Subliminal messaging in cinema is an incredibly powerful tool. The more movies I watch, the more I’m realizing that almost nothing we see onscreen is coincidental; every lighting technique, every camera angle, every prop, and every compositional detail is pre-planned and intentional. Everything being shown to the audience is there for a reason. Some are there purely for aesthetic reasons, but some (many, in fact) are included for the purpose of holding deeper meanings or creating subliminal hints for the audience that contribute to character or plot development and enhance the film as a whole.
Watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), I quickly became aware of some of the cinematic elements that were meant to convey meaning to the audience. The basic premise of the film follows Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, as they struggle to continue their increasingly outdated train-robbing lifestyles while being chased by a group of faceless bounty hunters that represent the threat of industrialization and technological advancement to traditional Western culture. Butch and the Kid represent old values; the bounty hunters represent new. (Think Coke vs. Pepsi). This duality is acclaimed by critics and fans all over the world. But, notice: the presence of this underlying theme is never directly stated or addressed in the film. The audience is never told what’s what—rather, they become aware via plot development and the integration of subtle cinematic hints.
One of the most obvious yet effective of these cinematic tricks, it seemed to me, was the use of camera angles and powerful lighting to turn Cassidy and the Sundance Kid into glory-filled visual representations of traditional Western culture and values.
Right off the bat, we can see that the two actors who play Cassidy and the Kid (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) are both members of an exclusive gene pool endowed with obvious, traditional good looks. They’re both tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blonde-haired American poster boys, and every shot we see them in is enhanced with powerful lighting techniques just to make absolutely sure we can’t miss out on the beauty of those faces. They’re idealized, glorified, mega-masculine cowboys. How much more stereotypically American could they get?
In the scene pictured above, for example, the lighting is used to illuminate only one side of Butch and the Kid’s faces while the other half is cast in shadow. Not only does this technique enhance the masculinity of their features, it also creates a near-halo effect which implies that the characters are looking towards the light, seeking truth and their own interpretation of justice.
As well, the majority of scenes featuring both Cassidy and Sundance are shot from a slight low angle, looking up at the pair and giving them a subtle air of power and authority that audiences quickly associate with American cowboy culture and long-standing tradition.
Even in this scene, when the duo is trapped on the edge of a cliff being cornered like animals and awaiting their likely deaths, the low camera angle still puts the characters in a position of power and strength. Though the plot tells us that they’re trapped, the cinematic qualities emphasize the idea that they can’t be stopped.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) directed by George Roy Hill
Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film by Stephen R. Prince