Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Bought it on blu ray some time back, had not actually watched the disk yet.
Clyde Barrow is a petty criminal, just released from jail. Bonnie Parker is a pretty, aimless young woman who crosses his path. Five minutes into the movie they’re in a stolen car and on the move, ready to kick off an escalating crime spree that takes them from small town nobodies to modern day myths.
Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman were film industry novices who admired the new wave movies of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard; French cinephiles who loved American genre films, and used their tropes as the basis for their cinematic innovations. Benton and Newman reasoned: why couldn’t American film makers try the same thing? Their means was ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, a biopic of sorts about two Depression era bank robbers who had lived fast and died young.
Their script eventually came to the attention of Warren Beatty, a rising star who was looking to take control of his career. He would produce, and after being turned down by a number of major directors (including Truffaut), would convince his friend Arthur Penn to helm the project.
While there had been many American gangster movies, there had never been one quite like this; Bonnie and Clyde attack the institutions of capitalism, railing against banks and big business. Their adventures are depicted with a light comic touch; the cops and other authority figures are portrayed as bumbling idiots, the Barrow Gang as cool, playful outsiders. And there isn’t even a conventional love story; Clyde’s impotence is discussed openly, and Bonnie’s sexual frustration apparent. For 1967 these were provocative themes for Hollywood (Clyde was bisexual in the original script, but they toned this down).
But the times themselves were changing, and after a decade of big budget Hollywood bloat, there was an eager young audience waiting for a film like this. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ caused a sensation when it was released, scoring boffo box office, rave reviews and multiple Oscar nominations. Its ideas seemed to reflect the turbulent decade of the 1960s, and audiences were excited. There was also hand wringing from conservative commentators, who saw in it a celebration of nihilism, and depravity. Concrete proof, if any were needed, that society was going to heck.
The success, and controversy, around the film left an enormous impression on a whole generation of film makers and studio execs. Younger directors would soon get their chance, and would be determined to make edgy, hip and artistic films like this one; the 1970’s, the era of the auteur, of ‘New Hollywood’, was just around the corner.
Revisiting this on blu ray for the first time in years, it is a treat to note that the liveliness of the film is undiminished. Penn employees a simple, run-and-gun style of direction that, while not quite Goddardian, suits the energetic action and dialogue. Shooting on real locations, veteran DP Burnett Guffey captures Texas (and sometimes: California) in its yellow and brown glory; among much beautiful imagery, an amazing moment when Bonnie runs out into a cornfield, and a huge cloud passes over head, casting everything into shadow.
Beatty radiates all his charisma in one of his best performances, and Faye Dunaway is nothing short of sensational as Bonnie; the ease with which she adopts to life on the run, her photo poses and beret, a star making performance if ever there was one. They have excellent chemistry, and make the character’s unusual bond believable. The supporting cast is stacked, and this was an early name maker for Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder, among several others.
And the ending is as iconic as movie scenes can get; the broken sunglasses, the ambush, the bullet splattered bodies. The VIOLENCE of it; a savage finish to two characters that you have grown to like, and the right counterpoint to the romanticism of some of the earlier scenes. America can be a brutal country, and the people in charge don’t mess around with anyone who crosses them.
I watched all of the bonus content on my disk; some is about the movie, some about the real outlaws, all of it was fascinating. It is interesting to note the parallel; as the real couple became American legends, so the film version of their lives also became legend; a landmark, and industry altering, movie, endlessly imitated.