Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Olde Review: Bonnie and Clyde

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the 1970's (I actually think I need to put the century in now). Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the snarky, opinionated, and woefully inadequate kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Friday's ASUW Films in 130 Kane may comprise the best double-bill, with one notable exception, in the entire series. They are Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Robert Benton's Bad Company.

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) Bonnie and Clyde caused quite a stir when it was released in 1967. It was one of the first gangster movies, at least within most casual movie-goer's memories (which isn't much) to treat these people not as psychopaths, but as ordinary people who were caught in the Depression's whirl-pool and didn't know any other way to fight it. In other words, it attempted to de-mythologize the Barrow Gang. Unfortunately, the film created as many myths as it debunked. But then what else can you expect when you have two "beautiful people" like Warren Beatty (who does a fine impression of Warren Oates*) and Faye Dunaway (whose acting wasn't equaled here until Chinatown in 1974).

William Bayer in his book "The Great Movies"** has said "what is also personal about Bonnie and Clyde, and constitutes its unique flavor is its curious blending of comedy and horror, its romanticization of crime as something that is fun, and that also leads to violent, bloody death. Bonnie and Clyde is both real and abstract, a gangster-movie and a comedy-romance. It is a comedy that turns dark, a romance that ends with death."
Death in Bonnie and Clyde is of an explicit nature. It was the first popular film to use the modern film technology to present a heightened violence that created the trend that is still going on today. Of course, no one forgets the slow-motion slaughter of the two at the end--"the dance of death"--it's dream-like quality, because Death's constant presence in their lives has turned it into a dream. Slo-Mo violence has been used after ad infinitum with no imagination and less effect.***
There are other moments: the first violent death of a clerk;**** the performances of Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael Pollard, Denver Pyle and Dub Taylor; Bonnie's escape in a corn field; the death of Gene Hackman; the comedic perfection of Evans Evans and Gene Wilder (in his first movie); and probably, best of all, the reunion with Bonnie's parents before their world falls apart.
Yeah, it is Arthur Penn's finest film. Borrowing from the past, but also using his own sense of cinematic imagery, Penn has made a complete, whole film--something that can't be said of his Little Big Man, Night Moves, or The Missouri Breaks with their only occasional moments of brilliance.


Maybe the reason Penn was so successful with Bonnie and Clyde is the material he had to work with--the script by Robert Benton and David Newman.***** Newman and Benton wrote it hoping that Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard would direct it. Arthur Penn was extremely lucky that they were unavailable. The two later scripted There was a Crooked Man, and, with Buck Henry, co-scripted What's Up, Doc? In 1972, after writing for others and seeing them reap all the laurels, Benton-Newman wrote a script and Benton got to direct it, It was called Bad Company and in many ways it's a better film than Bonnie and Clyde.
Broacdcast on KCMU-FM January 20th, 1977




* I sense "snark" there. I don't think it was related to Oates playing Dillinger in 1973—a film that owes a lot to Bonnie and Clyde, one should mention—but, rather the hyper roles that Oates played in the early 1960's. If you watch Dillinger (which came out six years after Bonnie and Clyde), with Oates as the titular gangster, you'll notice that he plays his role with more gravitas. It's the difference between Oates changing his intensity from a supporting actor getting himself noticed to a star role where there is more depending on the lead.
** Sadly, out of print, and not to be confused with Roger Ebert's "The Great Movies" series of books. Bayer's book was a fairly non-controversial heavy tome with well-written appreciations and beautiful photographs. I've still got it, and still treasure it. I became acquainted with Ebert's two-book series over a weekend, and found them both very enjoyable in Ebert's typically "personal-relationship-with-the-movies" style. All totaled, before his death, he increased the number of "must-see" movies to 379. You can find the list here. *Sigh* No rest for the wicked.

*** The thing that makes Bonnie and Clyde's death-scene in under-cranked motion so well-done (as opposed to most that came after) can be attributed to the editing of Dede Allen, whose scrupulous work for Penn and Sydney Lumet, raised it above the typical use of slow-motion, which is generally used for exploitation purposes. I might have been harping on Sam Peckinpah at the time I made this point, but, despite his reputation, even he only used flashes of slow-motion amidst a fast edited sequence to highlight a story-point, or prolong a moment of shock. Nowadays, the "dance of death" sequence (as it became known) looks a little tame compared to today's cinema carnage. It's still arresting, though.
****Based on a similar shot in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin--folks were getting into film-school references at this point, and I think it marks the bifurcation point where directors stopped drawing inspiration from life and, instead, drew inspiration from other movies—to the medium's detriment, I think.
*****Benton-Newman also wrote the book for "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," the short-lived Broadway musical, which paved the way for them working on the re-writes of Mario Puzo's scripts for Superman and Superman II. Benton went on to direct such great films as Kramer vs. Kramer (which won the 1980 Best Picture Oscar), and my favorite of his films, Places in the Heart.


Tomorrow: Bad Company

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