Don't Call it a Swan Song: The Career of Robert Redford

Robert Redford bows out in style as a veteran bank robber in The Old Man & the Gun.

Following the premiere of David Lowery's elegiac The Old Man & the Gun, the film's star Robert Redford announced it would be his last role as an actor. At 82 and having appeared on screen since 1960, when he made his debut with a small role in the TV series 'Maverick', Lowery's film is the perfect swan song. It’s the second film the director has made with Redford, following on from the actor’s charming turn as a wizened old man who knows of the existence of magical creatures in the touching live-action remake of Pete's Dragon. But his role as real-life robber Forrest Tucker in The Old Man & the Gun captures the essence of Redford’s star persona – the elements that have made him a box office draw for over five decades.

The Old Man & The Gun  (2018)

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

Towards the end of the film, as Tucker looks back over his many escapes from prison, Lowery not only gives us a visual summary of those escapes, he offers us a celebration of the actor's life on screen. Making using of his back catalogue, Lowery chooses clips from various Redford films to show how he has aged before our eyes, from the youthful, nascent newcomer in the 1960s, through the decades to the present day. It's a moving testament to an actor whose star has rarely dimmed across all those years.

Redford straddled the worlds of classical Hollywood and a new generation of filmmakers who dismantled the conventions of a system to produce a grittier kind of cinema. After a few years playing TV roles, including holding his own opposite Jason Robards in Sidney Lumet's admired production of 'The Iceman Cometh' (1960), Redford's breakthrough came starring opposite Jane Fonda in the Neil Simon comedy Barefoot in the Park (1966). It was the beginning of a collaboration with Fonda that would continue in The Electric Horseman (1979) and the recent Our Souls at Night (2017).

Barefoot in the Park  (1966)

Barefoot in the Park (1966)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (1967)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1967)

But it was his role as the cool, laconic Sundance in the 1967 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford an international star. Perfectly cast opposite Paul Newman – the two would also make the Oscar-winning The Sting (1973) together – Redford oozed sex appeal and charisma, while hinting at a darker side. Like Cary Grant before him and George Clooney later, Redford could turn on the charm if required, but he really drew audiences in when that effortless appeal was combined with an element of ambivalence. It's why he's so good in two films directed by Michael Ritchie: Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972). In the former he is a gifted and ambitious but selfish Olympic skier who clashes with Gene Hackman's coach. While in the excellent political satire he plays a Californian Democratic candidate for the Senate who can't possibly be the perfect golden boy he presents to the populace.

Downhill Racer  (1969)

Downhill Racer (1969)

The Candidate  (1972)

The Candidate (1972)

Key to Redford's career is his successful collaboration with director Sydney Pollack. Like his star, Pollack had one foot in the classical Hollywood tradition and the other in the new American cinema. He could do gritty, but in a more conservative style than many of the New Hollywood filmmakers. Redford's first film with him was This Property is Condemned (1966). Depending on your taste, there were a variety of career high points in their seven-film collaboration, from the Western Jeremiah Johnson (1970) and conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975) to the multiple Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985). There was also The Way We Were (1973), The Electric Horseman and Havana (1990). Alongside these collaborations, Redford worked with Abraham Polonsky on Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969), Jack Clayton on The Great Gatsby (1974) – which should have been perfect for Redford's persona but, like the other film adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel, failed to work – Stuart Rosenberg on Brubaker (1980) and Barry Levinson on The Natural (1985).

Three Days of the Condor  (1975)

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

The Natural  (1985)

The Natural (1985)

Perhaps inspired by the work of these directors, Redford became one himself. He earned an Oscar for his first feature, the family drama Ordinary People (1980), and had hits with A River Runs Through It (1992) and The Horse Whisperer (1998). But arguably his best work as a filmmaker is the low-key political drama The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) and Quiz Show (1994), one of the best US films of the 1990s.

Ordinary People  (1980)

Ordinary People (1980)

Quiz Show  (1994)

Quiz Show (1994)

Redford’s performance as Tucker in The Old Man & the Gun isn't his only great performance in recent years. He is outstanding – very near his best – as the lone sailor facing death in All is Lost (2013) and brought gravitas and malevolence to his role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), helping add to the sense that the film would rather be more of a throwback to the conspiracy thrillers of old than another effects-laden entry in the Marvel canon. Then there's his hermit-like Mr Meacham in Pete's Dragon. Considered for most of his life to be a fool and a dreamer, a young boy's appearance from a woods gives Meacham reason to live – and hope – again. It takes a star to bring a role like that fully to life, but a great actor to know not to go too far in tugging at an audience’s emotions.

The Old Man & The Gun  (2018)

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

Redford is one of many pleasures in Lowery's hugely entertaining crime drama. Tom Waits and Danny Glover are perfect as sidekicks, while Casey Affleck is a perfect foil as the cop chasing down and admiring of Tucker. Then there's Sissy Spacek, another icon of American cinema, whose scenes with Redford give The Old Man & the Gun its heart. But ultimately, this is Redford's show. His curtain call. He revels in the spotlight, but shows he is a perfect judge of knowing when to bow out and leave an audience wanting more. It's a perfect end note to an extraordinary career.

The Old Man & The Gun

David Lowery’s The Old Man & The Gun plays on our screens from Friday 7 December