Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking Bonnie And Clyde.
(1967) Directed by Arthur Penn,
Screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton
They’re young….they’re in love….and they kill people.
What It’s About:
You’ve read the story of Jesse James
Of how he lived and died;
If you’re still in need
Of something to read,
Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde. – Bonnie Parker
In Depression-era Texas, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), tries to steal Bonnie Parker’s (Faye Dunaway) mother’s car and winds up taking her along instead on an armed robbery, initiating a torrid if somewhat platonic romance which gradually escalates into a storied, violent career of bank robbery and murder along with Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his shrill wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and mechanic turned getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard).
Why I Bought It:
A classic that changed the landscape of American film along with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and kicked off the so-called New Hollywood movement inspired by the French New Wave, it was popular in my household since my dad and uncle both rebuilt 1931 Model A Fords and much of my childhood was spent around classic automobiles of that era, going to shows and on long drives through the country on road rallies (sort of mobile rural scavenger hunts) reading comics in the backseat, or squinting into the roaring wind in a rumble seat.
I also clearly remember the soundtrack to Lester Flat and Earl Scrugg’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown being my personal favorite among my dad’s 8-track collection. I guess it must’ve been some kinda single. It was a red cassette with a pair of Model A’s on the front, and when you played the track, it was overlayed with sounds of screeching tires and gunfire. I used to listen to it over and over again, bouncing on the sofa, pretending I was shooting it out with bad guys. I don’t know if it was actually sounds from the movie or not.
Anyway in Bonnie And Clyde, what you have is perhaps the pre-eminent outlaw love affair movie. Sure movies had come before, Gun Crazy was supposed to be a big influence, and since, Mickey and Mallory in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is an obvious successor, as is Widsom, and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which is outright dedicated to Arthur Penn, but nothing quite captures the romantic notion of outlaws in love like this movie.
Yet, it’s not clear why, at first. Bonnie and Clyde’s love affair is anything but typical, idealized romanticism. In fact, Clyde is unable to perform sexually with Bonnie through most of the picture, and the violence, robbery, and gunplay actually takes the place of their physical copulation, with each new caper becoming bloodier and bloodier, much like Taxi Driver. Unlike Travis Bickle, the ultimate bullet riddled showdown doesn’t provide the physical release that allows the protagonists to continue on with their lives. In Bonnie And Clyde, when the lovers finally are able to actually make love, there is nothing left for them but to die, as in Romeo and Juliet. A cursory perusal of the actual history reveals that there might have been something to the plot device of Clyde’s sexual dysfunction. History records that Clyde’s first recorded murder was of a cell mate who repeatedly molested him in prison, where he had spent time for armed robbery. And in the film, when Clyde rebuffs Bonnie’s initial furtive sexual advances following their first robbery, he stammers that he’s ‘not much of a lover boy,’ but hastily adds that ‘there’s nothin’ wrong with me. I don’t like boys.’
We meet Bonnie, the lovely, sensually photographed Dunaway, lounging in her little girl’s bedroom, obviously suffering from some kind of titanic malaise, literally represented by the distressed look she fixes on the camera through the bars of her brass bed, when she gets up and peers through her window and happens to see Clyde skulking around her mother’s automobile with a look of ill intent. Thus, Clyde’s first sight is of a tastefully framed nude Bonnie standing behind the screened in window. I love the looks on their faces in this scene, and the playful talk. When Clyde literally shows her his pistol, it early on becomes a stand in for his manhood when Bonnie daintily strokes the barrel. But again, all this buildup doesn’t really pay off in the traditional sense. As Bonnie says, Clyde’s “advertising is dandy….Folks’d just never guess you don’t have a thing to sell.”
So how does a romance work without romance?
Maybe it’s because despite the lack of physical affection, Dunaway and Beatty are still a great, charismatic match and Bonnie and Clyde are very much infatuated with each other. That’s plain in their actions, in the pained way Clyde makes excuses for her to Buck about being rude to his annoying sister-in-law when a tried and true hardcore outlaw would’ve just kicked her out of the car, in the panic he displays when she runs through a field from him and tearfully declares she wants to see her mother, in the lies he tells her mother for her benefit. Clyde can’t or won’t roll Bonnie in the sack, but it’s almost as if he feels she’s too good for that, and he makes Bonnie believe it, or at least accept it, too. Then bloodshed and violence becomes their passion. Never quite outright, in a psychotic way. They don’t revel in violence, but they definitely enjoy the thrill….until it starts to wear thin.
They have a mission, and I think that’s part of the vicarious enjoyment you get from watching this movie. They’re both down and out kids, one an ex-con, the other an ex-waitress in a dead end life. Yet somehow, when they come together, magic happens. Early on they stop at a foreclosed farm and meet a pair of old sharecroppers, black and white, who’ve just had their place taken away by the bank. Clyde lets both old men blow holes in the windows and in the foreclosure sign. They thank him, and introduce themselves.
“I’m Clyde Barrow and this is Bonnie Parker.” And then, after an afterthought, he grins and says, “We rob banks.”
Because what purer cause can a pair of directionless rebels who’ve found each other take on, than to assume the guise of modern day Robin Hoods? They’ll rob the rich, faceless bullies of the banks, and give to the poor (in this case, themselves).
And this socio-economic crusade resonates as well now as it did when the real Bonnie and Clyde were lionized, when this movie came out, and perhaps moreso today. What bigger villain is there to the American people than the banks and the monstrous corporate state? So, Bonnie and Clyde remain heroes, even in an inaccurate movie, even viewed eighty years after their deaths at the hands of Texas Rangers. They keep to their code too. At one point they rob a bank and Clyde tells a farmer in line to deposit his cash to keep his money. They only want the bank’s.
“They did right by me,” the farmer admits to a reporter later. “And I’m gonna bring a mess of flowers to their funeral.” Meanwhile, in a criticism of media infatuation with murderers, the bank guard and president grin for the cameras and point to a bullet hole Clyde left in the wall when he shot the guard’s hat off.
This movie has since been made again and again in various ways, but Bonnie And Clyde is the original.
It helps that Dunaway and Beatty are surrounded by a fantastic cast. Gene Hackman as Clyde’s good old boy brother, telling the same dumb joke over and over again to anybody who’ll listen, Michael J. Pollard as their ride-along van, the tried and true C.W. whose hero worship ultimately leads to their undoing, and of course, the standout, Oscar winning performance by Estelle Parsons as Blanche, possibly one of the most hilariously annoying characters in cinema (the real Blanche Barrow, having survived to see the movie, reportedly declared “That film made me look like a screaming horse’s ass!”), to say nothing of the small but effective supporting performances by Dub Taylor and Denver Pyle. Taylor and Parsons share a pretty great scene. Blanche, having been blinded in the last shootout and apprehended after the death of Buck, sits with her eyes and head bandaged in an interrogation room as Taylor (as Texas Ranger Hamer) enters, startling her. He masterfully plays up to her simple church upbringing and hatred of Bonnie, and uses her love for Buck to find out where Bonnie and Clyde are headed. Then, as the sorrowful Blanche continues to pour her heart out, he coldly leaves the room and quietly shuts the door, cutting off her speech.
This is also the film debut of Gene Wilder, who just kills it in a minor role as a put upon undertaker who, along with Evans Evans chases down the Barrow gang after they steal his car, and are promptly (but amicably) kidnapped by them. His portentious looks and nervous delivery are raucously funny. Watch the expressions of both Evans and Wilder when Evans tells Bonnie her real age and realizes it wasn’t the same age she told her date, or when the admittedly janky looking Pollard accidentally takes a bite out of Wilder’s hamburger and then apologetically offers to trade.
As mentioned, the movie is inspired by films like Breathless and the French New Wave, and that shows up the most in the editing, which protracts certain moments and queues while nearly jump cutting through action. Watch the great moment during the final ambush when they realize what’s coming and Clyde lunges for the car. He meets Bonnie’s eyes and she slightly smiles in a fatalistic way. Then suddenly both of them are being riddles with bullets.
The ending really is shockingly violent for the period, with Clyde’s body dancing on the ground, exploding with squibs as Bonnie rocks back in forth in the driver’s seat of their V8, already dead about a dozen times over.
Before this movie it was the norm in American film to show a gun fire and a man drop bloodlessly. It ushered in a whole new era of screen violence (and sex).
Apparently Warner Bros. thought so little of the picture they allowed Beatty an unprecedented 40% cut of the film, which made him a millionaire when it proved a hit.
I like when Bonnie and Clyde rob their first store on their first ‘date’ together. As they are departing, Clyde hops into a vehicle other than the one they arrived in.
BONNIE: Hey, that ain’t ours.
CLYDE: Sure it is.
BONNIE (indicating her car): We came in this.
CLYDE (grinning): That don’t mean we got to leave in it.
There’s a lot to choose from. The climactic ending, the bit where they get the drop on Hamish and photograph him (a famously inaccurate scene which wound up costing Warner Brothers money after Hamish’s widow sued the studio for defamation of character), the scene where Pollard, supposed to be their wheelman, parallel parks the getaway car in the midst of a bank holdup and then has a helluva time trying to pull out, but my favorite is probably the scene near the end of the movie, when Bonnie has finally induced Clyde to have sex and they are apparently doing it pretty regular. Lying in bed, holed up in C.W.’s father’s place, Clyde formally proposes to Bonnie, and she tearfully accepts. But they both know they’re nearing the end. They’ve said goodbye to their parents, Buck is dead, and they’re all alone, with what feels like the entire world coming down on them.
BONNIE: Clyde, why do you want to marry me?
CLYDE: To make an honest woman outta you.
Bonnie spreads her hands wide, dreamily.
BONNIE: Clyde…what would you do, what would you do, if some miracle happened, and we could walk out tomorrow morning and start all over again, clean, with no record, with nobody after us?
Clyde grins and exhales. It looks like he’s about to talk about family and settling down.
CLYDE: Well…I guess I’d do it ALL different. First off, I wouldn’t live in the same state where we pull our jobs. We’d live in one state and stay clean there, and when we wanted to take a bank, we’d go to another state…and…
Would I Buy It Again? Yes. It’s a classic everybody should be familiar with.
Next In The Queue: The Brides Of Dracula