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1967's Bonnie and Clyde broke down the last walls of the old Hollywood studio system. Star/producer Warren Beatty proved that audiences wanted something more than the same bland studio formulas. Combining French New Wave stylistics, creative actors and a director willing to experiment, Bonnie and Clyde became the most influential American film of the 1960s.
Arthur Penn's movie is a daring and exhilarating show by any standard. Audiences were riveted by a story that veered between comedy and tragedy, always threatening to explode with violence more real than anything seen before. Warren Beatty fulfilled his promise as an actor while practically everyone else in his cast stepped up to star status. Bonnie and Clyde's glamorous mythologizing reached back to the Depression, to make a pair of rural bandits into an American Romeo and Juliet.
Warners present Bonnie and Clyde in three separate editions, including a Special Edition in the newly ascendant Blu-ray format.
The movie industry didn't know how to handle Bonnie and Clyde and gave it a brief non-release. Warren Beatty was able to get it re-issued, with the help of influential New York critics. Pauline Kael rose to prominence by championing the film, while a typically clueless review by Bosley Crowther is said to have ended his tenure at the New York Times.
Bonnie and Clyde was fresh from top to bottom. 60s gangster movies, even the same year's success The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, were generally mid-range studio films that got by without much style -- a few costumes, a few old cars. This new movie used extensive research to reproduce a specific The Grapes of Wrath Depression setting. Cars carried appropriate license plates and clothing was made of original fabric; we can see bottle caps hammered into porch posts. Accustomed to the thoughtless anachronisms of routine movies, audiences soaked up atmospherics as dense as those in a Visconti film, and were transported into an earlier era.
The original script could easily have consigned the movie to the studio shelf. In the final cut Clyde Barrow is merely impotent, as opposed to being bisexual or homosexual (well, that last is debatable). We're only given hints that Bonnie plays around with C.W. Moss, starting with the fact that Moss sleeps in the same room with the outlaw lovers. Bluenoses (including Crowther) expected the screenplay to condemn the bandits outright, as any decent film would have done. So incensed were they over a lack of a proper 'moral tone', that a daring suggestion of oral sex went unremarked, or unnoticed.
Parker and Barrow's self-promoting motto is 'We rob banks', but we soon realize that these moral adolescents have no idea what they're doing. Compared to other rural bandits of the time -- Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger -- they're no more than copycat amateurs. Skipping Clyde's formative years as a petty thief and bitter jailbird, the script presents the lovers' lifestyle as a reckless avoidance of responsibility. Their rebellion yields neither riches nor security; their self-image is a mixture of Depression hopelessness and foolish Narcissism. Bonnie is desperate to be a hot chick, while Clyde just wants to 'show the world sumthin' before The Laws bring him down. After their first murder, there's no turning back.
Striking visuals suggesting Norman Rockwell sickened by the Dust Bowl elevate the outlaws' legend to the realm of mythic Americana. Homeless Okie families feed the wounded couple, and Clyde helps a dispossessed farmer strike a symbolic blow against the heartless bankers. Just when 60s newspaper pundits were fumbling with commentaries about new anti-heroes fighting 'the establishment', Bonnie and Clyde's unspoken sentiments helped inaugurate a brief trend dubbed Radical Chic. Most of these rebellion-themed pictures used contemporary settings, but not all. 1903-era outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid behave like fun-loving Bohemians, just trying to do their thing without being hassled by The Man. Butch Cassidy promises to duplicate Bonnie and Clyde's concluding bloodbath -- and then cops out with an MPAA-friendly freeze-frame.
The film seems immediate and 'modern' because Bonnie & Clyde are aware of their status as minor celebrities. Bonnie imagines herself as a glamorous movie star, and sends photos and poems to the newspaper. The lovers find their one moment of bliss when Clyde realizes that Bonnie's doggerel has guaranteed him immortality. As in the French New Wave, audio overlaps join scenes that begin and end at odd moments. The narrative is interrupted for interview-like asides and a strange soft-focus picnic idyll that seems to come from a separate reality. 1967 audiences had to 'read' the cinematic story, as no expository speeches or narration explained what was going on. What's Bonnie doing, writhing around naked and frustrated on her bed? Can a serious crime actually start as a sexual dare? Robbing banks is almost like play-acting; it's a lot of fun until people get hurt. Clyde is shocked when a grocer tries to kill him with a meat cleaver -- does he think people shouldn't mind being robbed?
And the violence -- editor Dede Allen turns the armed confrontations into bursts of chaos, with cops and robbers blasted left and right. Estelle Parsons runs screaming like a fool through the middle of a gory shoot-out, proving that a scene can be simultaneously horrifying and funny. By the time the heart-stopping finale catches up with Bonnie and Clyde, the movie has us completely in its spell. Doom hangs heavy from the moment we hear Bonnie's mother tell Clyde, "You just keep runnin'." We know that Capt. Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle, a favorite actor of John Wayne) won't spare the gunpowder. Forget chivalric honor and the myth of fair play; Hamer just lets 'em have it in a stone-cold ambush.
Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch may have more bloodshed but the butchery in Bonnie & Clyde is more deeply felt. This stuff hurts. Killing is different when we've laughed with the victims and identified with their awkward inexperience. Bonnie takes a shot to the shoulder, Clyde barely escapes a good-ol'-boy shooting gallery and Buck dies an excruciating death bleeding like an animal. When the end comes in the roadside ambush, it seems incredibly disproportionate -- so many rounds are fired, you'd think the sheriff was afraid his targets were bulletproof. Part of Clyde's scalp blows away (an intentional Zapruder reference?) as the fusillade turns the lovers into dancing puppets, writhing and jerking even after they're dead.
That blast of psychic overkill ushered in a new era of explicit violence for mainstream movies. Director Arthur Penn had just come from The Chase, an unsuccessful attempt to make a statement about American violence -- and which also ended with an evocation of the JFK assassination. Forty years later, in a culture grown even more bloodthirsty, Bonnie and Clyde has retained its kick.
Warners' Bonnie and Clyde looks better than ever in a remastered transfer. Seen in the ultra sharp Blu-ray format, Burnett Guffey's color cinematography evokes many expressive moods. The Two-disc Special Edition DVD (pictured) comes with two trailers that use wince-inducing flower power visuals. At least the tagline is brilliant: "They're young, they're in love and they kill people." Almost as if by magic, Bonnie and Clyde became the movie one had to see.
A History Channel docu chronicles the sordid career of the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It recycles many images but also features rare movies and stills of the actual ambush aftermath. Warren Beatty appears in a lengthy wardrobe test, trying out faces and poses he must have been practicing in front of a mirror. Two (actually one and a half) deleted scenes are included: an episode in a lunchroom and an odd extra fragment with Bonnie primping while C.W. takes a bath. Bonnie teases C.W. in a semi-suggestive manner. The audio for these clips has been lost, so subtitles have been added.
Laurent Bouzereau's 3-part making-of show Revolution! is one of the best DVD docus ever. Bouzereau has lined up almost everyone associated with the movie: Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Robert Benton, Evans Evans, Robert Towne. All contribute fascinating insights and anecdotes. Theodora Van Runkle's influential costume design started with Faye Dunaway's 'look', which came together with the addition of a black beret. The only non-authentic aspect of Bonnie Parker appears to be her hairstyle. Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons relate the excitement and adventure of making the movie. For once, a making-of doesn't overstate a film's impact: Bonnie and Clyde's was staggering. The actors describe audiences left silent and breathless at the final, abrupt cut to black. I can attest to that being the exact reaction -- sheer amazement.
An Ultimate Edition DVD adds a 36-page book, a reproduction of the original pressbook and a mail-in poster offer. The Blu-Ray release comes in a disc holder that contains the book extra. The one Blu-ray disc contains all of the video extras in the 2-disc DVD set.
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Bonnie and Clyde rates:
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