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Wednesday 17 February 2010

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director: Arthur Penn
Stars: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It might sound strange for me to say that Bonnie and Clyde reminded me a lot of Gone with the Wind but it's true nonetheless and for quite a few reasons. Both grabbed my attention from moment one: the one underlining its overt epic feel by beginning with an overture, the other with a host of photo snaps with unignorable sounds to match. Both are period pieces set far enough back that my parents hadn't even become glimpses themselves yet, let alone me. Both are notably important and innovative films that have resonated down the years to audiences and critics alike. But most of all I couldn't find anything in either of them to care about or identify with. This film definitely warranted a second viewing to see if it improved any to someone with the cultural distance I have from its initial release.

There's a scene early on that sums up in no uncertain terms what Bonnie and Clyde is about. Clyde is teaching Bonnie how to shoot, behind an empty and foreclosed house, only to be interrupted by the former owner, Otis Harris. There's no violence, no fuss, just that sort of purest matter of factness than only a certain era of rural Americans seemed to have. 'Bank took it,' says Otis. 'Well, that's a pitiful shame,' says Bonnie. So Clyde shoots the house, then passes the gun to Otis so he can shoot the house as well. Over wanders Davis, the black labourer who worked the farm with Otis and he shoots it too. Everyone introduces themselves like they're at a tea party at the vicarage. And as they split up, Clyde memorably adds, 'We rob banks'.

It's a great scene and I wonder how people saw it on original release. The real Bonnie and Clyde worked their violent trade during the Great Depression when banks were often real bad guys, and this movie version of their exploits was released just as the counterculture was reaching its peak. As raging against the machine was almost required behaviour in 1967, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow thus became great and timely anti-heroes, especially given the way they rob banks. During one robbery we see, Clyde lets a customer keep his money because it's his not the bank's; and after it's over and the press start interviewing everyone involved, even the security guards get to be heroes. Everyone wins and even the banks are insured, right?

The catch is that I don't live in either of those eras and as much as I can happily rail against banks today (except the one I work for, naturally), I can't identify in the slightest with Bonnie or Clyde or any of their gang. It isn't that they're bad people, because I'm all for watching good anti-heroes. It isn't that they're badly written, because the script is clever and everyone is well defined, even the language used being thoroughly believable, in its mix of slang and half illiterate American. It isn't that they're badly played, because the acting is top notch, every one of the five names at the top of the cast really breathing life and depth into their characters. It's just that they're frickin' annoying, all of them.

Clyde Barrow is a small time thief whose only aim in life appears to be to become a bigger time thief, the two years he served for armed robbery not slowing him down none. His bad English rubs off on us, full of double and triple negatives. He has an idiot grin, which apparently charms the socks off his Bonnie, but he can't do anything once she's charmed because as even he points out, he's no loverboy. Quite why Warren Beatty felt so drawn to play an impotent moron, I really don't know, but he did. He had much to do with getting the film made, acting as the film's producer as well as its leading man; and he had much to do with its success too, promoting it tirelessly after Warner Brothers started it out with a limited B picture run. They had so little faith in it that they offered Beatty 40% of the gross instead of a minimal fee.

Faye Dunaway starts the film naked, which can hardly be a bad thing, but she spends much of the rest of it getting more and more repressed. Bonnie Parker gets excited just watching Clyde getting ready to steal her mother's car and by the time he takes her into town and robs a grocery store in front of her, she's so hot and bothered that I'm seriously impressed Clyde keeps the car on the road. She's all over him, literally, only to find that it won't get her anywhere. She provides much of the real character of the film, writing the notes that they send to the newspapers and posing for photographs with captured Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. If only there had been more of that and less of her getting more and more upset at the mere presence of Buck Barrow's wife Blanche, there would be more actual enjoyment in the film.

Buck is Clyde's elder brother, who had also served time before we meet him, and who is played to great effect by a young Gene Hackman. He's probably the brightest of the bunch, which doesn't say much, but he has precisely one joke and he's a little too fond of it. 'Son, whatever you do, don't sell that cow!' Yeah, we got you first time, Buck. He's magnetism personified compared to his wife though, because we're just as annoyed at Blanche as Bonnie is. Like everyone else, Estelle Parsons plays her role with panache, but especially given that Blanche is a preacher's daughter, we can't help but pray for her to go away. Far away. I'm truly stunned that she won the Oscar that year for Best Supporting Actress. The last of the bunch is Michael J Pollard as C W Moss, who I actually thought was retarded for a while. He's really a conglomeration of all the lesser gang members along with a few other associated gangsters too like John Dillinger, though he's not really any less accurate than most of the portrayals this film boasts.

Only two members of the Barrow Gang were still alive when this film was made. Blanche was one and Beatty actually showed her the script, which she approved of. By the time she went to see it in theatres with her third husband though, it had been changed more than a little, which left her more than a little embarrassed to see herself portrayed as what she aptly described as 'a screaming horse's ass'. W D Jones, one of the gangsters who was bundled up into the character of C W Moss, even sued Warner Brothers for maligning his character, though he never collected. Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who Bonnie and Clyde so memorably toy with here, was real but never actually met them until the successful ambush at the end of the film. His wife and son won an out of court settlement for defamation of character.

Most tellingly, when Jean-Luc Godard, who was approached to direct the film when Fran├žois Truffaut, the initial choice as director, passed in order to make Fahrenheit 451, saw the film, he said it was, 'Great! Now let's go make Bonnie and Clyde.' In fact it's these two names that perhaps ring truest when talking about the film, even though they had very little if anything to do with the finished product, Truffaut merely making some early contributions to the script before moving on. This doesn't feel in any way like a Hollywood movie, fitting far more comfortably in the style of the French New Wave. The editing is choppy, the tone ever changing and the underlying feel an upbeat, almost jovial one even when things get all brutal and bloody.

This was deliberate, the aim being to show the violence in a comic way, almost like a cartoon or a slapstick movie, then switch abruptly to realism. You can't get much more comic than the way Bonnie and Clyde go about their business. They're really not bright and they wouldn't know what a plan was if it was painted on the inside of their eyelids. They merely waltz into whatever bank or store happens to be around, without anything to hide their faces, and announce that they're robbing it. As time goes by, they even begin introducing themselves during their holdups. It's as if they're not really robbing banks at all, they're just out for kicks. I couldn't help wondering what they'd do if they came across one of those old ladies who hang around by the door nowadays to check receipts. They'd probably go back and get one just to give her job satisfaction.

And then it all gets brutal. During one inept getaway in which C W gets them stuck up in traffic, a man jumps onto the running board and Clyde shoots him in the face. This has been cited as the first time a Hollywood film showed both the firing of a gun and the consequences of it having fired in the same shot. While the Production Code technically stayed in effect until 1968, a year after this film was released, it was dying on its feet by 1964, increasingly out of touch with reality. This film would not have been possible in the States only a few years earlier, at least from one of the major studios, but in 1967 it became another prominent nail in the Code's coffin. It made extensive use of squibs, tiny explosive blood packets detonated inside clothing to give the effect of being hit by bullets. It goes for full out overkill in that final, justifiably memorable, ambush scene. Less overt but still obvious is the substitution of violence for sex, made blatant early on by Bonnie even stroking Clyde's gun, the only real manhood he has.

I should add that while this must have been something of a wake up call in 1967, it was hardly alone. The violence of Bonnie and Clyde certainly wasn't the only big change that the Academy had to deal with in 1967. Two of the other four films up for Best Picture were racially driven films, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and yet another, The Graduate, dealt with changing attitudes to youth and sex. There was plenty of important work going on in 1967 and this doesn't have a monopoly on that. The question that always arises with important films is whether they stand up to posterity. In the Heat of the Night remains amazingly powerful today, while both Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde feel somewhat dated.

Some of the component parts of the film do stand up. The visuals are wonderful and it isn't surprising that Burnett Guffey's cinematography picked up the Oscar that year. The script won a New York Film Critics Award for writers David Newman and Robert Benton and I can understand that too, especially given the timing. This was the first mainstream film to include the sort of violence and mayhem that exploitation cinema had been working with for some time, and it changed the face of movies for ever. For my part, I'd seen many of those exploitation films before watching this and to my mind they stand up better, perhaps partly because they weren't mainstream releases but also because they have a character to them that came out of the exploitation genre that feels more magnetic to me.

Exploitation master Roger Corman made a few of the sort of films Bonnie and Clyde took its cue from, and his then minor league cast and crew cut their teeth on these movies before going on to greatness elsewhere. In the same year that Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde, Corman made The St Valentine's Day Massacre with a stunning performance by Jason Robards as Al Capone, in my humble opinon a much better film than this. Probably the closest film Corman made to Bonnie and Clyde is 1970's Bloody Mama, the true story of Ma Barker with such future heavyweight actors as Shelley Winters, Bruce Dern, Don Stroud and Robert de Niro. It's just as nihilistic as Bonnie and Clyde and even more brutal and violent, but Corman succeeds where Penn fails. He makes us care about the Barker gang even as he makes us despise them.

Another example made two years earlier is Russ Meyer's cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! While this was shot in black and white and while the violence wasn't as explicit as that in Bonnie and Clyde, it was just as shocking, perhaps more so given that it was meted out by women rather than men. There's something of a controversy among gangster nuts about whether Bonnie Parker ever used a gun or whether she merely loaded them really fast during shootouts for the guys to use. Whichever is true, she tends to leave the violence in Bonnie and Clyde to the men. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, however, is centred around powerful women who are more than happy to mete out sex and violence themselves. Tura Satana's character, Varla, is at once more womanly than Bonnie and more manly than Clyde.

In fact I'd even suggest that the world is starting to realise the importance of some of these neglected exploitation names. Love him or hate him, Russ Meyer was a true auteur and his films remain unique and highly distinctive to this day. You can't say that about Arthur Penn, regardless how great some of his movies are. The importance of Roger Corman to modern American film cannot be underplayed and he's about to receive a long overdue honorary Oscar this year. Perhaps most tellingly, I doubt I'll ever come back to Bonnie and Clyde again, after two viewings, but I'll certainly return to Corman and Meyer movies frequently. In fact I'm far more likely to return to a movie that Bonnie and Clyde watch at one point during this film, Gold Diggers of 1933, even though it's a musical. After all it had all the exuberance of classic Hollywood and the insane genius of Busby Berkeley. It had Warren William and Joan Blondell. And Guy Kibbee. And Ginger Rogers. There just isn't a comparison.

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