Bonnie and Clyde Review
If Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? was a tremor on the ground of American cinema of the 1960s, provoking audiences with the kind of dirty language that they were not accustomed to hearing from a cinema screen, Bonnie and Clyde was the earthquake, shattering audience complacency with sexual references, amorality and, most significantly of all, a confrontational approach to graphic violence which was entirely new to the mainstream of American movies. On their first encounter with the extraordinary, daring film, many audiences and critics couldn’t see past the violence and it was only on a second look – influenced partly by a rave review from Pauline Kael and success in Europe – that its quality and importance as a movie were appreciated. Looked at 40 years later, it’s inevitably less disturbing and violence which once seemed over the top now looks restrained and thoughtful. But if some elements of the film seem a touch passé, its brilliance as a piece of cinema has become ever clearer to a point where its formidable reputation seems entirely well deserved.
The script, by David Newman and Robert Benton, is packed with vivid dialogue and picaresque incident, but has only a loose basis in truth. Since I’m not particularly bothered, in this instance, about what happened, I will recount the plot of the film without comment. Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Beatty) became notorious outlaws during the early thirties, travelling around a country ravaged by the depression. They were colourful and outrageous and captured the public imagination at a time when people were desperate for escapist glamour. Clyde was an ex-convict, who hooked up with restless waitress Bonnie in Texas. The pair wanted to be famous, just like the gangsters they had read about in the papers, Soon, banks were being robbed and people were getting killed. They were joined by Clyde's brother Buck (Hackman) along with his wife, Blanche (Parsons). Calling themselves "The Barrow Gang", they soon became famous, just as they always wished. The film follows the true story quite closely, structuring the film around significant incidents in the career of the outlaws. It begins in a light-hearted manner, with Clyde portrayed as a charming rogue and Bonnie as a calculating coquette who always gets her way. But the film quickly reveals the truth behind the legend, as soon as the first person gets killed. As more and more people die, we begin to realise that the retribution exacted on Bonnie and Clyde by the state, if they are caught, is going to be severe.
It seems somehow appropriate that it should have been Warner Brothers who should have been responsible given their reputation for tough crime drama which stretches all the way back to the very graphic for their time Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Certainly, Bonnie and Clyde has feet in this muckraking crime melodrama tradition. The outlaws in these films died violently, much as they had lived, and the endings were vivid depictions of the dangers of moral turpitude. But whereas those movies of the 1930s were vivid, almost newsreel accounts, Bonnie and Clyde is an after-the-fact portrait of real events which has been romanticised and filtered through movies such as You Only Live Once and They Live By Night. The look and tone of the film is achingly nostalgic, thanks to the stunning production design, location shooting in the South and some extraordinary cinematography, but the content is bang up to date.
The importance of Bonnie and Clyde to American filmmaking is largely in its approach to violence. Of course, Arthur Penn's film hardly pioneered the presentation of bloody death on screen, but it was the first major studio production to do so. Previously, blood and gore had been the province of no-budget exploitation films, such as Blood Feast, and foreign films, notably the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone. But screenings of Blood Feast, and later works by the inimitable Herschel Gordon Lewis, were largely confined to drive-in cinemas in the South and, generally speaking, respectable people didn’t go to see them. The Leone films were commercially successful but mostly attracted genre fans. It’s probably significant that the most popular, most widely discussed and most violent of the three movies - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly - didn’t premiere in the USA until six months afterBonnie and Clyde.
Penn’s film certainly isn’t gratuitously violent, especially by modern standards, but it is confrontational in its violence, forcing the audience into an emotional reaction. Penn decided to deliberately challenge one of the tenets of the Production Code – already on its last legs – which stated that it was not permissible to show a gun being fired and someone being shot in the same frame. Feeling that this was basically amoral, smothering and sanitising the real and damaging effects of violence, Penn made sure that the first death in the film featured both gunshot and hit in the same frame. It’s still an alarming moment, largely because it’s so unexpected, preceded as it is by a scene straight out a screwball comedy. Later gunshots have similar results, no more so than in the revenge meted out on the gang by the outraged establishment. The impact is like a blow to the gut because violence is made to mean something; it signifies waste and inexorable loss.
When we finally see Clyde blown about by bullets and Bonnie dancing in the gunfire like a marionette, one’s complicated emotional reaction to the film is crystallised. It has been said that the old Warners gangster movies were morally straightforward – a judgement I don’t entirely agree with – but there’s no doubt that Bonnie and Clyde is deeply ambivalent about all its criminal characters. Although it’s simple to analyse the film as an anti-establishment cri-de-couer, with Bonnie and Clyde as the flower children who are punished for being excessively free, that analysis only holds up so far. It’s made plain how incompetent or thoughtless many of their actions are and their inability to get on with each other means that a certain vital glue is missing that might hold things together. Bonnie is intelligent and watchful but she’s also jealous and suspicious, constantly causing problems with her dislike for either Buck, Blanche or the getaway driver C.W. Moss (Pollard) who has been picked up along the way. Clyde is impotent and paranoid, constantly beating up on himself and others and plagued by feelings of insecurity. Yet we like the pair - much more so than Buck and Blanche – and the early scenes of their courtship and first forays into robbery are so funny and charming that, perhaps despite our better instincts, we hope they will get away with it. Their, obviously m flawed, humanity is placed upfront and emphasised throughout. So when they die in such a grotesque manner, something deeply poignant happens. Penn, along with his editors Dede Allen and Jerry Greenberg, captures a single moment between the couple when a single look says everything about what they’ve been through and what they feel for each other and, in that instant, there’s enough genuine feeling to touch the most reactionary heart.
Making Bonnie and Clyde believable rather than simply mythic archetypes – the young couple in love and on the lam – comes down to the superlative performances from Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, both of whom do some of their best work. Beatty is particularly good in his moments of stumbling inarticulacy, developing a style which would serve him well in films such as Shampoo and The Parallax View. Their physical interaction is convincing too, especially in a virtually wordless bedroom scene. Dunaway is far more glamorous than the real-life Bonnie but the freshness and vitality she brings in one of her earliest film roles is entirely credible. In support, Gene Hackman is completely persuasive as Buck, demonstrating a bond with Clyde which reflects his real-life friendship with Beatty, and Estelle Parsons gets some good comic moments as the teeth-grindingly annoying Blanche. I’m less enthusiastic about Michael J. Pollard’s somewhat pixieish performance as C.W. Moss but that’s perhaps because he seems to have been giving the same turn ever since in every role he’s played.
The technical credits of the film are first-rate, perhaps surprisingly so in the case of the cinematography. Burnett Guffey had worked with distinction for John Ford and Nicholas Ray but by 1967 he was old and cynical and apparently hated working on Bonnie and Clyde. But, asked to provide photographic techniques reminiscent of those used by the Nouvelle Vague directors, he steps up to the mark and the film looks magnificent. There’s a notable sequence in the middle which is heavily diffused – the meeting with Bonnie’s mother – and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in American cinema, looking more like an interlude from Truffaut or Bergman. The use of Southern locations is pivotal – Guffey photographs them with loving care and they look very realistic, largely because most of them were just as run-down as they were in 1933. The overall look of the film is enhanced by the costume design of Theadora van Runkle, designs which proved highly fashionable in the late 1960s.
But the triumph seems to me to belong to two men – Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty, Given a brilliant screenplay, Beatty had the artistic imagination to see how it could be done and he had the guts to find the right director and the right actors to get it done the right way. Beatty was not the first actor-producer but he remains one of the most distinguished, moving heaven and earth for a good project. Arthur Penn took on the task of bringing the screenplay to life and in doing so, brought European techniques into the mainstream of American cinema in a way which was still unusual in 1967 – although he had done so before in Mickey One. Watching the film, you can see the Truffaut influences but it’s impossible to imagine Truffaut ever getting this close to the material. Penn’s command of filmmaking is intimidating here and the pacing is perfect, so much so that it doesn’t seem to have aged a bit. When so many other Hollywood films of the 1960s are hard to watch without a shamefaced grin, Bonnie and Clyde is just as fresh as it was when first released. It’s a great movie.
Bonnie and Clyde has been a candidate for the special edition treatment for the best part of ten years and Warners have finally got round to it in time for the 41st anniversary of its release.
The quality of the progressive image is simply gorgeous. It’s framed at 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Colours are rich and full and there’s a mass of fine detail throughout. No print damage is evident and the amount of grain is suitably filmlike. If this sounds gushing, it’s because I genuinely can’t find anything wrong with this picture. It’s the best I’ve ever seen the film look for home viewing. The mono soundtrack is equally good – crystal clear throughout with an effective music track. Thankfully, no money has been wasted trying to turn this into a surround-sound fest.
In terms of extra features, the first disc offers two trailers for the film. The second disc contains the lions share, including two lengthy documentaries and some enjoyable bits and pieces. The main documentary lasts for 65 minutes and is a look at the making of the film. It’s competent and fairly detailed, in the usual Laurent Bouzereau manner, and almost completely predictable in where its going. But Bouzereau covers the bases sufficiently and gets good interview footage from Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and others. There are probably too many film clips to boost the running time but that’s a matter of taste. The other meaty documentary is a 45 minute History Channel offering looking at the real Bonnie and Clyde. This barely mentions the 1967 film and opts instead for a scholarly feel, enlivened by interviews with Clyde’s sister and scenes from a 1934 re-enactment of the case. Fans of the costumes will be pleased to see Warren Beatty’s wardrobe tests and there are also two deleted scenes, both presented without dialogue but with subtitles from the screenplay. The latter of these contains rather more of Michael J. Pollard’s body than I felt comfortable with.
The film is fully subtitled as are the two main documentaries.
Bonnie and Clyde is a significant piece of film history but it’s also a lot of fun to watch, combining comedy, tragedy and melodrama with some stunning film technique. This DVD package presents it superbly and also offers some interesting extras. Highly recommended.