Bonnie and Clyde
In the life of any cinephile there are certain movies that you see before you are fully equipped to completely understand them. You might have gone to the theater to see them perhaps as a result over some controversy involving violence or sexual content. While these would be poor incentive later on as an adult they work on a fundamental, albeit puerile level for a teenager. It is satisfying to revisit these films later on in life once your understanding of the artistic nature of cinema and your appreciation for life has been sharpened by experience. One example of this for me is the classic crime drama, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. Released in 1967 I was only 14 when I bought a ticket to see it, okay, I release that even back then a movie rated R by the MPAA require an accompanying adult if under 17. The theaters in the Times Square of the late sixties were not particularly compliant when it came to proof of age. Besides, I was a regular patron of the establishment and the guy in the ticket booth knew me. This film had everything a teenage boy looked for in a flick, violence in ample measure and reports of a brief revealing scene of the leading lady. Now, more decades than I care to concede to, the film is considered a pivotal film of the period consider controversial because of the intensely realistic depiction of violence virtually unheard of at the time. But fortunately I matured and so did my enthusiasm for movies. A while ago I added this movie to my collection as a Blu-ray special edition. Revisiting it now brought an understandably deeper understanding of the filmmaker’s intensions.
The thirties was the era of the gangster. With the nation hard hit by a global economic collapse historically referred to as ‘Great Depression’ and the food supply hampered by dust storms that devastated the grain producing Mid-West, most Americans were hard press just to provide the most basis requirements of living as food, shelter and gainful employment. With a Constitutional amendment prohibiting alcoholic beverages precluded that age old method of dealing with stress. This created an environment conducive to rebellion against the authorities largely blamed for the situation. While crime organizations took on the bootlegging industry many home grown outlaws embarked on crime sprees typically centered on robbing the target of the financial woes, the banks. Outlaws became folk heroes of sort, modern day Robin Hoods, although the part about giving to the poor was subject to some interpretation. Along with following the lives of the movie stars of the day the exploits of these criminals became the dominant item in the news; providing the public with some distraction from the bleak reality of their lives. Firmly planted in the Parthenon of infamous outlaws was a pair of star crossed lovers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, portrayed in this rendition of their story by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway respectfully. The filmmaker behind this movie was the legendary director of stage and screen, Arthur Penn. He is also the father of current cinematic notable, Sean Penn.
The movie begins more in line with a romantic drama than a crime movie, a chance encounter between Clyde (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie (Faye Dunaway). The meeting occurred when Clyde was in the process of stealing a car owned by Bonnie’s mother. She was a young woman bored by small town life and the prospect of moving from a small town waitress to the trap of marriage and motherhood. The chemistry between them was intense and instantaneous. Lured by the excitement of being with a crook on the road Bonnie runs off with the handsome stranger. Their small time heists are exciting but Clyde craved more and was encouraged by Bonnie. He assembles his own crew with the intension of upping the ante; bank robberies. With the banks foreclosing homes and farms they were the object of hatred among the people and certain to make them famous. Bonnie and Clyde are joined by his older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), a preacher's daughter. Rounding off the gang is former gas station employee, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), unstable and slow minded. It is his mistake of blocking the getaway car that turns into the catalyst that pushes the thieves over the line into a course of escalating bloodshed.
Prior to Penn’s direction films concerned with criminal were relatively tame when it came to showing the outcome inherent with gunplay. Machine guns would blaze, pistols and rifles shoot seemingly endless rounds but the only consequences show to the audience was the targeted victims flaying about, slumping over or being pushed backward. Penn discarded that sanitized depiction of violence in favor of a realistic approach. Projectiles tear through flesh resulting in a gusher of blood as the victim screams in pain. The look on their faces contorted in their dying agony is seen in stark contrast to the maniacal expression of enjoyment the outlaws display. Penn strips away any iota of folk hero that might have lingered with the gangsters of this era. This movie was one of the first to shoe the effects of a gunshot for what they real are; painful, messy and deadly. For a generation that came of age watching the same bad guy get shot week after week on ‘Gunsmoke’ the violence Penn infused into this story was shocking.
About the same time as this film’s release the grind house exploitations flicks were getting as foothold in the industry matching or, in many cases, greatly exceeding the gore shown here. There are numerous factors elevating this film above those puerile examples of filmmaking. Most obvious is the sheer magnitude of artistry Penn infuses in every frame of the movie. Penn is a crafts man and this piece represented one of his early moves to film. he was part of the golden age of television drama with regular contributions to such influential and ground breaking series as Playhouse 90’’ and ‘The Gulf Playhouse’. These were showcases for some of the most talented writers, directors and actors that embodied a degree of excellences rarely seen today. The cast was widely acclaimed, with all of the principles nominated for Academy Awards and Estelle Parsons taking the Best Supporting Actress award home. Other nominations were received for Best Director and Best Picture giving further credence to the artistic impact this film made. Penn was a pioneer in filmmaking, going against the standard techniques and methods blazing a new trail that many others would follow.
Anniversary Commemorative Documentaries: Revolution! The Making Of Bonnie And