By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where we’re all young and in love. But we don’t kill people.
THE FILM: Bonnie and Clyde
THE TIME: 1967. Bonnie and Clyde has the distinction of ushering in the American New Wave. From the late Sixties and through the Seventies, directors really took the reins of their films and created art that embraced violence, malaise, and the moral ambiguity that reflected the nation’s growing cynicism. This era gave us everything from Badlands and Apocalypse Now to Star Wars and Easy Rider. Without Bonnie and Clyde, however, these films may not have been possible.
RECOLLECTIONS: “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.” Since the mid-Sixties, Warren Beatty had been trying to see Bonnie and Clyde made. He discovered the script after the writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, had been unsuccessful in shopping it to a studio, having previously offered it to both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Both declined, but their influence was apparent in both the screenplay and ultimately Arthur Penn’s directing style.
Once Beatty became interested, he too began attempts to recruit directors and talent. At one time his sister, Shirley MacLaine, was even attached to play Bonnie Parker. He knew a film about outlaws (or, a heavily romanticized version of outlaws) railing against a callous establishment would have significant relevance to a generation soured on the government, especially in light of the ever-escalating war in Vietnam.
Finally, Arthur Penn agreed to take the film on and in 1967 the world saw the debut of Bonnie and Clyde… via second run theaters and a handful of drive-in lots. Warner Bros. hated the film (even though it would later net ten Academy Award nominations and win two). Many critics also had a problem with it, with the exception of Pauline Kael and a young Roger Ebert. Perceptive audiences and critics loved the film, and the movie grossed over fifty million dollars, leading to a new era in American filmmaking. (As well as a new glut of forgettable gangster films, with the exception of 1973’s excellent Dillinger.)
The film never shied away from the violence its protagonists wrought at a time when most films weren’t allowed to depict the impact and the subsequent viscera of gunfire. Bonnie and Clyde not only showed the violence, it often employed slow motion to really let the brutality simmer onscreen. Unflinching gunfights aside, the very fact that two murderous outlaws could be the protagonists of a film was considered shocking in itself.
The movie employed a rapid, choppy editing style that held a striking contrast to most major studio films of the time. Bonnie and Clyde also engaged in drastic shifts in tone, playing moments of comedy before interrupting the fun with intense violence. In addition, Bonnie and Clyde marked one of the first times a Hollywood star produced his own vehicle: Beatty was roundly criticized for the move, though the gambit did net him 40% of the gross. There’s only a handful of American films that we can say, with confidence, changed movie making. Bonnie and Clyde was one of them.
THE DIRECTOR: “It was a time where, it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, then we would be obliged to really to depict it accurately; the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence.” Arthur Penn, like Warren Beatty, had a vision for Bonnie and Clyde. He clashed with the writers on aspects of Clyde Barrow’s character, arguing he should be made impotent as opposed to bisexual. (Nixing a controversial-for-the-era sex scene in the process.) He most frequently fought with his cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, who would later say making the film with Penn gave him an ulcer. But Penn never relented and his steadfastness paid off. Fifty years later and seven years after the director’s death, we’re still talking about his masterpiece.
THE CAST: What a cast, seriously. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lead as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. While Beatty tried desperately to have Natalie Wood play Bonnie, Faye Dunaway created such a powerful character one would have a difficult time picturing anyone else in the role. This is also a film that contains the big screen debut of the late Gene Wilder. The Barrow gang also includes Clyde’ brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and sister-in-law Blanche (Estelle Parsons). The real Blanche Barrow was charmed by Warren Beatty into giving her blessing for the film, but absolutely hated Estelle’s shrill portrayal. C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) is a simpleton gas station attendant and gang member who offers moments of comic relief, such as botching a getaway by parallel parking. Finally, the gang is relentlessly pursed by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), who finally gets the drop on them with a brutal ambush. The real Frank Hamer’s family would later sue over Pyle’s portrayal of Frank as a bumbling idiot.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? A complete nostalgia-fest. The film made heroes out of outlaws in a time when people were growing distrustful of the establishment. Fifty years later, it’s still relevant.
RETROGRADE: 8 out of 10