redford is done. After nearly 60 years in the movie business, the 82-year-old veteran is calling it a day, at least as far as acting goes. He’s bowing out with a starring role in David Lowery’s new film The Old Man and the Gun, the fact-inspired story of Forrest Tucker, a lifelong bank robber who continued his career deep into his senior citizen years. Except … maybe he’s not done. Redford announced his imminent retirement in August but September has found him walking it back when pressed by Variety, saying he’d like to “keep the mystery alive.”

The film works as a capper to Redford’s career, but so does the walk back. From a poster modeled after the one used for Jeremiah Johnson to some flashback inserts that include footage from Redford’s films, The Old Man and the Gun plays like a valedictory coda, a loving last look at a big-screen icon. But it’s a fitting farewell in other ways, an homage to and continuation of a certain type of character Redford has returned to throughout his career, rogues and rascals who invest criminality with a kind of nobility, view straight life as a kind of death, and don’t know when to quit. Like Redford, they only know one way of living, and though they might think of stepping away from it, leaving isn’t really an option.

It didn’t have to be that way. A California kid blessed with all-American good looks, Redford became a hard-drinking University of Colorado frat boy. But his heart wasn’t in it. He left school, not by choice, and drifted, studying painting and acting, and finding his way to the theater — where he enjoyed great success as the star of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park — television, and the movies. He could easily have taken on a succession of handsome leading-man parts, but his heart wasn’t in that either. When he took something close to such roles, it was usually to subvert the type, as in Downhill Racer and The Candidate, a pair of Michael Ritchie–directed films that reached some pretty unflattering conclusions about what it takes to make it in America.

From the start, outlaws suited him better. In Arthur Penn’s 1966 film The Chase, an adaptation of a Horton Foote play, Redford plays “Bubber” Reeves, who returns to his small southern city after escaping from prison. Bubber’s less a protagonist than a catalyst for the underlying tensions of a town where everybody seems to be secretly sleeping with everyone else and the good ol’ boy contingent is looking for a flimsy excuse to lynch their black neighbors, but Redford invests him with a soulfulness that’s not evident in the script. Bubber’s not bad. He’s honest and forgiving in ways the town’s “upstanding citizens” could never be. When he learns his wife Anna (Jane Fonda, in the first of several pairings) is sleeping with his best friend, he rolls with it. He knows that escaping from prison will mean he’ll never have a respectable life again and he’s accepted this. Respectable life, after all, doesn’t look that respectable.

The role that would Redford’s association with outlaws — the one whose name he borrowed to name a film festival and all its associated offshoots — would come three years later. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford plays the quieter, moodier sidekick to Paul Newman’s gregarious Butch Cassidy, a charming robber of banks and trains who slowly comes to realize that the Old West in which he’s thrived is coming to a close. Directed by George Roy Hill from a script by William Goldman, it’s a lighthearted elegy to a bygone age, a celebration of living outside of polite society shot through with a pessimism that polite society ultimately squashes what it can’t understand. (That it was released, and became hit, at the end of the ’60s is an example of the right movie arriving at the right time.)

Like his character, Redford often cedes the spotlight to Newman, balancing his lightness with weight. Here they have a particular, fascinating chemistry, the sort of lived-in rapport to which all buddy comedies aspire. They talk all the time — well, Butch talks and Sundance mostly listens — but much between them remains unspoken. Sundance has a steady relationship with Etta Place (Katharine Ross), but Etta has much more romantic chemistry with Butch. The three have an understanding that works for them, yet when Etta leaves the picture, Butch and Sundance carry on without her, whatever bond they share surviving her departure. What they have wouldn’t work in the straight world but, more than any tracker or lawman, it’s the straight world that’s their enemy.

“You couldn’t really go straight,” a prison warden tells Robert Redford’s John Dortmunder in the 1972 film The Hot Rock. Dortmunder quietly agrees, replying, “My heart wouldn’t be in it.” Scripted by Goldman and directed by Peter Yates, the film adapts the first of Donald Westlake’s many comic crime novels centered around Dortmunder, a criminal whose brilliance is matched only by his bad luck. Redford doesn’t seem like a natural fit for Dortmunder, who on the page calls out for an actor whose face suggests he was born under a bad sign. (He was played in subsequent adaptations by George C. Scott, Paul Le Mat, and Martin Lawrence, but it’s a minor tragedy that Walter Matthau never got a shot.) Yet Redford’s instincts to underplay serve him as well here as they do in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where a flick of the eye and a wary expression say more than dialogue could. He begins the film exhausted, then grows increasingly exasperated as one attempt after another to procure a precious jewel coveted by a fictional African nation are thwarted. Redford may look like someone born to win, but he usually seems more comfortable playing losers and underdogs.

That tendency served him well again the following year in The Sting, a second team-up with Newman under the direction of George Roy Hill (both would go on to work with Hill separately as well). Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a small-time con artist in Depression-era Joliet, Illinois, who loses his mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones) and finds his own life endangered when he accidentally robs a numbers runner connected to Irish gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Fleeing to Chicago, he learns the long con at the hands of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who conspires with Johnny to relieve Lonnegan of a small fortune as an act of revenge. It’s a blow directed not just against Lonnegan, but at the corrupt system that allows him to thrive. Lonnegan might be an outlaw, but he’s the wrong kind of outlaw, a murderer (and card cheat) who can bribe his way into passing himself off as a solid citizen. In the end (spoiler ahead, naturally), Hooker, Gondorff, and a crew of like-minded con men succeed, even if they recognize the futility of it all. “You’re right,” Hooker tells Gondorff, “it’s not enough.” Then, after a short beat, he continues, “But it’s close.” When trapped in a fixed system, in a long con where the little guy is always the mark, maybe the small victories matter even more.

And maybe it’s that attitude that provides the clearest indication as to why Redford’s sympathies lie with outlaws, even when he’s playing lawmen. The 1980 film Brubaker opens with a nearly 30-minute sequence that follows Redford’s almost wordless character as he’s sent to an Arkansas prison and forced to live in dehumanizing conditions. It’s only when he can’t keep up the charade any longer that he reveals himself as the prison’s new warden, having arrived undercover to see what needs to be done from the ground level. Based on a true story, the Stuart Rosenberg–directed film doesn’t sentimentalize the prisoners or soft sell what led to their incarceration, but it broadens its scope to explore the corruption of the prison and the wider network of favors and backroom deals that profits off the misery of those lowest on the social ladder.

Here and elsewhere, the line between the projects Redford chooses and his offscreen interests start to blur. Brubaker works as a tense, stirring drama, but it also works a political agenda. An unabashed liberal, Redford let his politics float even closer to the surface in the 1992 film Sneakers, playing a ’60s-radical hacker who’s had to reinvent himself under a new identity and now runs a firm testing the effectiveness of security systems. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the film connects a couple of strands running through Redford’s work: a distrust of the government and its shadowy network of uncaring operatives (evident in such quintessential ’70s films as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor) and the sympathy for rebels and outlaws evident in all of the films above. Maybe they were the same strand all along.

As gentle as it is, that same rebel spirit is the engine that drives The Old Man and the Gun, and the same outlaw impulse that animates Sundance and Johnny and the others is what keeps Forrest going. That he can’t stop, even as age and the law encroach, even as he finds a woman who understands him and offers him an off-ramp from a life of crime, is both tragedy and triumph — and Lowery’s treats it with bittersweetness. It’s a fine farewell, and an appropriate one that draws on Redford’s career-long ability to find the soul of characters whose refusal to be penned in doubles as a moral stance. But is it really good-bye, or will his satisfaction in channeling this spirit draw him back? Redford could fade away quietly, sure, but would his heart be in it?

Robert Redford’s Cinematic Life of Crime