Appellate Judge Tom Becker robs banks. That's why he's writing this review in jail.
"This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap."—Bosley Crowther in The New York Times
"Conceptually, the film leaves much to be desired, because killings and the backdrop of the Depression are scarcely material for a bundle of laughs."—Dave Kaufman in Variety
"The most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it."—Pauline Kael in The New Yorker
In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was a breath of fresh air and a slap in the face.
It was a major studio production that told its story using the conventions of a low-budget exploitation film.
It glamorized a group of Depression-era bandits whom many people still remembered as being murderous thugs.
It was a comedy that contained the most graphic violence ever shown in a mainstream American movie.
It was a love story with little in the way of romantic interludes.
It starred rising sex symbol Warren Beatty as a clumsy, impotent hick and co-starred a bunch of unknowns.
It featured the leading lady attempting to give oral sex to the leading man.
It was unlike anything that had come out of Hollywood.
And in many circles, it was soundly and roundly panned.
Looking back, it would be too much like shooting fish in a barrel to comment on how out of touch some of the critics were, though it's notable that Bosley Crowther resigning his longstanding position at the Times was a direct fallout from his failure to understand why Bonnie and Clyde was one of the most significant—and successful—movies of its time.
In truth, the studio didn't know what it had—Jack Warner went to his grave hating it—and dumped the film in drive-ins and second-run theaters.
A teaser and trailer on Bonnie and Clyde: Two-Disc Special Edition point up Warner Bros.' clumsy initial marketing approach. Clearly positioning this for the youth and exploitation crowds, they included incidental music not found in film and '60s pop-looking graphics, playing up the film's lurid tagline, "They're Young, They're in Love, and They Kill People." Based on these previews, you'd be forgiven if you thought Bonnie and Clyde was a lighthearted, lightheaded romp that starred Beatty and Dunaway only because Deborah Walley and Fabian were not available.
But the audience—not only young people, but cinephiles excited by this American version of a French New Wave film—found Bonnie and Clyde and made it a hit, and critical revisits were encouraged by raves from veteran Pauline Kael and young upstarts like Roger Ebert, whose review might have provided the most insightful explanation of the film's popularity:
"Years from now, it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s, showing with sadness, humor, and unforgiving detail what one society had come to. The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn't mean a thing. It had to be set sometime. But it was made now, and it's about us."
Facts of the Case
They're young, they're in love…and they kill people.
And, they rob banks.
They're Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), two none-too-bright folks in Depression-era Texas. With Clyde's brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), Buck's wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and a kid named C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), they're the Barrow Gang, ruthless and fearless bank robbers who kill anyone who gets in their way. In these days when banks are either failing or foreclosing, the Barrows become folk heroes.
Of course, like most folk legends, the truth is a bit different. The Barrows are being credited with dozens of heists they didn't pull, and the haul from their actual robberies is barely enough to keep them fed. And they are hardly bloodthirsty—any killings are from necessity, and it's not something they want to do.
Mostly, they're on the run, and the law in four states is looking for them. They've gotten this far by being skilled with guns and cars, and through some dumb luck.
But their luck can't hold up forever.
Bonnie and Clyde is a classic that lives up to its hype. It's a great piece of popular art, as exciting and entertaining on its own terms as it is relevant in any discussion of American cinema.
The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won two: Parsons for Supporting Actress and Burnett Guffey for cinematography. The script, by David Newman and Robert Benton, lost to issue-oriented sitcom Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Theadora Van Runkle's costumes—which inspired an international "Bonnie" fashion movement—lost to Camelot's gowns and armor. Amazingly, neither the sound design nor Dede Allen's legendary editing received nominations.
Bonnie and Clyde was Warren Beatty's baby, his first time as a producer—an unlikely hat to be worn by a young actor at the time. He'd heard about the script from François Truffaut, who would have directed it had he not been committed to Fahrenheit 451. Beatty offered it to Arthur Penn.
A generation older than most of the young Turk directors of the '70s, and less obviously subversive, Penn spent much of his career making personal projects that were not always wholly successful, but were rarely less than interesting, such as Night Moves, Alice's Restaurant, and The Missouri Breaks. Considering the borderline sadomasochistic dinner scene in Penn's The Miracle Worker, it's no surprise that he would helm the film that helped put violence in the mainstream.
Penn worked closely with Benton and Newman, helping to develop the script for shooting. At Penn's insistence, some business about Clyde being bisexual was removed and, instead, he was made impotent, which added a palpable layer of tension to the film and the dynamics of the characters.
Bonnie and Clyde was a landmark in many ways. Its violence and complex approach to sexuality have been much discussed, along with its place as a herald of the "New Hollywood" and the star-making turns of its five main players.
As portrayed by Dunaway and Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde are tragic free spirits. They hook up and begin their "life of crime" on a whim, and the other members of the Barrow Gang join them just as capriciously—C.W. Moss just up and leaves his job at a gas pump (after taking the day's proceeds), and Buck and Blanche show up for a visit and end up staying. There is a sense of aimlessness about these people, and we never see them functioning well as individuals, only in pairs and groups.
The first half of the film is a lark, with comical robberies and speeded-up, adrenaline-rush chases scored with Flatt and Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." But even in these early scenes, there's something off-kilter about the mood. An exuberant escape takes an awkward turn when Clyde has to explain to the amorous Bonnie, "I ain't no loverboy." A police raid plays both slapstick and sexy—and disturbing, as the gang blasts through a number of cops when they make their escape.
One of the most memorable scenes—in which a couple, played by Gene Wilder (in his film debut) and Evans Evans, ends up riding around with the Barrows—was revolutionary by being something of a non sequitur. The scene does nothing to propel the story or comment on what has gone before; it could be removed without interrupting the action. A film student would most likely get marked down for including a scene like this in a script.
And yet this scene, whose existence defies convention, is indispensable and iconic. Not only is it a beautifully written and played interlude, it's the dividing point in the film. From the moment Wilder gives the scene's punch line—naming his profession—the mood takes a drastic shift. We feel it as we watch the Barrows drive off into the darkness, leaving the couple stranded alone on the road. They—and we—realize that nothing will be the same after this point, and the giddy adventure we'd been enjoying turns, naturalistically, into something dark, sobering, and affecting.
Warren Beatty's last movie was the 2001 disaster Town and Country, and at 71, it's unlikely he'll ever again head up a major film. His good looks, outspoken politics, and legendary romances tend to obscure his significant achievements both in front of and behind the camera. He could have easily made a career out of playing sexy, brooding romantic leads in big-budget films but often opted for more complex roles in riskier projects such as Mickey One, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Lilith. Beatty was nominated for an Academy Award fourteen times—remarkable because those fourteen nominations were for only six films, with two of them—Reds and Heaven Can Wait—netting him four nominations each.
Beatty is just great as Clyde Barrow, never letting his matinee-idol looks overshadow the character's flaws. It's a courageous, inventive performance, one of the actor's best.
Faye Dunaway had her two best roles playing characters from the '30s—here and as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown. Bonnie and Clyde offers what might be Dunaway's purest performance, accessible, sympathetic, and sexy, with no trace of the brittle, neurotic characteristics that would become her signature.
Warner Bros. again comes through with great two-disc Special Edition. Disc One houses the film and a pair of trailers. The remastered print looks very good, with strong colors and high contrast, and superb detail in Guffey's famed "dark" images and his sweeping landscapes. There's some grain noticeable here and there, but nothing distracting or unexpected for a forty-year-old film.
Audio is the original mono track, also cleaned up. It's great to have the original track, but in this instance, I would have liked to have had the option to listen to an upgraded 5.1 track. The sound design was a crucial element in Bonnie and Clyde. Borrowing a trick that George Stevens had used in Shane, the sound in Bonnie and Clyde was uneven, with the gunshots played at a much higher volume. It would have been nice to have had the option to experience this on a more dynamic track.
We get a full disc of extras. "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde" is a 65-minute retrospective featuring virtually every significant surviving member of the cast (save for Gene Wilder) and crew. It's a testament to the enduring power of this film that, in addition to Beatty and Penn, people like Hackman, Dunaway, and Dede Allen were willing to contribute to this featurette. It's a strong piece—it more than makes up for the lack of a commentary track—and it's great to hear everyone's recollections and observations, but it left me wanting to know more, particularly about how Beatty, 29 and a rising, though not yet major star, was able to get this project off the ground.
We also get an informative, 43-minute documentary from The History Channel on the true story of Bonnie and Clyde, along with Beatty's wardrobe tests and some deleted scenes (the audio has been lost, so they play with subtitles).
This is an excellent release of a great film, well worth a purchase.
Unlike its doomed protagonists, Warner Bros.' Special Edition of Bonnie and Clyde is nowhere near guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde"
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