Extolling the greatness of Bonnie and Clyde is a little like remarking on how wet rain is. Oceans of ink have been spilled detailing the significance of the 1967 masterpiece about the real-life bank robbers, the most recent being Mark Harris' excellent Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.
There is little about the picture that hasn't been said. Bonnie and Clyde has been analyzed, examined and picked apart more than a dead frog in junior-high biology. Still, revisiting the film in this long-overdue two-disc special edition, what struck me most was that its profound influence on cinema has not diminished its emotional impact.
You know the story, of course. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) are Depression-era lovers whose shared longing for excitement, money and fame spurs a deadly crime spree through Texas and Oklahoma until law enforcement finally stopped them with a vengeance. As a gangster picture, Bonnie and Clyde certainly works when viewed in the narrow prism of the venerable Warner Brothers mold, but director Arthur Penn and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton used the crime genre as a canvas to explore a number of ideas. To be sure, the movie fudges some aspects of the bank-robbing pair, particularly in playing down the Barrow gang's viciousness, but this is not a historical document.
It is, however, a historical and artistic milestone. Bonnie and Clyde's antihero protagonists, seriocomic tone and unforgettably violent ending sent aftershocks through mainstream Hollywood and helped set the groundwork for more cutting-edge fare in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, critics were polarized in their initial assessments. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther dismissed it as a "cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy," while a young film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, gushed that "years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s." Some critics even split the difference. In an unusual move, Newsweek reviewer Joe Morgenstern bashed Bonnie and Clyde, only to do an about-face a few weeks later by labeling it one of the most important motion pictures of the decade.
More than 40 years after its initial release, the film's blend of artistic sensibilities remains thrilling, a brilliant fusion of classic Hollywood storytelling, drive-in exploitation and French New Wave (Francois Truffaut, whose Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim influenced Newman and Benton's script, came close to directing the film). Subsequently, Bonnie and Clyde is brimming with dazzling, provocative moments that linger in the minds of viewers.
Director Penn, whose credits up to that time included 1962's The Miracle Worker and a handful of television's Playhouse 90 episodes, was not reluctant to take chances. Bonnie and Clyde's juxtaposition of broad comedy and bloody violence was revolutionary. In one celebrated scene, Bonnie and Clyde are bewildered when they rob a bank only to discover that their getaway driver, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), is having trouble pulling out of a tight parking space. The comic tone shifts abruptly when Clyde shoots a bank employee in the face.
The film's level of violence is tame by today's standards, but still wields considerable impact. "The trouble with the violence in most films is that it is not violent enough," Penn told The New York Times back in 1968, when Bonnie and Clyde garnered 10 Academy Award nominations. "A war film that doesn't show the real horrors of war -- bodies being torn apart and arms being shot off -- really glorifies war."
With that mindset, Penn ultimately pulls the rug out from under movie audiences after inviting viewers to identify with the bank robbers. The film's ending bloodbath is based on historical fact. Lawmen emptied more than 100 rounds into the pair in a 1934 ambush. But Penn's rejection of any sentimentality is remarkable. All he allows is a fleeting look of recognition between the ill-fated lovers before they are riddled with bullets. Penn shot the scene with four cameras, each running at a different speed.
And yet Bonnie and Clyde would not be considered a classic if its only claim to fame had been its radical style. Unlike many an antihero propped up by hipper-than-thou filmmakers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow possess a raw power and desperate neediness that connected with audiences in 1967 as much as they do today.
The film's introduction to Bonnie sharply conveys her desire for something beyond her dreary, working-class existence in West Dallas, Texas. An opening shot shows a close-up of Dunaway's parted cherry-red lips. She then sullenly slides down on a bed, her naked body obscured by the bed's horizontal brass railing. At once, the camera reveals her yearning for sensuality, excitement and adventure.
Bonnie's prayers are seemingly answered when she looks out the window and sees a good-looking stranger, Clyde Barrow, getting ready to steal her mother's car. She throws on some clothes and scurries outside for one of the more sexually charged meet-cutes in movie history. Clyde flashes Bonnie his gun. With acute sexuality, she strokes the gleaming barrel before taunting him that he "wouldn't have the gumption to use it."
As it turns out, she is partially right. While Clyde is a committed crook and expert marksman, he is an impotent lover. "Your advertisin's dandy!" Bonnie snaps after he spurns her advances. "Folks would never think you don't got a thing to sell!" Regardless, the frustrated couple periodically tries to act on their love, with predictably disappointing results. Much has been made of the film's connection between violence and sexual longing, but what often gets lost in the shuffle is the surprising level of tenderness and heartbreak of Bonnie and Clyde's relationship.
The chemistry between Dunaway and Beatty is palpable, and Penn heightens that tension throughout with intimate close-ups. In Clyde, Bonnie senses an opportunity to help her cast off the shackles of boredom and loneliness. Clyde, for his part, correctly sizes up Bonnie as sharing his thirst for something beyond their hardscrabble existence. Neither really achieves what they set out for, but they both share a desire that is universal. At the time of the movie's release, its defenders made tortured arguments that Bonnie and Clyde did not paint a sympathetic portrait of its outlaws. I don't buy it. Part of the film's brilliance is its seemingly effortless ability to humanize its gangsters.
The cast is tremendous. Beatty, who also produced Bonnie and Clyde, silenced doubters who had written him off as a pretty boy. He captures Clyde's curious mix of cockiness and childlike innocence. When a store robbery is cut short by a grocer with a meat cleaver, Clyde sounds like a hurt, exasperated child who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas. "I'm not against him," he whines to Bonnie afterwards.
Dunaway is even better. In the role that made her a superstar, she would never be more electrifying or sexy than she was here. Her Bonnie Parker is a powder keg of a character: ferocious, vulnerable, callous, sensitive. She is also the intuitive one in the relationship, the one who realizes they are doomed. Dunaway's performance is riveting.
But the leads were hardly alone. The stellar supporting cast included Gene Hackman as Clyde's brother Buck and Estelle Parsons (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) as Buck's hysterical wife, Blanche. And lest anyone forget, Bonnie and Clyde was the movie debut of a young Gene Wilder, who displayed his frazzled genius as a schlub whose car is stolen by the Barrow gang.
Beautiful -- just beautiful. Presented in its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, the newly remastered transfer is nearly flawless, boasting vivid colors, sharp lines and capturing the cinematographic greatness of Oscar-winning lenser Burnett Guffey.
The mono audio mix is adequate but nothing special. Optional subtitles are in French, Korean and English for the hearing-impaired.
With the exception of a teaser-trailer and theatrical trailer on Disc One, all the special features are found on Disc Two.
The crown jewel of the supplemental material is a retrospective by Laurent Bouzereau, Revolution: The Making of Bonnie and Clyde (1:04). The three-part documentary is comprehensive and informative, with Bouzereau gathering interviews with almost all the major players involved in the making of Bonnie and Clyde. Best of all, there is panoply of fascinating anecdotes. Pollard admits he borrowed his accent for C.W. Moss from Bob Dylan's countrified warble on the Blonde on Blonde album. L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hansen, a photographer in the mid-Sixties, recalls how he was allowed by Penn and Beatty to watch the film shoot in Texas. Penn reminiscences about how veteran cinematographer Burnett Guffey chafed against the director's filmmaking style.
A History Channel documentary, Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, chronicles the real-life saga of the Depression-era desperadoes. Suffice it to say, the filmmakers used some significant creative license in the big-screen version of events. Clocking in at more than 43 minutes, the doc boasts some great old photographs and interview subjects including Clyde Barrow's younger sister.
Also included are Warren Beatty wardrobe tests that run just past seven minutes. It's just what it says: Beatty tries on various outfits.
Two deleted scenes have an aggregate running time of five minutes, 22 seconds. Audio could not be recovered, so the clips are accompanied by subtitles lifted from the shooting script.
A bona fide American movie classic, Bonnie and Clyde finally gets the DVD treatment it deserves. While hardcore aficionados might be better-served to select the much more handsomely packaged ultimate collector's edition this two-disc special edition is easier on the pocketbook while delivering the same disc content. Regardless of which edition movie buffs opt for, this masterpiece warrants inclusion in the DVD Talk Collector's Series.