IMDB #214 Bonnie and Clyde

Today we steadily progress in the countdown with a film that launched the "New Hollywood" era, glorified a pair of two-bit grocery-store robbers that had no larger legacy (like John Dillinger managed on his own), and set new standards of acceptable screen sex and violence: a 1967 number called Bonnie and Clyde.

The Key Players:

Our maestro is Arthur Penn, director of the celebrated The Miracle Worker, the westerns The Left Handed Gun and Little Big Man, as well as the feature-film adaptation of Arlo Guthrie's famous song Alice's Restaurant.

Producer and star Warren Beatty had already made a name for himself in Splendor In The Grass before headlining this picture. A storied career followed- Beatty has been nominated for fourteen Oscars of various types, winning one statue for directing his communist epic Reds. Beatty was the real driving force behind Bonnie and Clyde in his role as producer, hiring Penn and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton and receiving 40% of the final gross (which Warner Brothers had thought would amount to very little).

Faye Dunaway, making her second countdown appearance, has had a career that extends far beyond winning an Oscar for annoying the crap out of me in Network: from the highs of The Thomas Crown Affair and Barfly to the lows of Mommie Dearest and a cameo in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Gene Hackman co-stars, but we'll discuss him at length in future posts, and Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for Supporting Actress for her work in this film.

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The Story:

A simplified version of history, as Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) spots Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mother's car in the driveway, and brazenly yells at him while wearing no clothes.

An immediate bond forms, as Clyde tells Bonnie he robs banks, and produces a gun- intrigued, she strokes the muzzle (I am informed this is pretty risque for 1967), but doubts he's telling the truth. So he robs a grocery store right at that moment, and they hit the road in a stolen car (after finally learning one another's names).

They embark on their fabled, meandering crime spree through rural Texas. The first bank they hit has actually gone under three weeks before (a nod to the Depression setting), but they get by squatting in foreclosed houses and robbing whatever gas stations, grocers, and banks they come across. They pick up a teenage protege, C. W. Moss during a job.

Eventually they meet up with Clyde's brother Buck (Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Parsons). Buck gets along with everyone, but Blanche, the obvious square of the bunch, and Bonnie detest one another immediately.

The gang has a few run-ins with the law- in an early bank heist, Moss inexplicably starts parallel-parking the getaway car, delaying the escape and leading to Clyde shooting the bank-manager in the face through the car window (in a very oddly-framed shot). Another time, they tie up and humiliate a Texas Ranger named Frank Hamer who has pursued them across the border into Oklahoma.

After a long time on the run, Bonnie implores Clyde to let her visit her family. In another scene, the power-happy gang take a couple hostage (Gene Wilder in his screen debut, and the improbably-named Evans Evans) and chatter with them like friends, only to abruptly kick them out of the car when Bonnie dislikes that the man is an undertaker.

Eventually Frank Hamer (who has magically transformed into a coldly efficient lawman) catches up with them, and various gunfights ensue: finally Buck is shot in the head, while Blanche is blinded by shattering glass. Bonnie, Clyde and C. W. make a hasty retreat as Clyde's brother dies on the grass surrounded by police, marking an abrupt shift in the tone of the film.

The Artistry:

As landmark as it was, Bonnie and Clyde is tonally jarring from my perspective. Long sequences of gun-fire end abruptly with Flatt and Scruggs' jaunty banjo tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

The film seems to expect levity by showing our would-be master criminals joking around with terrified bystanders, or laughing at their own jokes, but the script doesn't really work that hard to make them three-dimensional, or like-able. There are a couple of scenes that deal with Clyde's bedroom impotency (and the desire for violence that that might imply compensates), and Bonnie's desire to write poetry and be something more than a yokel, but neither one really grows up in any way.

Although if they did, it wouldn't be a very accurate representation. As it is, the biggest inaccuracies are the movie-star looks and wardrobe the pair maintains while on the lam. Frank Hamer would never have been caught by them- he was a legendary, semi-retired Ranger brought in specially to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde, since the local police and FBI weren't getting results. Also, C. W. Moss is an amalgamation of two different associates of the Barrow gang.

Technically, it's a well-made film- it was one of the first film's to employ squibs (exploding packets of fake blood) en masse for realism, and Burnett Guffney more than deserved his Oscar for cinematography.

A small commentary, echoed by the direct descendant Natural Born Killers, crops up on the media's obsession with crime when reporters interview fame-hungry police and witnesses to one of the bank heists.


Hamer tricks the blinded Blanche into revealing C. W. Moss's name- this leads them to Moss's father, who agrees to turn over Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for his son's pardon.

It all ends, of course, in the climactic massacre scene, in which a rustle in the bushes is the only prelude our two lovers get before they're riddled with bullets for a solid thirty seconds, shot from multiple angles at multiple speeds.

After a minute or so of ringing silence as the police look on, the screen tells us its "THE END."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I can't say I was moved, but I've been desensitized, no doubt, by all of the screen violence and sexuality that Bonnie and Clyde opened the door for.

I'm still gonna go with lower, since innovation doesn't mask what were to me, flat performances in an uneven film. Alas.

The Legacy:

The National Film Registry feels that it's worth saving, and it's elevated the reputation of the real life Bonnie and Clyde well-beyond what it deserves. In plenty of documents like Bryan Burroughs' thoroughly-researched book Public Enemies, it's made clear that they were little more than hillbillies on a spree, little known outside of Texas.

In January it was announced that Hilary Duff (a manufactured pop-star) and Kevin Zegers (an actual actor who was in Transamerica) will star in a new version of the story (not a remake of this film in particular), The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Why not the ending scene (spoilers still involved, I suppose)? I watched and mostly just thought how awkward it'd be to act, with Dunaway sort of half in the car and Beatty rolling around on the ground (though as can clearly be scene in archival footage, in real life they were both in the car):

Leftover Thoughts:

-The compressed film version of events doesn't make it clear that the gang killed 14 people, mostly policemen.

-Blanche Barrow complained publicly about her shrill portrayal in the script, and Frank Hamer's widow actually sued the studio for writing him as so initially incompetent.

-Many historians strongly suspect that Bonnie, though complicit, never actually committed a murder or fired a gun herself (Dunaway is seen shooting several times in Bonnie and Clyde).

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