Wednesday, February 29, 2012


“There is so much talk now about the art of film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art.”
Pauline Kael

One of the things I’ve always loved about the late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, was that, as intellectual and committed to the arts as she was, she was not a movie snob. She was one of the few film critics to understood how trash films and pop entertainment can hold as much appeal and be every bit as satisfying and uplifting as great art. 
In her time, she continually repudiated the efforts of critics who sought to promote a narrow, solely academic, definition of cinema. A definition shrouded in high-mindedness, “good taste,” and a self-seriousness blind to film’s more accessible, subjectively emotional appeal.  Kael seemed to be on a crusade to stop moviegoers from feeling guilty for enjoying movies as pop culture pleasures, encouraging them to instead relate to film's immediacy, passion, and ability to get under our skin. In short, to learn to connect to cinema as the “lively art” it is.  
But this didn't mean that there was no room for discernment and or critical judgment. Kael drew the line at lazy, cynical, boxoffice-geared product which pandered to the lowest common denominator and insulted the intelligence of the audience. For a movie to be worthwhile, it had to have imagination, vitality, ideas, and something elemental in its plot capable of striking a chord with the soul’s need to find beauty, joy, heroism, or myth. If a film can convey to an individual even a shred of what that person holds to be beautiful about the world, it doesn't matter if it’s The Cool Ones or Fanny & Alexander.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I bring this all up as a way of ushering in this essay about Vincente Minnelli's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; a grievously imperfect film that I nevertheless find to be perfectly, for lack of a better word, hypnotic.
Barbra Streisand as Daisy Gamble / Melinda Winifred Wayne Moorpark Tentrees, nee Wainwhistle
Yves Montand as Dr. Marc Chabot
Warren Pratt
Jack Nicholson as Tad Pringle
Bob Newhart as Dr. Mason Hume
John Richardson as Robert Tentrees
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is based on the moderate success/probable flop 1965 musical by Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner which starred the incandescent Barbara Harris and ran for 280 performances on Broadway. It’s a breezy romantic comedy with a glorious score and a charmingly original, if problematic, plot centering on ESP and reincarnation. It’s also the film that contains my all-time favorite Barbra Streisand musical comedy performance.

Simplified, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever relates the story of Daisy Gamble (Streisand), a nervousy introvert who seeks the services of psychiatrist / hypnotherapist Dr. Chabot (Montand) to help her to quit smoking. Daisy is a shrinking violet (hee-hee), a colorless wallflower (ditto, are a major motif in the film) so cowed by her button-down fiancĂ©, Warren (Blyden) that she tries to suppress the fact, both to herself and others, that she is actually gifted with ESP and, among her many talents, can make flowers grow simply by talking to them. 
"Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here"
If any voice could coax flowers out of their beds in the morning, it's Streisand's 
Under hypnosis, Daisy reveals herself to be the reincarnation of a 19th century British clairvoyant named Melinda Tentrees who was executed for treason. Melinda is everything that Daisy is not: alluring, self-assured, and unreservedly sensual. For Dr. Chabot, fascination with Daisy’s case soon turns into infatuation with the elusive Melinda, while Daisy, misreading the doctor’s attentions, starts falling for Chabot.

That's quite a lot going on, what with showy fantasy flashbacks to the sumptuous Regency period to sort out the whys and wherefores of Melinda's untimely death; at least two, possibly three, romantic triangles (a hexagon, I suppose: Chabot/Daisy/Melinda & Warren/Daisy/Tad); a college scandal; plus time out to squeeze in several musical numbers. In fact, there's so much going on, several aspects of the film feel as though they are shunted to the sidelines or neglected outright.
The obviously truncated Jack Nicholson subplot goes absolutely nowhere, Daisy's own relationship with Warren feels like a series of blackout skits,  and I would have loved to have seen more of Leon Aames, the father from Minnelli's flawless Meet Me in St. Louis. Meanwhile, too much screen time is allocated to a wholly expository character like Chabot's colleague, Dr. Fuller (Simon Oakland), who exists solely to provide Montand's character an opportunity to engage in a windy reincarnation debate.
It's not unusual for women to develop crushes on older men, but the near 20-year age difference between Streisand and Montage did nothing to help the pair's already staggering lack of chemistry 

The overall result is a charming musical that is nevertheless strangely choppy and uneven in tone. The film is, at turns, out and out funny, whimsical, stylish, lyrical, and sometimes breathtaking; but it frequently feels like we're watching the combined efforts of artists assigned to do their work in isolation - without an awareness of what others are doing. Structurally, the film is designed to contrast the past and present, but this duality transfers somewhat schizophrenically in the combined efforts of the set designers, costumers, and especially the actors. Instead of creating the impression that time is cyclical and that the past and present are spiritually interlinked; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever frequently just feels like two separate films vying for screen time. A result, no doubt, of the movie being the victim of a great deal of editing. (Not the kind of fine-tuning editing necessary to sharpen a film, but the kind of butchering needed to cut a proposed 3-hour roadshow musical down to a little over 2-hours.)
On the rare occasions Minnelli ventures out of the studio, good use is made of the film's New York locations. Here, Yves Montand stands atop the Pan Am Building imploring Daisy to "Come Back to Me"
(or, as transposed by critic Rex Reed per Montand's French accent, "Cum Buck Dooo Meee!")

As it turns out, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever did indeed undergo a prodigious amount of cutting before release. Conceived as a roadshow* attraction, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever bears the brunt of the many songs, scenes, and subplots excised in the interest of whittling the film down to a marketable running time. But this doesn't fully explain On a Clear Day You Can See Forever saddling itself with a leading man so thuddingly dull that the film loses all romantic longing. Nor does it account for production values which would have looked dated in 1965; the curious choice of not having Streisand (a great comedienne) interact with any of the comic supporting actors (that's left to Montand, who sucks the laughs out of every scene); or the head-scratchingly weird decision to remove all of the score's liveliest and peppiest numbers (and this movie could use all the pep it can get) leaving only the melodic ballads.

*Roadshow: A popular distribution method for “event” films in the 60s, roadshow films were higher priced, reserved-seat screenings with overtures, intermissions, and exit music. These films were habitually 2 ½ to 4 hours long. They gradually fell out of favor in the late 70s.
The rooftop set and cast assembled for the Wait Till We're Sixty-Five production number that was filmed (and showed up on promotional stills) but cut out of the completed film

The film's score (among my favorites) is lushly romantic, but the film itself (a protracted, metaphysical cockblock) has been cast and directed in such a fashion as to render all potential romantic couplings undesirable. Personally, I didn't want Daisy to end up with ANY of her suitors.
Dr.Chabot hypnotizes Daisy through telepathy

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was only the second Barbra Streisand film I’d ever seen (the first being What’s Up, Doc?), and one I somehow hadn’t even heard of until 1975 when it was booked as the bottom half of a double-bill at the San Francisco movie theater where I worked as an usher. Because of my job, I was initially only able to see bits and pieces of the film, but the first thing that struck me was how beautifully it was shot. The ultra modern college campus scenes were an overlit bust, but the flashback sequences in England and stylized artificiality of the Daisy's rooftop bore Minnelli’s trademark stamp of picturesque opulence. 
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England features in one of the film's many stunning flashback sequences.

The other thing that grabbed me was the music. Many of the songs from the original score had been excised and a few new ones written just for the film. But of those that remained, who knew that so many of my parents’ favorite standards - the virtual entirety of the Eydie Gorme, Robert Goulet,  Jack Jones songbook - came from this show? I was so taken with the brief bits I was able to glimpse of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that I began to make up excuses to leave my lobby post: check for smokers, feet on the backs of chairs… anything, just so I could get another Streisand fix.

And what a fix it was. Lit to look like a goddess and costumed with decolletage for days, Streisand was a heady dose of '70s-style movie star glamour. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was the movie that made me fall in love with Streisand (alas, a short-lived romance that ended with 1979s The Main Event) and my personal siren song was her gangbusters delivery of the title tune. I made a point of always being the usher stationed near the doors at the end of each screening just so I could stand inside, flashlight in hand, mouth agape, and wait for her to rattle the crystal on the chandeliers with that final note.Wow! Talk about your goosebumps moment. 
Not sure if this was a wig or her real hair, but this is the look I always associate with Streisand

Although On a Clear Day You Can See Forever played at my theater (San Francisco's Alhambra Theater) for two weeks, I never got to see the film in its entirety until I saw it at a Los Angeles revival theater many years later. After finally getting the chance to see the entire film from start to finish, I was a little taken aback to discover that I actually enjoyed On a Clear Day You Can See Forever more when I was seeing it a la carte. Seeing it in sections, I was dazzled by the visual style and Streisand's star quality. Seen as a whole, I was taken aback, given that the story is kind of magical and sweet-natured, that it somehow sidestepped giving us any any other character besides Daisy to root for or like.

It's professional, well-done, and definitely enjoyable, but for a musical about mysticism, it's sorely lacking in that intangible kind of charm Minnelli pulled off so beautifully in Meet Me in St. Louis. Perhaps it's impossible to find an actress charismatic enough to be a musical lead, while at the same time, believably bland enough to make a convincing Daisy Gamble; but as cast, Streisand's Daisy doesn't really make sense. She's supposed to be a drip, but she's the most stylish, funny, and interesting person in the entire film. She's the only one you want to spend any time with. When Dr. Chabot expresses exasperation with her quirks, HE'S the one who comes off as unappealing, not Daisy.
Given all that was going on at the time, it's hard to feel that the legendarily meticulous Vincente Minnelli had his heart in this one. He was 63, his third marriage was breaking up, and his first and most-famous wife, Judy Garland, had recently died.
"What Did I Have That I Don't Have?"
Streisand's vocal performance and acting on this song is peerless. I've seen it dozens of times and it always gives me waterworks.

Sure, the two leads have zilch in the chemistry department, and Barbra Streisand pretty much single-handedly gives the film all it has in the way of humor and pep. Yes, the film vacillates between feeling like there is too much plot and then not enough (and exactly whose idea of a counter-culture dropout is clean-cut Jack Nicholson with his distractingly mature hairline?). Certainly it's a romantic comedy which strenuously works to keep the lovers apart. It's a movie that banks almost entirely on the appeal of its star. A film which piles on plot complications and eye-popping visuals so we don' t really notice that the gorgeous musical score is far more emotive than the story at hand.

And yet...On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is still a film I take endless delight in. The whimsical plot makes me smile (even though it's a tad cumbersome) and I really like Streisand's performance here. And so what if my enjoyment is necessitated by my needing to fast-forward through most of Montand's scenes and overlook the fact that whenever Streisand is off the screen, the film just kind of lies there, inert? It doesn't matter because every few minutes or so, there is the sublime distraction of costumes, sets, and the bliss of getting to hear Streisand sing.
The visual pleasures of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever are considerable
Lane & Lerner's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is generally considered to be a wonderful score in search of a better book. The musical is rarely revived. In 2000, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth headlined a concert version of the show ("Look ma! No book!"), and in 2011, Harry Connick, Jr. starred in an expensively-mounted Broadway revival that used several of the songs from the film and provocatively reworked the plot so that the character of Daisy Gamble was now a gay male assistant-florist named David Gamble who discovers he's reincarnated from a brassy female big-band singer. (A cute idea, but when his character asks the musical question, "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" it seems to me an audience would have to exercise considerable self-control not to want to call out to the stage, "A vagina!"). The show lasted for little more than a month.
At left: the film's original "pot head" theatrical release poster. At right: Things are getting desperate. In an effort to draw a younger audience, newspaper ads featured an out-of-character, hippie-fied Barbra. Pic used is a Richard Avedon portrait from a photo shoot for Streisand's 1969 album, "What About Today?"

If in Funny Girl Barbra Streisand seemed raw, and in Hello Dolly, lost; then in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever she seems more in charge of her talents than ever. And she's remarkably good. When she's helped by the script (as in the crackling first hypnosis scene) she's at the top of her game. At last given a chance to play sexy, in the flashback sequences, she literally wills you to find her beautiful.
The Great Profile
Vincente Minnelli was the most painterly of directors, and the visuals he brings to On a Clear Day You Can See Forever are no exception. A feast for the eyes, the vivid period production design and more stylized contemporary sets of John DeCuir elegantly compliment the splendid costumes by Sir Cecil Beaton (period costumes) and Arnold Scaasi (contemporary costumes). 
"I'll have what she's having."
Daisy's Emancipation / Melinda's Emancipation
 Daisy's recognition and acceptance of her reincarnated self is dramatized in the echoing of her costuming

The ultra-modern Arnold Scaasi designs used in the contemporary scenes of  On a Clear Day You Can See Forever provide a striking contrast to Sir Cecil Beaton's lavish 19th century wardrobe. This simple little crowd-pleaser was worn by Streisand in a scene deleted from the film. And for those too young to have been around in 1970- no one ever actually wore an outfit like this in matter what drugs they were taking.
For fans of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever who want to get depressed, here are links to sites offering more info on all that was cut from the film.  Just click on the highlighted sentences.

Behind the scenes info on the making of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"

YouTube audio (with stills) of the deleted Barbra Streisand / Larry Blyden duet: "Wait 'till We're Sixty-Five"

YouTube audio (with stills) of Jack Nicholson singing "Who Is there Among Us Who Knows?"

If they can restore 1973s Lost Horizon, why not On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ?
Fans (or obsessives) of  '60/'70's pop culture will note that Daisy Gamble's fabulously floral bedclothes and wallpaper first made their appearance on the 1966 TV sitcom, Family Affair, in the bedroom shared by Buffy and Cissy.

I absolutely love the title song and Streisand's performance of it is stellar. She sings it so beautifully... it still can give me chills. Just crazy about the way Streisand begins the song like it's an idea that gradually starts to take root, then grows, then bursts with an assurance and awareness. If it was Streisand's intention to magnify the "flower" theme of the film and convey a sense of the character of Daisy "growing" into herself, she does a tremendous job of it. It's a lesson on how to put over a song so it's more than just pretty's a first-class acting performance. Barbra Streisand's rendition of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is for me what I can imagine Somewhere Over the Rainbow is for Garland fans.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, February 25, 2012


It boggles the mind (in the words of All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt, an admitted “dull clichĂ©," especially since I don’t really know what a mind boggled is) how few people know about Clockwatchers; one of my absolute favorite workplace comedies.

Predating Ricky Gervais’ The Office (2001) and the cult film Office Space (1999) by several years, Clockwatchers is alarmingly unheard of, unknown, and rarely, if ever, talked about. How can this be? I’ve seen it many times and it never once ceases to make me laugh out loud at the accuracy of its satirically-rendered characters, dialog, and situations. Clockwatchers is the most wickedly perceptive comedy-of-white-collar-manners I’ve ever seen. Even taking into account that my personal taste in movies can be a little bit off-beat (falling somewhere between Benny Hill overkill and Robert Altman blink-and-you'll-miss-it) I'm still surprised at how unknown and unappreciated this marvelous film is.
Toni Collette as Iris 
Parker Posey as Margaret
Lisa Kudrow as Paula / Camille La Plante
Alanna Ubach as Jane
Helen Fitzgerald as Cleo
The office workplace depicted as a soul-sucking vacuum of corporate trivia elevated to levels of monolithic significance is nothing new. Indeed, in these times of staggering unemployment, the characterization of standard-issue workplace drones as satirical archetypes has become a useful means of dealing with our anxieties. (Who minds being out of work when these are the kind of people one has to deal with?)
But if the colorless monotony of typing, filing, collating, and answering phones is a mind-numbing reminder of the probable meaninglessness of life, then Clockwatchers ups the ante by adding expendability to the mix. Clockwatchers is about temporary office workers—Temps: Individuals whose by-definition job description and title signifies built-in impermanence, placing them at the very bottom of the corporate food chain.
"You're part of the corporate hierarchy. There's got to be a butt in every seat 
or else the entire infrastructure crumbles."

The clockwatchers at the center of director Jill Sprecher’s mordantly witty comedy (from a screenplay by Jill & Karen Sprecher) are four women of dissimilar background and temperament, bound in friendship born of their mutually-shared outsider status as temps at the stultifyingly dull Global Credit Association (“Temps are like corporate orphans…we’re like corporate call girls!”). 
There’s dowdy Iris, (Toni Collette), timid to the point of invisibility; Margaret (Parker Posey), the sarcastic, office-savvy goldbricker; aspiring-actress/ man-hunter/chronic hair-flipper, Paula (Lisa Kudrow); and OCD perfectionist-in-a-Chanel suit, personal-phone-call addict, Jane (Alanna Ubach).

Together, this oddball quartet bravely weather the suspicious/hostile environment of 9 to 5 existence among the “permanents,” forging for themselves a kind of rebellious strength through solidarity. That is, until the unaccountably disruptive appearance of a mysterious new executive assistant named Cleo (Helen Fitzgerald). Cleo arrives like some kind of reluctant-to-make-eye-contact Greek Goddess of Doom whose mere presence triggers an ever-escalating series of reactions and events.
As unfocused suspicions give way to an honest-to-god workplace mini-crime wave, the film's second half dramatizes (in both comic and poignant terms) the tenuous nature of attachments. Attachment to a job you don't even like, because it at least gives you a place where you can pretend you're needed. An attachment to friends who feel closer than they really are because of the forced intimacy of 9 to 5, 5-days-a-week. 
Tedium, Inc.
(Clockwise from top left) Lisa Kudrow uses WhiteOut to French-Tip her nails, Jamie Kennedy 
seeks escape in the mailroom, Alanna Ubach pops bubblewrap, and Stanley DeSantis misses his rubberband ball.

Kurt Vonnegut, in speaking about the Nixon administration, made the following observation: “You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school—class officers, cheerleaders, and all." 

Anyone who’s worked for any length of time at an office job (make that ANY job) knows this to be true. I don’t care if we’re talking lawyers, doctors, dancers, or fast-food servers; it’s all the same. The petty hierarchies and cliques you thought you'd left behind in high school are, on a daily basis, the primary modes of social interaction in the adult workforce. Clockwatchers extracts a great deal of humor out of this fact, and in the best possible way: by merely allowing the almost surreal banality of office life play out just as it is.
The film understands how the repetitious monotony of office work induces a kind of obsession with order. An obsession so keen, even the tiniest deviation from pattern has the power to incite an almost existential loss equilibrium in the corporate structure. Most importantly, the film understands how, when people work in environments where almost nothing anyone does seems to matter, everything begins to matter.
Petty Theft of Time
The inconsequential and petty rule the day. People fixate on mindless details and go in search of any kind of trivial distraction in which to lose themselves. In this way, Clockwatchers reveals its dark humor. It's finely-observed, character and behavior-based humor that hits the same authentic-quirky stride of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. There, as in this film, it’s behavior that makes us laugh, not jokes. (My biggest complaints with the generally fine Office Space were that so many of the characters' actions seemed overly-burlesqued for the sake of landing a joke, and the plot veered unnecessarily close to forced, sitcom-level wackiness.)  
"I just want a desk by a window and a decent chair."
All of the performers in Clockwatchers are top notch, but Parker Posey is my favorite. An ensemble film in form, the main character of the story is the talented Toni Collette, who, with the film's least showy role, generously allows Posey to pack up the entire film in that recently-purchased briefcase of hers and walk off with it. Posey is one of those actresses who's able to make gems out of lines that aren't even supposed to be funny (she’s the reason I actually own a copy of Josie & the Pussycats). In Clockwatchers she’s playing the kind of individual I've met often in my occupational life: the entitled, barely-qualified slacker with the unearned cynicism who expends considerable brainpower and effort in avoiding doing the job they feel is so beneath their talents. Posey is ingenious in the subtle way in which she creates a character both instantly recognizable, yet 100% original. (Love how, whenever approached by anyone in the office, she instantly adopts this perky, vertical-eyebrows look of alert interest and helium-voiced affability.) Parker Posey does some remarkable things with comedy—the early scenes where she familiarizes the new temp to the office routine are just brilliant—and proves surprisingly affecting when required to show the darker demons haunting her character.

Producer/director/actor Bob Balaban (here as executive Milton Lasky) is a master at playing befuddled bureaucrats. One of my favorite character actors, Balaban  makes even the smallest roles 
memorable and funny (as he proved in Robert Altman's Gosford Park).

I also get a big kick out of Lisa Kudrow, who, in the years subsequent to Friends (a show I thoroughly hated, I might add) has become a personal favorite. Some of the best TV I've ever seen was her short-lived HBO series, The Comeback, and I binged on her hilarious internet series, Web Therapy. Like Posey, Kudrow is among the best and most resourceful of the comic character actresses around today (both would have been wonderful working with Robert Altman). Kudrow has a kind of “out there” comic inventiveness that makes her an appealingly unpredictable comedienne and always fun to watch. Clockwatchers finds her breathing new life into an overworked comedy archetype: the delusional actress wannabe.
By day, Paula may sabotage copy machines in order to put the moves on the hunky repairman, but by night she is aspiring actress Camille La Plante ("Drama's in my blood."). Here she proves to Iris that she's as skilled an actress as she is a typist.

I love the way Clockwatchers looks. The beautiful cinematography by Jim Denault is extremely responsive to the story. Bright and idiosyncratic for the early comedy scenes, claustrophobic and disquieting as the film's tone darkens. Much like the furtive activities of these cubicle-dwellers, Denault's lens seems always to be peering, hovering, and capturing odd details in close-up or at the outsides of frames. It’s like another character in the film.  

I’ve been going on about how funny Clockwatchers is due to its unfailing ability to make me laugh is what comes first to mind. But the thing that makes this film such a favorite is because behind the satirical depiction of office life, there lies a great deal of compassion and understanding of the small things that become lost (or we allow to have stolen) as we try to stake our claim in the world.

The average workplace is where most people’s youthful idealism cruelly collides with unflinching reality. Everybody has dreams, but pragmatism dictates we all must do something to earn a living. The stuff of comedy or tragedy exists somewhere between the extent to which what we dream, and what we spend most of our days engaged in, fail to intersect.
Some knuckle under, satisfied to blend in with the masses, others self-destructively try to buck the system. In the grand scheme of things, we seem to spend an awful lot of time wondering if we belong and where we fit in. Frequently in the pursuit of finding meaning in our lives, we wind up neglecting or betraying the people and things closest to us. Perhaps too often, it's ourselves. 

Through comedy, Clockwatchers poses the question, “Is it that hard to find permanence?”
Through drama it answers, “Sometimes.” 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, February 16, 2012


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 arguably 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 unaffected and 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 

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 counterculture 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!"

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

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, as well.
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.

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 me 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  2009 - 2012