Friday, December 18, 2020

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: David Newman, Robert Benton, Robert Towne
Photography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Charles Strouse
Editor: Dede Allen
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder, Evans Evans

The ending of Bonnie and Clyde is about as iconic to the '60s as the shower scene in Psycho, and equally short in terms of running time—a scant few minutes (with many, many cuts in the edit). Bonnie and Clyde, coming much further into the decade, may have been in the better position to self-consciously attempt a statement about the times, with its outlaw heroes, desperate little guys, gang violence, police power and corruption, etc. Plus its star, Warren Beatty, looks like a Kennedy, similarly assassinated by gunfire, though the Zapruder film has no cuts. Bonnie and Clyde is a strange beast, living among other strange beasts of 1967 Hollywood. Mark Harris's well-regarded Pictures at a Revolution looked closely at the five Best Picture Oscar nominees of that year, a motley assortment with various heavy significations, looking in all directions at once seemingly: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night.

Bonnie and Clyde is plainly the New Hollywood art film of the class (though In the Heat of the Night has some pretensions in that direction too). But it also has unusual bifurcations. It's an art film full of naturalistic violence and banjo music. The crime capers are both farce and tragedy. It's a period piece that is more about the period in which it was made (as they always are). The star of the movie, Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, was also the producer, but not the director. In fact, generally speaking, one of the most amazing things about Bonnie and Clyde is the sheer tonnage of talent assembled, working less collaboratively but more side by side, like artisans at a crafts mall.

Director Arthur Penn (with producer Beatty's evident blessing) is altogether more interested in making a European art film thriller, in the mode of Blow-Up or Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, thinking through his intricate setups of gunfire exchange and getaways, sometimes comical, sometimes quite grim. They still feel blazingly modern. There are a number of escalating gunfights all along the way, leading up to the big finish. I think Penn has made more movies than anyone I know that don't feel like they were made by the same person (after perhaps only Michael Curtiz). They are all at least a little interesting and at least a little flawed: The Left Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, Alice's Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks. With perspective, Bonnie and Clyde may be his best after Night Moves, certainly his most commercial as it turned out. But paradoxically Penn seems to be only one part of a larger project, and not entirely the director.

Penn's action scenes alternate with roiling ensemble sequences that have the feeling of improv, or even rehearsals. These scenes are dominated by Beatty with a dopey broad Southern accent, who happily shares the spotlight with Faye Dunaway as Clyde's partner in crime Bonnie Parker, the elfin Michael C. Pollard as an accomplice, Denver Pyle as the Texas Ranger who wrangles them, and all the rest, as long as he gets the other half. I always forget this picture has Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder too, who are both as good as they always are but also feel a little stranded and making it up as they go, at this early point in their careers. They all do. For whatever reasons, with Penn's blessing or with Beatty's intrusion, I suspect it's Beatty coaching the players or setting up the scenes more than Penn.

These scenes, the story of Bonnie and Clyde as performed by the cast, carry a more confused message than Penn's blunt violence and hothouse lush scenes of the Great Depression. Beatty plays Clyde as a deluded good ol' boy who thinks of himself as a Robin Hood type, robbing banks because he figures banks are robbing people in the first place. So they muddle along—robbin' banks, shootin' it out with cops, and makin' new friends wherever they go. Not clear what they're doing altogether but a certain '60s (and later) vision of anarchic freedom is obviously at play. The best story in all this is Bonnie's desire to return home and see her mother again, even though the gang is red-hot and on the run. Unlike Clyde, who wants everyone to be impressed by him, Bonnie simply seems to love her mother. But her mother rejects them explicitly, not just unimpressed but morally revolted by their way of life.

Clyde is mostly addled, good-hearted but kind of dumb. Further unclear intentions are in the script as well, perhaps most obviously in Clyde's sexuality. He is impotent, which seems a bit jarring and beside the point, a little too heavy or at least TMI, but all right. You can get used to that. Bob in Drugstore Cowboy had the same problem, explained more naturally by his heroin use, but never mind. Take as given. Clyde is impotent. We see no obvious reason. But then, toward the end of the picture, Clyde finally finds sexual fulfillment with Bonnie (and she finally has sexual fulfillment too). I'm really not sure what we're supposed to make of this. It just seems unnecessarily distracting. Perhaps artifact of some power struggle between Penn and Beatty. As for Faye Dunaway I wish it had been Tuesday Weld, judging by Pretty Poison.

Even in 1967 Beatty was a well-known egotist, seeing himself as a Hollywood iconoclast. He gets away with it because the camera loves him, it's his moviemaking calling card before anything else, but he has even more of a preening glow here than, say, in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, only a few years later (in fairness, the glow is back again in Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, and Reds, the latter two directed by Beatty). But the most '60s thing of all and most relevant to me about Bonnie and Clyde is the treatment of media celebrity (which, as we know, has only grown worse since 1967). It's another point where Beatty's resemblance to a Kennedy comes in handy. Within the picture, Bonnie and Clyde are certain media stars of their era, the 1930s. They are determinedly glamorous. They follow the movie magazines. They pose for pictures. They love to make it into the newspapers. They brag to strangers about who they are—the only thing missing is that no one in the '30s (or even the '60s, quite) had figured out the importance in all things of hiring a really good publicist. That way lies Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho.


  1. Always happy to read something new about one of my Top Five movies.

  2. I've never entirely been won over by this one but interesting discussion.