Promised a Movie Moment yesterday on Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), and here it is. The night that I first saw this film is one of those instances that really stands, clear, head and shoulders above others in my mind. I was a sophomore in high school and my father and I had got takeout Chinese food and rented Bonnie and Clyde some weekend when my mother was doing some church lady thing (now I’m a church lady, too … time marches on). As an already solid gold Daddy’s Girl, when my father told me it was “a very important movie,” and that “you will love it,” I was set with anticipation. Also, I really like Chinese food.
I had already read, a few years earlier, a good-sized, detailed book about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker that I’d picked up at a thrift store. Lots of pictures, reprints of Bonnie’s poems, the whole nine. But what I saw was not what I remembered reading. I was surprised at the many deviations in the screenplay from the true accounts of their partnership and crimes that I’d read, yet I found the movie so absorbing and excellent, such a blend of glamour and grit, that I didn’t mind the liberties at all. I was totally taken with it — especially Faye Dunaway and her costumes and styling. Dad warned me to look away at the end, but of course I didn’t, and I gaped at the dancing corpses. This, I knew, was accurate, but to see it on the screen brought the unbelievably vivid violence of it to a shocking level that my imagination had not reached when I only read about their deaths. I thought then, and think now, that it’s one of the best movies ever made.
But not everyone shares my view. Especially initially, some critics outspokenly hated Bonnie and Clyde:
It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
(“Movie Review: Bonnie and Clyde.” Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times. 14 April 1967.)
Such ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperados were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren’t reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort.
Oh, noes. Violence. That has no place in a movie.
Arthur Penn, the aggressive director, has evidently gone out of his way to splash the comedy holdups with smears of vivid blood as astonished people are machine-gunned. And he has staged the terminal scene of the ambuscading and killing of Barrow and Bonnie by a posse of policemen with as much noise and gore as is in the climax of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
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.
“As pointless as it is lacking in taste because it makes no valid commentary on the already travestied truth.” Let’s explore that criticism, shall we?
According to statements made by [posse members] Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn:
“Each of us six officers had a shotgun and an automatic rifle and pistols. We opened fire with the automatic rifles. They were emptied before the car got even with us. Then we used shotguns … There was smoke coming from the car, and it looked like it was on fire. After shooting the shotguns, we emptied the pistols at the car, which had passed us and ran into a ditch about 50 yards on down the road. It almost turned over. We kept shooting at the car even after it stopped. We weren’t taking any chances.”
The lawmen then opened fire, killing Barrow and Parker while shooting a combined total of approximately 130 rounds. Barrow was killed instantly by [an] initial head shot, but Parker had a moment to reflect; Hinton reported hearing her scream as she realized Barrow was dead before the shooting at her began in earnest. The officers emptied the specially ordered automatic rifles, as well as other rifles, shotguns and pistols at the car, and any one of many wounds would have been fatal to either of the fugitives.
Officially, the tally in Parish coroner Dr. J. L. Wade’s 1934 report listed seventeen separate entrance wounds on Barrow’s body and twenty-six on Parker’s, including several headshots on each, and one that had snapped Barrow’s spinal column. So numerous were the bullet holes that undertaker C. F. “Boots” Bailey would have difficulty embalming the bodies because they wouldn’t contain the embalming fluid.
So … maybe that outburst of unthinkable retributive violence on the side of the law had a little something to do with the film’s objectionably grisly ending? Just a very, very belated thought for the late Mr. Crowther, who I must add with real respect was an esteemed and important critic in his time — pretty much until this review. All the cool kids stopped listening to him and assumed he was part of the stuffy establishment, and his reputation suffered. I think he really was not ready for this picture, is all.
Contrary to how he comes off in the review owing to our modern hindsight, Bosley Crowther had a very open mind, wrote against HUAC as curtailing art and freethinking, a brave and dangerous thing to do in the 1950s, and praised films with strong social content while disdaining jingoism and oversimplification of political ideas. Mr. Crowther insisted on the relevancy of foreign film to English-speaking audiences and did great things for the careers of some of my favorite overseas directors, including Fellini, Bergman, and Roberto Rossellini. That — to me — pitch-perfect mix of braggadocio and embellishment, expositorily satirical idealism, and vérité in Bonnie and Clyde, together with the innovative cinematic discourse which has been cited as ushering in a new era in Hollywood, just seems to have put him over the edge.
In any case, Bosley Crowther was not the only reviewer who found himself initially less than thrilled by Bonnie and Clyde.
Beatty, playing the lead, does a capable job, within the limits of his familiar, insolent, couldn’t-care-less manner, of making Barrow the amiable varmint he thought himself to be. Barrow fancied himself something of a latterday Robin Hood, robbing only banks that were foreclosing on poor farmers and eventually turning into a kind of folk hero. But Faye Dunaway’s Sunday-social prettiness is at variance with any known information about Bonnie Parker.
(“Cinema: Low-Down Hoedown.” Time. 25 August 1967.)
Variety disagreed with Time‘s slight of Faye Dunaway, saying
Like the film itself, the performances are mostly erratic. Beatty is believable at times, but his characterization lacks any consistency. Miss Dunaway is a knockout as Bonnie Parker, registers with deep sensitivity in the love scenes, and conveys believability to her role.
(“Film: Bonnie and Clyde.” Kaufman, David. Variety. 9 Aug 1967.)
Overall, however, Mr. Kaufman pans the film, saying,
Warren Beatty’s initial effort as a producer incongruously couples comedy with crime … Conceptually, the film leaves much to be desired, because killings and the backdrop of the Depression are scarcely material for a bundle of laughs. … This inconsistency of direction is the most obvious fault of Bonnie and Clyde, which has some good ingredients, although they are not meshed together well. … Arthur Penn’s direction is uneven, at times catching a brooding, arresting quality, but often changing pace at a tempo that is jarring.
Fortunately, not everyone agreed, and more and more people began to “get” the picture. By the time Oscar season rolled around, Bonnie and Clyde received an impressive ten Academy Award nominations and secured two wins. Burnett Guffey received the Oscar for Best Cinematography and Estelle Parsons won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Blanche, Clyde’s sister-in-law. The other nominations included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Dunaway), Best Actor (Beatty), Best Supprting Actor (both Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard), Best Original Story and Screenplay, and Best Costume Design.
1967 was a banner year for films — some of the movies to which Bonnie and Clyde lost the Oscar were Coolhand Luke, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, The Graduate, and In the Heat of the Night. I said goddamn; what a year.
Modern critical reception of Bonnie and Clyde places it in the category of top films in Hollywood history, a landmark picture not only in the business and art of making movies, but also in the career of director Arthur Penn, whose death yesterday prompted this Movie Moment.
Bonnie and Clyde developed the aesthetic that marked Penn’s high-visibility period: slyly accented, harmonica-hootin’, harvest-gold-patchwork Americana; ever-poised violence; and an open invitation to apply the story as a flexible allegory for the issues of the day.
(“Anthology takes a tour of the Bonnie and Clyde director’s America.” Pinkerton, Nick. The Village Voice. 12 Nov 2008.)
Going back to my own reflections at the beginning of this entry, when I saw the film again in college (after which I regularly re-watch it now), I was able to crystallize exactly why the changes in the screenplay from how the real-life story played out so imperturbed me.
The accuracy of the facts being related is not as important as the yarn being spun, and that yarn needs to be by turns a little soft-focus with family, a little jump the crick in a jalopy while banjos play, a little sexy and simultaneously innocent, teeming with tinfoil chicken and mishaps and stolen laughs besides stolen money, in order for the juxtaposition with the sharp reality of the consequences of that story’s heroes’ actions. Not just at the end, but throughout the film there are these jarring standoffs and murders that shoot the child’s balloon of the idea of what’s happening right out of the sky and back in to the reality of what is happening — and its inevitable conclusion.
Besides that most of the changes between the real story and the script make the tale tighter and better solidify characterization, the embellishments and inflated sense of ego in the main characters and in the cinematic discourse with which we are presented are important to the overall type of story being told. The grand Depression-era myth of the infamous lovers, robbers, and murderers Bonnie and Clyde, as Beatty and Penn have conceived and shot it, is more like the story that Clyde Barrow would have told to cellmates in prison. This is Bonnie and Clyde, so far as we can tell, as they saw themselves, something like folk heroes flying by the seat of their pants, living a ruthless dream and getting real scars from it. This version is a compelling and archetypal campfire story, like the epic outlaw poem that Bonnie Parker wrote about them while they were on the road, “The Trail’s End” (later renamed “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” by the press), excerpts from which I’d like to use to end this very long — but I think justly so — entry.
They don’t think they’re too smart or desperate,
They know that the law always wins;
They’ve been shot at before,
But they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.
Some day they'll go down together;
They'll bury them side by side;
To few it'll be grief —
To the law a relief —
But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.
(“The Trail’s End.” Parker, Bonnie. April 1933.)
R.I.P. again to Arthur Penn, who had the courage to make this fantastic piece of cinema his way and received just due for it within his lifetime. May we all be so brave, visionary, and fortunate.
All screencaps via the wonderful screenmusings collection.