Thursday, February 16, 2012

BONNIE & CLYDE 1967


Bonnie & Clyde is one of my “staple films.” A staple film being any movie that tops my acquisition list whenever technological advancements make it necessary for me to restock my film library. Back in the dark ages, when I got my first VCR machine, Bonnie & Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, and Midnight Cowboy were the first VHS movies I ever purchased. These same films also became the first DVDs I ever owned when video cassettes became obsolete. It wasn’t particularly planned that way, they were just the three films I was most excited about owning in disc format. As of yet I haven’t jumped on the Blu-ray bandwagon, but if and when I ultimately make that leap, it’s a sure bet which three films will be essential to have...again.

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde is a film that has become as legendary and folkloric as its real-life subjects. Released at the height of the hippie movement (ironically enough, in August of the Summer of Love); Bonnie & Clyde, in its myth-making depiction of two small-time Depression-era outlaws, managed to hit America right between the eyes.
What captured our imaginations about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1967 is most likely what captured the nation’s imagination in the 1930s. They were young (he was 21, she 19); women in crime were rare; as opposed to being a “gang,” Bonnie and Clyde were perceived as a “couple” and as such, suitable for romantic projection; and lastly, but perhaps most significantly, they were famous. Indeed, they are among the earliest American “celebrity” criminals: self-aware and image-conscious; knowledgeable of and taking delight in the notoriety and fame their criminal activity brought them.

Had Arthur Penn’s film been less artful, say, a Roger Corman exploitationer or an American-International cheapie like1958s The Bonnie Parker Story (an absolutely must-see howler starring  Dorothy Provine), no one would likely have batted an eye on its release. But Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde comingled French New Wave arthouse stylization with America’s romanticism of rebellion, preoccupation with violence, and attraction to mythmaking,  and in doing so captured the absolute essence of a particular moment in time. Not America in the 1930s, but America in the late 1960s.
Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow
Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker
Michael J. Pollard as C.W. Moss
Gene Hackman as Buck Barrow
Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow
I saw Bonnie & Clyde in 1968 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and it absolutely blew me away. I was eleven at the time and I still recall the impact it had on me and the audience. As I headed for my seat, I vividly remember encountering this huge, literally life-size lobby display that totally freaked me out. It was the iconic poster art* featuring the eerily unsettling image of Dunaway and Beatty laughing behind a bullet-hole riddled windshield. Under this was written: They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people. Yikes! I almost peed myself.
(I literally had no business being in the theater at that age, but precocious kids who make it their business to see movies too mature for their age can’t really complain about the subsequent nightmares and kindertrauma.) *I now own a framed Bonnie & Clyde poster which hangs where I can see it as I write. No longer a terrifying image, it inspires me and reminds me of the time when I thought movies were art and magic combined.

I had seen lots of crime dramas before this, but they were all pretty cut-and-dried, morally speaking. Crime didn’t pay, the good guys won, and the bad guys deserved what they got. I was not at all prepared for Bonnie & Clyde’s alternating tones of comedy, romance, lyricism, drama, and in-your-face violence used in telling the story of a duo many believed to have been little more than a couple of hayseed sociopaths.
Following Clyde's murder of an unarmed man, Bonnie, Clyde and C.W. lay low in a movie theater. Clyde is visibly upset, C.W. is nearly in tears, but Bonnie is absorbed in watching a musical number from "Golddiggers of 1933" (We're in the Money). My sister and I were just preteens when we saw Bonnie & Clyde and at this point in the film she leaned over and asked, "Is Bonnie supposed to be mentally ill?"

Years later, I read a review of the film by critic John Simon wherein he alludes to the scene as indicative of Bonnie being somewhat infantile and childlike. The seriousness of death and crime hadn't really sunk in for Bonnie. Like the kids today who wield guns in the playground and think of death and gunplay as nothing more serious than a 3D video game.


As embodied by the impossibly (implausibly?) beautiful and stylish duo of Beatty and Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde are a pair of unsophisticated social misfits dreaming of a better life beyond the dustbowl Texas poverty that surrounds them. Warren Beatty’s Clyde is a kind of guileless, career-criminal with malice towards none (the film casts the Great Depression as the ultimate villain) who sees in Bonnie a yearning soul not unlike his own. The film seems to allude that, possibly with education or opportunity, this pair might have made something useful of their lives. But lacking either and left with nothing but a nagging sense of the pent-up hopelessness of their lives, they made the choice of antisocial rebellion.
A pretty nice name for a murderous crime spree. 
And therein lay the cornerstone of the controversy surrounding Bonnie & Clyde when it was first released. Critics and audiences alike didn’t know what to make of a film that not only intentionally altered (some might say manipulated) historical fact for the purpose of dramatic effect, but cast its anti-heroes in a decidedly heroic, romantic light that to some negated the very real pain and suffering this real-life couple brought to others.
Director Arthur Penn has always maintained that he had bigger fish to fry in Bonnie & Clyde and had no interest in offering a documentary with a moral. In the wonderful but out-of-print volume, The Bonnie & Clyde Book by Sandra Wake and Nicola Hayden, Penn is quoted as saying: “I don’t think the original Bonnie and Clyde are very important except insofar as they motivated the writing of a script and our making of a movie. This is not a case study of Bonnie and Clyde; we don’t go into them in any kind of depth.”

Instead, Penn asserts that he intended Bonnie & Clyde as a kind of post - Kennedy assassination / Vietnam war – era take on the death of the American Dream as manifest in the nation’s fascination with violence and mythmaking, and the resultant anti-authority/anti-social rebellion.
The communal "Hoovervilles", "Hobo Jungles" and "Shanty Towns" of the Great Depression evoked
the hippie communes that were springing up all over the country in 1967. The nomadic, anti-establishment rebel  lives of Bonnie & Clyde struck a chord with young audiences of the 60s  

So if turning a couple of remorseless murderers into a pair of sympathetic, glamorous, near-mythic tragic lovers was seen by some as amoral, young 60s audiences didn’t seem to care. While critics like The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther pilloried Bonnie & Clyde as “…a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly  Modern Millie,young people across the country responded (as they would two years later to Easy Rider’s motorcycle-riding drug dealers) to the rebellious, anti-establishment spirit at the film’s core.
Disenfranchised 60s youth - targeted for the draft, denied the vote, lacking a social presence - identified with the Barrow Gang's attempt to create for themselves a non-traditional family 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Putting aside arguments of amorality, I really admire how Bonnie & Clyde captures something I find to be very true about human nature: that the villains and monsters of the world don’t necessarily perceive themselves to be such. Movies and pulp literature have taught us that bad guys are well aware of how evil they are; literally reveling in their wickedness and lack of conscience (to believe so is reassuring when you find yourself rooting for their demise). Yet life experience and election-year observations have led me to conclude that some of the most heinous people in our culture actually seem to maintain a perception of themselves as being basically good and “just folks.”  So called "respectable" and educated people today engage in all matter of pernicious behavior...preaching and legislating hate and ill-will...yet feel, deep within their hearts, that they are good, decent people. The news is full of individuals who have killed, bombed, or marched about carrying signs spewing venomous hate; but in their own minds they are good Christians, or defenders of family values, pro-lifers, or lovers of America and the American way of life. The conveyance of this sad-but-true cultural fact is where Bonnie & Clyde achieves a kind of brilliance and does something really remarkable with the gangster genre.

It makes perfect sense to me that neither Bonnie nor Clyde would ever see themselves as bad guys. Dunaway and Beatty’s scenes together depict the two as marginalized loners—zeroes in the eyes of the world—whose dead-end lives converge and create a kind of pitiful, doomed hope. They are a sadsack Romeo & Juliet made stronger and more significant in their union than they could ever be on their own.
Their world may be narrow and their thinking delusional, but they long for the same things we all do. We identify with their taking offense at the injustice of poor people being put out of their homes by banks, and we maybe even applaud their standing up for the “little people” in the small criminal ways they flout authority. Yet at the same time we are repulsed by their callous disregard for life. Or rather, a certain kind of life. In their world, the death of a lawman does not hold the same weight as the death of a loved one or average citizen. A trenchant twist on the way death is militarized by our “civilized society” (The death of an officer in battle does not hold the same weight as the death of a soldier; the death of a lawman in the line of duty does not hold the same weight as that of the average citizen, etc.) Small wonder that 60s youths - their lives valuable in terms of the draft, valueless when it came to the right to vote - found in Bonnie & Clyde a relevant parable for the times. Depicted as a pair of countercounter outlaws, at least Bonnie and Clyde were choosing to die on their own terms.

Gene Wilder (making his film debut) and Evans Evans appear briefly as unwitting provocateurs of the Barrow Gang. It's one of my favorite sequences in the film. There was a time when I would collapse into paroxysms of  laughter if anyone even whispered the phrase, "Step on it, Velma!"

PERFORMANCES:
In some ways, the channeling of a specific, defined persona into role after role is the essence of what being a movie star (as opposed to an actor) is all about. Diane Keaton trademarked the lovable, semi-inarticulate ditz; Robert Redford the sensitive All-American jock; and Warren Beatty always seemed to play some variation on the not-very bright, overgrown boy with big ideas (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Only Game in Town, Shampoo). Notwithstanding Beatty’s appealingly debauched beauty as a man, his screen persona has often left me wanting. Not so in Bonnie & Clyde. Here he mines the mother lode of his star charisma and is marvelously alive and interesting. Especially in the scenes where Clyde explodes into violent rages that erupt into a terrifyingly real physicality. Beatty playing aw-shucks humble has always been a little boring. Beatty as a temperamental nutjob  (Bugsy) is a sight to behold.
There’s a kind of wistfulness that comes over me whenever I see Faye Dunaway in Bonnie & Clyde. Part of it’s nostalgia because I fell in love with her in this movie; part of it’s due to her being so damned good that I’m forced to admit that I’ve let it become far too easy over the years to forget what a marvelous actress she is. You see her here and you know in an instant that there was no way this woman wasn’t going to be a star. Her Bonnie Parker is funny and tough and oh, so heartbreaking. Hers is a classic, one-of-a-kind performance and Dunaway OWNS the role as far as I’m concerned. Any planned remakes would do well to distance themselves from the Penn film and save all prospective Bonnies from the inevitable embarrassing comparisons to Dunaway. 
Impotent Clyde seduces Bonnie with a phallic substitute

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
While the sympathetic light Bonnie and Clyde are presented in represents an insurmountable hurdle for some (personally, I don’t see it as sympathetic so much as human. A moral imperative overrides everything that happens in the film), I find myself grateful for being allowed to take in the events of the story without being forced by the script to adopt an attitude about the pair until I’m ready.
One good example of this is the scene where Clyde says to a poor farmer whose house has been foreclosed upon, “We rob banks!” And in that split second we see an aimless man giving his life purpose. A few scenes later Bonnie says these same words to gas attendant C.W. Moss, and in her delivery we see that she at last has discovered an identity for herself.
These two moments of empowerment for Bonnie and Clyde are perhaps pathetic and delusional to us, the viewer, but they are defining moments for the characters. What seems like the film striking an amoral stance is actually, I believe, the film merely establishing its point of view. The film presumes we are adult enough to be shown Bonnie and Clyde’s self-serving view of the world and themselves (misjudged folk heroes like Robin & Maid Marian) without insisting we accept it.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Or rather, the stuff of nightmares. In this I’m referring to Bonnie & Clyde’s groundbreaking, much-discussed, heavily-debated, then-unprecedented depiction of violence. Modern audiences may find it tame (me, I still have a hard time watching the final ambush scene) but everything you’ve read about it is true when it comes to how it affected audiences on its initial release. I still can remember how ear shatteringly loud the shots sounded in the theater, and how deadly quiet the theater was when the film was over. People walked out of the film like they were in a daze. Nobody knew quite how to take what they had seen. There were the obvious few, made so nervous that they had to start saying ANYTHING quick, but I remember my family and I leaving the theater and actually feeling afraid to say anything. As if in opening our mouths we weren’t sure what would come out…a cry or a scream.
Bonnie & Clyde: Laughing and dying
"The killing gets less impersonal and, consequently, less funny." Arthur Penn
Copyright © Ken Anderson

9 comments:

  1. Brilliant summary, you can see why this is one of your staple films :)

    The terms iconic and influential get bandied about all too often these days; but this genuinely is. It's not without it's flaws I feel, but it's heart is there and it's ideas are first rate (the highlighted scene in the cinema being a prime example) and they paved the way for more perfected yet less genuine movies to come that followed a similar path.

    Love the photos of the phallic scene, hope you don't mind but I've saved that.

    Lastly have you read Go Down Together by Jeff Guin? A fascinating biography of the pair.

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    1. Thanks very much, Mark. I of course agree with you in saying that this film has become legitimately iconic and influential. I never heard of the book you mentioned but you have piqued my interest. I'm going to seek it out (hello, Amazon!)

      I'm sure it must be tempting for some filmmaker to want to tell the real story of Bonnie and Clyde, which this film deviates from greatly, but no matter how different the life story, the ending is the same. I can't imagine any filmmaker, no matter how gifted, being able to devise an ambush sequence that could emerge from the shadow of what Arthur Penn devised.
      It would be like trying to find a new way of filming a shower murder...impossible! I guess that defines iconic.

      Glad you liked the gun/phallus screen caps. I loved that scene!

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  2. Ken, Argyle here. Thank you! Yes, this is one of those films that says so much. It's really poetry. If I happen across it on TV, I have to watch. Faye Dunaway never wants you to like her, she's pretty repellent, but she's so real. And she's so great looking and perfectly dressed and she moves beautifully. Whenever I see it, I wait for the scene where she reads her poem. That kills me. And then the scene where they meet up with Bonnie's mother in the dunes. And the mother listens to Clyde's well intentioned dreams of someday living near her so Bonnie can take care of her. And her mother listens, walking back to her car, and eventually replies. Unexpected and devastating.

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    1. Hi Argyle. Glad you brought up that scene on the dunes. I swear, there are so many scenes from this film I wanted to write about but it would have been the longest post in history. Dunaway's face is great in response to what her mother says, and I love how the tone of the movie gets darker after this sequence.
      I had never thought of how Dunaway doesn't really play Bonnie as likable. I was always so taken with her beauty, but you're right...it's kind of an unsympathetic performance that draws you in because she IS so real. Thanks for commenting!

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    2. Yes, for me everything in this movie is perfect. Every piece. I think that's why the cumulative effect is so overpowering: everything you have seen is so varied and so perfect. The comedy (with Gene Wilder) is so skillful; the music; the sound in general (lots of wind is how I remember it); Estelle Parsons (who is this crazy combination of irritating and pitiful. And I always go back to Bonnie's poem and Faye Dunaway's accent and very deliberate ennunciation. It's so ominous and haunting and she's so proud and Clyde is so proud of her. Everything comes together in this movie.

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  3. Insightful commentary...the amoralist in us or perhaps the rebel is what grips us...see celluloidofkewl blog

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    1. Yes, whatever is within each of us that responds to a desire to buck a system we perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be unfair is a bit of what is touched upon in our sympathetic response to "Bonnie & Clyde". Liked very much your post on your blog. Thanks for commenting and leaving your link address.

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    2. This is late in coming seeing as you posted the Bonnie and Clyde piece two years ago but I have to share something. This is my #1 favorite movie. Saw it when I was 10 years old and it changed my life. I was already was in love with Faye Dunaway having her seen only a few months before in The Happening but even the poster itself signified something new and exciting. The pink wash over the photograph of Dunaway and Beatty, the small lone figures below. So different! I stared at it for weeks in anticipation, until the day the movie arrived. I can still remember where I was sitting. Then in 1977, I moved to be with family in Texas and got a job at a small movie production outfit in Dallas which was utilized by whomever happened to be shooting a movie in the area. Lo and behold, it was where they shot some interiors for Bonnie and Clyde years before. In storage: original props. To this day I still have the Ice Cream sign that was hanging outside the grocery where Clyde first impresses Bonnie with a hold up. Now, skip ahead to 1981 and I was living in New York. My then boyfriend was a critic for an obscure Canadian film magazine called Movie. He was interviewing Arthur Penn who was in town to promote Four Friends and asked if I could take some pictures. Of course, I jumped. It wasn't long before I hijacked the interview with questions about Bonnie and Clyde and Penn was delighted. He became truly animated for the first time. He LOVED talking about it. I told him that I'd been collecting every piece of B&C memorabilia since 1967 that I could find. He asked for my address before we left and left it that. About six months later I got a large envelope from Penn. In it, (among other things) a signed one sheet, a clear plastic overlay (presumably used to press onto the box office window) pocked with bullet holes and scrawled in lipstick: "Bonnie and Clyde wuz here" (today it's too brittle to even unfold) and a copy of the location shooting schedule that gave the exact addresses of the locations in and around the Dallas area. You know, at the time I nearly hyperventilated when I received these treasures. But now when I think back I am just so deeply moved that Arthur Penn, (Arthur Penn!) went out of his way to make an absolute stranger so absolutely happy. Thanks for listening, Ken

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    3. Hello Max (I have no idea if Max is your real name, but every time I write it I hear Barbara Feldon almost purring it in "Get Smart"...it's one of my favorite names because of that)
      Anyhoo...Thanks a heap for sharing that absolutely terrific series of recollections here! I would have been sorely disappointed had you thought better of it.
      It's a great testament to the way movies can get under your skin, confirms that I wasn't the only kid out there who saw this mature movie at a ridiculously young age, and my favorite part is your relaying how Penn was still so enthusiastic talking about it.
      I'm jealous as hell at your memorabilia, but I share your love of this film and really appreciate your sharing your decades-long affection for "B& C" here. Loved it!

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