The mid-1960s were a particularly bleak time for Hollywood. There was the occasional enormous success, such as The Sound of Music, but audiences overall were dwindling, and the industry's increased reliance on visual spectacle proved devastating with a string of bloated misfires like Cleopatra. With aging studio moguls hopelessly disconnected from the audiences they hoped to reach, Hollywood turned to a new group of filmmakers -- a young bunch fascinated with the European New Wave and often boasting a counterculture bent. Jack Warner had little interest in embracing ambitious, taboo-shattering movies like Bonnie and Clyde, but when it and a handful of similarly daring movies quickly became enormous successes at the box office, the keys to the kingdom were handed over to these upstarts, ushering in the New Hollywood that would reign throughout the '70s.
Bonnie and Clyde plays fast and loose with the lives of Clyde Barrow and Miss Bonnie Parker, but as the saying goes, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend;" this mythicized take on the legendary gangsters is quite a bit more cinematic and compelling than what really happened anyway. The movie dives right in, opening as Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) inauspiciously meet for the first time. Clyde is fresh out of the state pen and nosing around a stretch of Dallas gasping for life in the wake of the Great Depression, interrupted by the vision of a naked Bonnie in her bedroom window before he can hotwire her mother's car. Bonnie's a knockout but doesn't have much else going for her, wholly aware that she's going to keep toiling away as a waitress, marry some schlub in a factory down the road, squirt out a couple of kids, and waste away in this sleepy little town. Bonnie picks up immediately that Clyde's hardly the master thief he passes himself off as, but that doesn't stop her. Tearing down the street in a stolen car and holding up a five and dime for kicks beats another shift forking another greasy burger over to another truck driver.
"We rob banks." Bonnie and Clyde proudly introduce themselves that way before they bother to knock over a single one, and even though they aren't exactly the Robin Hood type, their gang -- which swells to include mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman), and his high-strung wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) -- become folk heroes to poor farmers picked clean by the banks. The Barrow gang quickly becomes so legendary that they're blamed for robberies on the other end of the country, and even though they can barely stop to catch their breath and aren't remotely as flush with cash as their reputation might suggest, they're still having a hell of a time. It's a rude awakening as the five of them gradually realize that there's no going back...that they can be caught...that they aren't invincible.
I love Bonnie and Clyde. I love it as an armchair movie reviewer because it's so well-crafted, so daring, and so skillfully acted that I could spend hours dissecting every last frame and analyzing the film's enduring influence. Still, I appreciate it every bit as much as just a movie. Part of what I find so intriguing is the unconventional way Bonnie and Clyde approaches the two deeply flawed characters that lend the movie its title. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow aren't the usual grim, hardened criminals; they're deeply charismatic and a hell of a lot of fun to be around; even a couple of folks they kidnap on a whim have an unexpectedly great time on the lam with the Barrow gang until Bonnie's had her fill.
Bonnie and Clyde doesn't glamorize these two gangsters so much as leer at them with quiet fascination. They start off as naive, practically mischievous kids who rob and steal because...well, why not? It's the Depression, so they don't have too many options as it is, and knocking over whatever happens to be down the block makes for a better time than eight hours of honest work. None of them seem all that bright or ambitious, destined for dead-end jobs if they'd never picked up a pistol or a Tommy gun. Clyde and company are initially reluctant murderers -- shocked and horrified that someone would chase after them and force the gang to shoot 'em dead -- but with each shoot-out, the folks in uniforms ducking behind police cars stop being people and start becoming targets. Although its edge has tempered as time's gone on, Bonnie and Clyde was astonishingly violent for its time, and moments such as Clyde blasting away at a guard clinging to his getaway car and the window being spattered with his blood are still chilling today.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway infuse these characters with so much personality that it's borderline-impossible not to be intrigued by them. Their two gangsters are in love but aren't lovers, and even though Bonnie clings to all sorts of naive fantasies about leaving their life of crime behind in favor of white picket fences and a house next door to Momma, Clyde thinks of her more as a pretty accomplice than someone to hand a ring to on bended knee. The way Clyde's confident swagger masks his impotence...the fact that he's not some criminal mastermind and is more likely to knock over a grocery store in the middle of nowhere than some fortress of a bank...that underlying sense that as time goes on, Clyde knows he's a bungler with a lucky streak who's living on borrowed time...it's just a tremendous performance by Beatty. Bonnie and Clyde marks one of Dunaway's first lead performances, and she's wonderful as well, painting Bonnie as a sexually frustrated kid with an insatiable thirst for thrills and a romantic vulnerability she can't shrug off.
Bonnie and Clyde deftly juggles a smirking sense of humor with its groundbreaking violent streak, and its sharp wit makes the darkly dramatic moments that follow that much more piercing. It's so smart, so remarkably well-acted, and so artfully crafted that I can't help but be entranced. I see its influence in everything from The Wild Bunch to Badlands. This is undeniably one of the most important and enduring movies of the past fifty years, and it's such a thrill to be able to experience Bonnie and Clyde with the sterling high definition presentation that Warner Bros. has deservedly given the film on Blu-ray. The first of ten titles slated for release on Blu-ray this year in hardbound collectors' books, Bonnie and Clyde also boasts an hour long documentary by Laurent Bouzereau, a History Channel documentary on the real-life gangsters, and some vintage material dusted off from Warner's vaults.
Video: Bonnie and Clyde looks quite a bit better than I would've hoped for on Blu-ray, dramatically improved over the DVD that Warner first issued more than a decade ago and cleaned up extensively from the speckled high definition presentation still making the rounds on HDNet Movies.
Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded in VC-1, Bonnie and Clyde is immaculate. Admittedly, its cinematography doesn't sparkle in the same way that The Searchers or Casablanca does; some shots fall out of focus, there's a persistent veil of film grain throughout, and its palette is colorful but tends to emphasize browns and yellows. This is a movie, after all, with one key sequence shot through window screen to give the scene an ethereal, dreamlike quality. Maybe that doesn't make for showcase material on a high-end home theater rig, but it's an aesthetic that suits Bonnie and Clyde wonderfully. It's great to see that the film grain hasn't been smoothened away, and even though crispness and clarity aren't especially dazzling even for a vintage catalog title, the increase in detail over standard definition is immediately apparent. Facial textures in particular are strong, and even the tiny print in a briefly glimpsed newspaper is clear and legible.
The presentation is as perfect as I could ever have hoped to see. There are no compression artifacts at all, no trace of edge enhancement, and no sign whatsoever of age or wear. No studio has gone to the effort that Warner has with their catalog titles, and Bonnie and Clyde continues that impressive run.
Audio: The "hi-def sound" banner on the front of the case is somewhat misleading; Bonnie and Clyde features the same monaural, 192Kbps Dolby Digital soundtrack as the DVD re-release. While the lack of lossless audio or even a higher bitrate soundtrack may be disappointing to some, that probably wouldn't have made an appreciable difference in this case.
The monaural audio is fine but completely unremarkable. Dialogue sounds flat and slightly muffled but remains clearly discernable throughout. The jangly score and sound effects -- particularly the gunshots and explosions -- are a bit more full-bodied than I went in expecting, bolstered by a modest low-end. No distracting hiss or pops creep into the soundtrack. Bonnie and Clyde's audio comes through as a bit dated and shows some signs of strain, but I didn't find anything about it especially disappointing. Perfectly listenable.
There are no alternate soundtracks, although subtitles have been provided in English, French, Spanish, and Korean.
Extras: Bonnie and Clyde is the first of Warner Bros.' collectors' editions to be packaged in a hardcover book rather than the traditional blue keepcase. It's instantly striking, standing a half-inch wider and taller than the usual cases, and the 34 page booklet is teeming with production notes, cast biographies, vintage press clippings, retrospectives, and slews of black and white and full-color photos. While some collectors may grouse that the larger size of Bonnie and Clyde might seem out of place on a shelf next to other Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, I think this hardbound book case looks great, and I hope to see more of these from Warner Bros. in the coming months.
The first of the extras on the disc itself is the History Channel documentary "Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde" (43 min.). While the movie doesn't delve any further back into the gangsters' lives than the day they met, this biography follows the two of them from childhood to their brutal, bullet-riddled deaths. Told by a slew of authors, historians, and even Clyde's sister, "Love and Death" gives an impression just how much their story had been re-envisioned for the screen: Bonnie and Clyde both repeatedly shoved in and out of prison, Clyde being the second bank robber to hang off of Bonnie's arm, their completely different first encounter, and the additional flunkies that followed them around their predatory five state crime spree. This biography is on the dry side but is still worth a look.
Although Bonnie and Clyde doesn't sport an audio commentary, Laurent Bouzereau's three-part, hour long documentary "Revolution!" is so comprehensive that it's easily the next best thing. All of the lead actors contribute their thoughts and memories, including Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard, along with an impressively thorough assortment of the talent behind the camera. The documentary begins by noting the influence of the French New Wave on the script and how Francois Truffaut himself introduced actor/producer Beatty to the project. The first stretch of "Revolution!" continues by noting the homosexual undertones that had been trimmed out of the original screenplay, lengthy stories about casting, and a sense of the collaborative and occasionally good-naturedly argumentative tone of the set.
"Revolution!" continues by discussing the look of the film (for which cinematographer Burnett Guffey would take home an Academy Award), Bonnie and Clyde making the beret fashionable once again, its groundbreaking violence in the days before The Wild Bunch, its mythic take on these iconic gangsters and its disinterest in closely matching reality, its mixed response from critics and studio head Jack Warner alike, and how the movie roared to enormous success after barely escaping into theaters initially. "Revolution!" is incredibly thorough and just a tremendous amount of fun, tackling topics as varied as the tempo and frantic energy of its editing to Pollard wolfing down twelve burgers while shooting a scene with first-timer Gene Wilder.
Some vintage footage has also been mined from Warner's archives, among them eight minutes of Warren Beatty's wardrobe tests and a pair of deleted scenes. These two scenes -- which include scheming a bank robbery in spilled sugar over breakfast and a bridging scene with Bonnie in the bathroom with C.W. -- are subtitled from the original shooting script as the original audio stems have been lost. This additional footage runs five and a half minutes in total. Rounding out the extras are a couple of playful, charmingly dated trailers.
None of the disc's extras are in high definition and only the trailers are in anamorphic widescreen. Everything else, including the newly-produced Bouzereau documentary, is 4x3.
Conclusion: Bonnie and Clyde is a landmark film, marking a change of the guard in Hollywood and ushering in one of the industry's most creatively fruitful decades. It's important, yes, but Bonnie and Clyde is a hell of an entertaining movie in its own right, thanks to a smart script, a razor-sharp sense of humor, and an outstanding cast. For those who haven't seen Bonnie and Clyde before, it's an especially rewarding discovery on Blu-ray, and even established fans of the film should be impressed by the polish of its high definition presentation and the comprehensive documentary on the disc. Very, very Highly Recommended.