Friday, January 31, 2014

"Bonnie and Clyde" review

I didn't watch the A&E version of Bonnie and Clyde for the same reason I refused to watch remakes of Hairspray, The Shining and Footloose.

You can't top the original.

The big screen version of Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 was ground breaking, provocative and iconoclastic. This depiction of the infamous 1930s bank robbers struck the chord of 1960s counter culture with its themes of youthful rebellion, sexual freedom and senseless murder mirroring the casualties in Vietnam.

There was an amoral aspect to the film. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) were bank robbers and murderers, yet we liked them and sympathized with them. The anti-hero is  all over the edgy TV fare of today, but for  1960s movie audiences, used to Hollywood's old Hays Production Code, it was heavy stuff.

But those old ways were unraveling. Bonnie and Clyde reflected that.

Bonnie and Clyde were not even portrayed as dark characters. They were kind of goofy, likable and capricious. Clyde was a bumbling bank robber. For much of the film, he was impotent, telling Bonnie, "I ain't no loverboy." Yet, there was something smooth about him. In Beatty's hands...he had style. As Bonnie, Faye Dunaway was alluring. Totally smokin' hot and a tease. When she caresses Clyde's handgun, it stands in for a phallus, one of many phallic symbols in the film.

If a celluloid version of Bonnie and Clyde were made today, there would probably be graphic sex scenes. This film didn't need that. It captured the groove of the '60s sexual revolution on suggestion, alone.

Parts of the movie were fictional. For example, Bonnie didn't meet Clyde when he was trying to steal her mother's car as depicted in the movie. But that's okay. Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton wanted to tell a story and create a cinematic mood.

Director Arthur Penn shot the film primarily around rural back roads and primitive towns in the Dallas, Texas area that looked like the 1930s. Some scenes were shot in actual banks that the real Bonnie and Clyde robbed. There was a Grapes of Wrath feel to the story and scenery. In one scene, Clyde Barrow talks to a farmer whose home has been foreclosed by the bank. A view of the man's wife and child inside the truck looks like a Walker Evans photograph.

The 1930s Steinbeckian quality is there, casting banks as corrupt and against the poor folk. While robbing a bank, Clyde gives a farmer back the money the man had just given him - something that really happened. In a scene where they subdue a Texas ranger, Frank Hamer, played by Denver Pyle, Clyde tells him, "You oughta be helpin' poor folks instead of chasin' after us."

While it depicted the '30s and spoke to the nation's nostalgia for the era, the theme of non-conformists striking at The Establishment resonated with '60s culture. It was a moment short-lived.

Throughout the movie, there was a sense of doom hanging over the heads of Bonnie and Clyde. When they talked about the normal life they would live when this Depression was over, about what they would do differently if they were starting over, we know - they know - their ride is almost over. Reality sets in from the first moment Clyde kills a man and becomes more vivid, the deeper his gang gets in its crime spree.

The chaos that would come to consume the troubled lives of Bonnie and Clyde in their final days mirrored the societal breakdown, the violent, grenade throwing culture of the late '60s. Clyde's brother, Buck, (Gene Hackman) gets shot in the face. We see the blood, hear him in pain, hear the cacophonous screams of his wife Blance (Estelle Parsons) and Bonnie. Their dreams were dying, just as America's dream of living up to its ideals was disintegrating into violence and mass confusion.

When the gang visits Bonnie's mother, the scenes are shot slow motion with hazy, far away tones. We sense it's one last homecoming, a sad farewell.

From a Freudian aspect, it's noteworthy that when Clyde is finally able to make love to Bonnie, it's only after she has written a poem, published in the newspapers, predicting their demise. "...but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde." It speaks to what Freud called our subconscious desire for sex and death.

The violence had something audiences hadn't seen before in movies.
It looked real. We're desensitized  to violence today and we've lost touch with reality. But in 1967, it was shocking to see someone's face bloodied and flesh torn from gunshot wounds. I would say the graphic violence was warranted. Here were the consequences revealing how far the Barrow gang had fallen.

Also, the violence and deaths were timely. People were watching dead soldiers every night on the evening news. The film was a commentary on Vietnam where young men in the bloom of life were being brutally cut down. I'm sure there were right wing reactionaries at the time, cheering on the war -"blow em' to kingdom come" - while piously decrying the "immorality and violence" in Hollywood and popular culture. The audience member turned on to reality would see the connection.

A film that captures the zeitgeist of its time deserves to be watched and studied in any era. I really can't speak for the remake because I haven't seen it and don't care to, but I doubt that film students will be discussing it 40 or 50 years from now. The 1967 version may not be the definitive history, but it is the definitive film about Bonnie and Clyde.

This classic from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was played at various times in Bonnie and Clyde. It was anachronistic as the story was set in 1931 and the song wasn't recorded until 1948 or '49.  Still, the old timey sound complemented the film and the action well.

Gateway movies

Bonnie and Clyde was influenced by French New Wave style of filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Check out their work in films like: Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim and Breathless.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? - I read that impotence was a common theme in films from the 1960s. Obviously, I have to see more 60s films. I do know it was a theme in this Mike Nichols directed black comedy-drama about a drunken, volatile night at the home of a professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) as they entertain a younger couple, (George Segal) and (Sandy Denis). Excellent film

The French Connection - Gene Hackman won a best actor Oscar for his role as a New York City police detective. Roy Schneider played his partner. Based on a true story and a book, the two stumble on an international heroin smuggling operation and try to track down the source. The film won the best picture Oscar for 1971.

Chinatown - This 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski starred Faye Dunaway, John Huston and Jack Nicholson. A critique of greed and corruption, the story was based on California's "water wars" - disputes over water rights. The film revived the noir style of the 1940s.

Natural Born Killers - There were scenes in Bonnie and Clyde showing the pair as folk heroes, glorified in the press. It reminded me of this disturbing, controversial Oliver Stone film from 1994, starring Woody Harrelson and Juliet Lewis, as two young lovers who murder people and become mass media celebrities.

Gateway literature

I would be remiss not to recommend James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.