I’ve always thought of Bonnie and Clyde as a gangster flick, the quasi-humorous story of a gang of anti-heroes doing what they can to get by in the midst of the Great Depression. But in rewatching it for this review, I had a different take on it. My original assessment remains true, but I actually think it’s more of an old-fashioned American road trip than anything else. Clyde Barrow pulls into a dusty Texas town and runs off with Bonnie Parker, and the two head off on a road trip. They pick up some folks along the way, and sure, they commit some crime, but the crime almost isn’t the point — rather, it’s about the characters’ relationships with each other: Bonnie and Clyde’s affair, both mentally and physically; Clyde’s camaraderie with his brother; Bonnie’s disdain for Clyde’s shrill sister-in-law; dimwitted C.W. Moss’ hero-worship for the anti-hero bank robbers; etc. And as with all road trips, so too must this one come to an end, albeit a bit more violently than most.
Forty years removed, there are two ways too look at Bonnie and Clyde — as a movie standing on its own two feet, and as a moment in the history of American cinema. Looking at it the first way, within the black box of a darkened theater, Bonnie and Clyde is simply a great film. First and foremost, it is absolutely loaded with excellent performances. Warren Beatty is fantastic as Clyde, portraying the robber as a curious mix of sly sarcasm and outward confidence, inner weakness and the occasional simmering anger. He’s charming as hell and, were I a man who swung a different way, I might say he’s in his luscious prime. Of course, my heterosexuality can remain entirely comforted by the fact that Faye Dunaway, as Bonnie, is also in her luscious prime. In one of her first film roles, the then 26-year-old actually (arguably) one-ups Beatty’s charm with her own glittering eye and sex-pot charisma. And while Beatty and Dunaway could’ve carried this movie all on their own, they don’t have to. There’s also a shockingly young Gene Hackman as Clyde Barrow’s brother Buck, who joins the Barrow Gang with his reluctant wife, the endlessly annoying Blanche (played by Estelle Parsons, the one Oscar-winning performance of the movie, despite a host of nominations). And the gang’s rounded out by C.W. Moss, played by Michael J. Pollard, the delightfully nebbish and dim former gas clerk who unwittingly leads to Bonnie and Clyde’s gruesome end (most assuredly more on that, in a bit). As I mention, while only Parsons won an Oscar, the rest were all deservedly nominated — each performance brings something to the table and, regardless of any other aspect of this flick, makes the movie worth a view.
Despite these quality performances, however, director Arthur Penn is probably the one most responsible for making the flick such a lasting gem. Penn chose to allow the movie to breathe with a very laid back and low key pacing, showing a remarkably insightful willingness to play with pregnant pauses and uncomfortable silence. That slow pacing serves a greater purpose, beyond the art of it for art’s sake, in that it allows the movie to make a slow and almost unnoticed transition from comedy to tragedy. The film unquestionably starts off light in tone and substance. Beatty’s Barrow, newly free from prison, comes off more like a Harold Hill con man than a gun-toting gangster-type. When Bonnie and Clyde undertake their first bank robbery, it’s an unmitigated failure because the depression has turned the joint into a run-down former bank, and Clyde resorts to forcing the teller to come outside to explain this to Bonnie so she won’t think he botched the job. The film’s car chases are all, as one review-of-the-times put it, like “the clumsy vehicles of the Keystone Kops.” And the early blood and violence is borderline silly. Hell, there’s even a treat of an extended scene with Gene Wilder in his film debut.
But as the movie progresses, things become rather less silly. The manhunt after the Barrow Gang gets more serious, and without the viewer even realizing it, the violence becomes more nasty and grisly (as far as a 1967 film goes), culminating in the film’s gruesome finale, where Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed and blasted with gunfire in mostly cold blood. Which brings me to what I said at the top, about also looking at this film as a moment in history. From that perspective, it’s perhaps even more significant than as a movie in its own right. At the time of its release (despite the eventual slew of award nominations and wins), it was criticized for all sorts of shit.
It’s too graphic!
These criminals, they’re too likable!
This is serious subject matter and how dare they treat it with humor!
By today’s standards, none of these aspects of the flick are shocking in the least. But in 1967, when Hollywood was still being stifled by the Production Code, these things were unheard of (in fact, many have argued that this film was partly responsible for the Code’s demise that very same year). Doing a smattering of research for this review, I came across one of the best things ever — back in 1967, a man by the utterly fantastic name of Bosley Crowther took it upon himself to rip the flick apart in his New York Times review. Check these two paragraphs out:
It is 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 cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And it puts forth Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the leading roles, and Michael J. Pollard as their sidekick, a simpering, nose-picking rube, as though they were striving mightily to be the Beverly Hillbillies of next year.
It has Mr. Beatty clowning broadly as the killer who fondles various types of guns with as much nonchalance and dispassion as he airily twirls a big cigar, and it has Miss Dunaway squirming grossly as his thrill-seeking, sex-starved moll. It is loaded with farcical holdups, screaming chases in stolen getaway cars that have the antique appearance and speeded-up movement of the clumsy vehicles of the Keystone Kops, and indications of the impotence of Barrow, until Bonnie writes a poem about him to extol his prowess, that are as ludicrous as they are crude.
Crowther goes on to say:
Arthur Penn, the aggressive director, has evidently gone out of his way to splash the comedy holdups with smears of vivid blood as astonished people are machine-gunned. And he has staged the terminal scene of the ambuscading and killing of Barrow and Bonnie by a posse of policemen with as much noise and gore as in the climax of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Reading this review now, it’s retrospectively hilarious. But more importantly, if I had never seen the movie, I dunno about you, but this review would’ve sold me on it 100%.
In any event, the violence of the film, and the finale in particular, was so shocking at the time because just about every American movie before it treated guns as mere props. There was a bang, and somebody fell over. No blood, no flopping in the stream of continual gunfire. Quick, clean and pretty. Not so with Bonnie and Clyde’s grand finale. In fact, just to hammer the point home, and not let the viewer off the hook, Penn abruptly ends the flick right there, with the viewers stuck having “the ambuscading and killing of Barrow and Bonnie” sitting on and stewing in their brain. It was a daring move both at the time and even by today’s standards, where we still don’t often see our anti-heroes get their comeuppance, particularly with such abrupt ending.
Gun Fondling! Thrill-Seeking! Noise and Gore! ...Disgraceful!
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. He also loves that the movie resulted in not one, but two separate defamation lawsuits, yet another feather in its cap.
Film | January 23, 2008 | Comments ()