Bonnie and Clyde (United States, 1967)
In America, we love our gangsters. Even today, nothing captures our attention like a good real-life crime story. The O.J. Simpson saga dominated the news for over a year, and O.J. has none of the allure ascribed to some of the "greats." More Americans know of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, John Dillinger, and Bonnie & Clyde than the presidents who were in office when those outlaws ruled the headlines. Hollywood understands this, so movies about the bad guys greatly outnumber those about the good guys, especially in the past four decades.
By today's standards, Bonnie and Clyde appears almost tame, but, upon its initial release, the level of violence was viewed as shocking. (The movie's initial theatrical rating was an "M" – the equivalent of today's "R." If Bonnie and Clyde was re-rated by the MPAA today, it might get away with a hard "PG-13.") Like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, this was a revolutionary motion picture – a movie that had such a powerful impact upon audiences and filmmakers that it influenced how Hollywood approached this genre. Bonnie and Clyde has countless stepchildren – movies like Badlands, Thelma & Louise, and Road to Perdition owe a debt to Arthur Penn's feature. If Bonnie and Clyde's overall trajectory seems familiar to modern-day audiences, that's because so many subsequent features have adopted it.
Bonnie and Clyde plays fairly loose with the historical facts, at least as they are known. The movie simultaneously romanticizes the duo while de-mythologizing them. The relationship between these two is presented as one of the 20th century's great romances (the facts indicate that it wasn't; in fact, Bonnie and Clyde may not have been lovers). And, like a modern-day Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the Barrow Gang come across as champions for the undertrodden. There's a scene in the film in which they refuse to take money from an elderly man during a bank robbery. Banks – and the establishment they represent – are the targets. However, Bonnie and Clyde also reduces these larger-than-life characters to human beings. Based on the history books, who knew that Clyde had a problem with impotence?
The film starts at the beginning – or at least the beginning of when the names Bonnie and Clyde became linked. One lazy day in the midst of the Great Depression in a dead-end Texas town, a young, frustrated woman, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), gazes out of her bedroom window to see a man covertly preparing to steal her mother's car. She confronts the charming stranger, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), and, within minutes of their first meeting – before they have even exchanged names – she has challenged him to perform an armed robbery, and he has accepted the dare. Soon, they're on the run, with bigger crimes yet to come. Their first attempt at a bank robbery is hilariously disappointing – the bank is out of business and there's no money to steal – but that doesn't stop them. Soon, with the help of an aimless gas station attendant, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), who becomes their getaway driver, they are not only wanted for robbery, but for murder as well. With the addition of Clyde's brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck's high-strung wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the Barrow Gang is complete. For a while, these five people become celebrity criminals, with nearly every bank robbery across the country being attributed to them, until the forces of the law band together and hunt them down, one-by-one.
Bonnie and Clyde has a traditional three-act structure. In the first, we meet the principals and watch the group gel. The second act covers the heyday of the Barrow Gang, as they rob banks, bicker amongst themselves, elude the police, humiliate an unfortunate Texas Ranger, and pay a visit to Bonnie's mother. The third act recounts the fall of the Barrow Gang – Buck's death, Blanche's imprisonment, C.W.'s reluctant betrayal, and the ambush that ended Bonnie and Clyde's crime spree. (The film presents this as a choreographed massacre, with the protagonists being unaware of their danger. The facts suggest that Bonnie and Clyde were well armed and prepared at the time of their deaths.)
One of the most unique aspects of the film is the seamless way in which it interweaves comedy, drama, and graphic violence into a tightly constructed whole. This is not the only time a movie about outlaws has openly courted laughter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which arrived in theaters two years after Bonnie and Clyde, had a similarly light tone), but it offers more than one occasion when an instance of farce is followed by a scene that is shocking and gruesome. For instance, consider the bank robbery getaway that is complicated because C.W. unwisely parks the car. Just as the vehicle starts speeding away, a man jumps on the sideboard and Clyde shoots him in the face. The camera hides nothing from our view.
Bonnie and Clyde possesses a distinctive look. The opening scene radiates heat and sexuality, with close-ups of a nearly naked Bonnie putting on lipstick and an emphasis on "hot" colors. Later, a sequence in which the gang visits Bonnie's mother is presented with sepia-tinged images that offer an unreal, "old time" quality. There's also a scene when a wide shot of a cloud passing over Bonnie and Clyde foreshadows the darkness that will eventually engulf them. And, although the script plays fast and loose with the historical facts surrounding Bonnie and Clyde's exploits, no expense was spared in making the film appear as if it was taking place during the Great Depression.
Bonnie and Clyde provided a boost to most of those involved in its production. The film catapulted Faye Dunaway from relative obscurity to stardom. Her portrayal of Bonnie as a sexually frustrated woman who used robbery and homicide as a replacement for carnal pleasure caught the eye of many Hollywood producers. Likewise, Bonnie and Clyde made a name for Gene Hackman, previously viewed as a second-tier, anonymous player. Warren Beatty was already known when he co-produced and co-starred in this movie, but his best roles came as a result of his performance as the charismatic, sexually dysfunctional Clyde (quite a contrast with Beatty's off-screen reputation as a ladies' man). Estelle Parsons won her only Oscar (Best Support Actress) for Bonnie and Clyde. One of the few participants who did not receive a noticeable career bump was director Arthur Penn. Following Bonnie and Clyde, Penn directed only one memorable movie – 1970's Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman.
Bonnie and Clyde was not an instant success. In fact, quite the opposite was true. When the movie debuted in August 1967, the critical reception was negative and the public did not react with enthusiasm. The film received a reprieve when a second wave of critics lauded the film as a groundbreaking masterpiece, and it caught on at the box office. When the dust finally settled, Bonnie and Clyde was a financial and artistic success. It made money and garnered 10 Academy Award nominations (winning two – Parsons' Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography). The intervening years have expanded Bonnie and Clyde's reputation. Decades later, it is acknowledged as a trailblazing motion picture – one that developed a formula that dozens of movies inhabiting the same sub-genre have relied upon.
Seen today, Bonnie and Clyde will only appear to be a pioneering motion picture to those who view it through lenses tinted by cinematic history. Yet, even for a viewer who is unaware of the movie's importance to the industry, it should readily be apparent that there is something special about the production, with its brash, vivid style, indelible performances by movie icons, and bold mixture of violence and comedy, romance and tragedy. Even for those without an historical perspective, Bonnie and Clyde stands apart as a great motion picture.
Bonnie and Clyde (United States, 1967)
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons
Screenplay: David Newman & Robert Benton
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Charles Strouse
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
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