“I'm not good ... I'm the best.”
The cavalcade of classic movies being released on Blu-ray seems to know no bounds at the moment. We've had such great war films as Patton, The Longest Day, The Sand Pebbles and A Bridge Too Far, westerns beginning to get a look in with The Professionals and thrillers blasting in with the epic Dirty Harry series and now Arthur Penn's deliriously delinquent, genre-shaping moral-smasher, Bonnie And Clyde, bullies its way onto the format. Already released on US BD, this review is for the UK edition.
Famously, 1967's ferocious groundbreaker very nearly sank without a trace, jittery Jack Warner, head of the illustrious studio, hated the picture so much that he sought to distribute it only to the death sentence of drive-ins. Only star and producer Warren Beatty, who played the Clyde half of the titular lover/outlaws, had the clout and persuasive tactic of allegedly begging on his knees for a proper release. But even when he was granted his wish, the anti-establishment thrill-ride that David Newman and Robert Benton had adapted from the real-life crime and killing-spree that the couple went on during the Depression met with complete and utter vitriol and ridicule. Its Montreal premier resulted in noted critics lambasting it and the punters avoiding it like the plague. A combination of ultra-violence and murderous hedonism mixed with a kind of romantic melancholia took the audiences completely by surprise and, even before contemplating whether they actually liked it or not, the dye was seemingly set. Until Beatty, desperately proud of the project and determined that the world would come to its senses eventually, got down on his hands and knees again and pleaded for another release that would bring it wider appreciation. He even offered to buy the rights for the film, himself, and arrange its own distribution so convinced was he that Bonnie And Clyde, or at least their cinematic incarnation of them, had the power and the style to captivate and still win the day.
His gamble paid off.
A underground seedbed of fans had already grown. Women were sporting the beret and retro-chic of Faye Dunaway's elegant femme fatale Bonnie Parker and the Americana-cum-folksy score from Flatt And Scruggs had kicked up a storm and become a hit. Begrudgingly, Jack Warner had to sit back and watch as his pet-loathing went on to literally rake it in at the box office, and then go on to earn itself a staggering ten Academy Award nominations - subsequently bagging two of the golden statuettes. So what was it about Bonnie And Clyde that rankled so many and still won the enduring adulation of the masses? What was it that turned the simple and nasty tale of a couple of amoral robbers into a critically lauded cult favourite?
Star power is certainly one of the biggest ingredients. Yet, even here, there is much that is considerably atypical of the genre and the giddy, over-the-edge performances from both Beatty and Dunaway seem purposely designed to have shattered the mould and rocked society. What was shocking at the time was how darn likeable the two are. They commit murder and robbery and collectively flip the bird at the law - and we are along for the ride. We don't get a second to care about their victims and, in fact, all we care about is the villains. In 1967, this audience-association with the bad guys was pretty much unthinkable. Remember, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was still just around the corner and even if Sergio Leone's spaghettis had turned the conventional western ideal of good and bad right on its head, they were so far removed from reality that Joe Public couldn't feel implicated or guilty in any way for enjoying the spectacle. But Bonnie And Clyde was different. Despite some over-romancing of the real folkloric outlaws, they weren't Robin Hood. And when Dunaway and Beatty, Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard first started blasting away and tearing off into the sunset accompanied by the frenzied high-comedy banjo-twangling of the score, the first wave of viewers couldn't help but feel affronted by such an unexpected twist. Hell, the cops depicted in this were complete idiots! Who were they supposed to be rooting for? A trip to the movies wasn't supposed to be so glibly confrontational, so morally ambiguous. For the first time since Psycho, the happy-go-lucky punters were being forced to acknowledge the humanity, wit and charm of those who dwelt on dark side. It was a huge culture shock, the ripples of which are still being felt nowadays with things like Lock, Stock, Snatch, Heat and The Usual Suspects crossing the divide between hero and villain without fear of metaphor, allegory or critical backlash.
Its politics were incendiary, its cinematics a revelation.
The strong ensemble cast - a lot of them unfamiliar on the big screen - worked wonders with a script that took the side of the bandit and stuck a gun-barrel in the nose of the establishment and the statutes it had once used to drive the common man into the ground. Many claim that the film's wrong-side-of-the-tracks stance was based in anger at America's involvement in Vietnam, but I find this an all-too easy opinion to fall back on. The real Bonnie And Clyde weren't looking at the bigger picture despite the public consciousness using their escapades for social rantings about injustice. And Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway depicted their stylised account of what took place in the sleepy states of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana with the revisionist insight of those whose creativity rose far above such trite and obvious connections. For them, it was the character and the mood of the tale that mattered, not the prevailing wind of social finger-pointing.
Love was at the heart of the story. And bullets - a whole lotta bullets.
Warren Beatty plays the role of career-criminal Clyde Barrow magnificently. Cock-sure and arrogant at times, he is nevertheless a thoroughly engaging character. Defiant yet vulnerable, brazen yet prone to panicky self-doubt and, in terms of his sexual inadequacies, wracked with frustration and angst. This is a strange role to have taken on and one that was probably way ahead of its time. Kudos must go to Beatty - who, I will acknowledge, is not normally within ten miles of a list entitled Greatest Actors as far as I am concerned - for tackling such a roguish and complicated character study. He was even agreeable to the original screenplay's depiction that Clyde should be bisexual, which, given the era in which the film was made, was quite a courageous move for such a bankable star. Naturally, the true aggression of Clyde Barrow is toned down in favour of a more personable, romantic figure. Beatty's Clyde is a victim of circumstance, but he is most definitely not as happy killing people as his real-life inspiration. But two moments of all-out rage do take us by surprise by their sudden intensity. The first, when the excellent Denver Pyle, as the unlucky Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (not Hammer, as he likes to point out) ends up as an unwilling accomplice to the Barrow Gang's penchant for photo-snapping spits in Bonnie's face and Clyde goes almost ballistic. The second, towards the end, when, after a fatality very close to home, a bandaged-up Clyde throws a revenge-fuelled tantrum on the porch of C.W.'s house. Beatty's hurt pride and wild nature rise to the fore with startling conviction.
“Whatcha y'all do for a good time round here ... listen to the grass grow?”
“I guess you had a lot more fun up at the State Prison, huh?”
Dunaway is effortlessly gorgeous and erotically charged throughout the entire film - something that the initial critics had a hard time dealing with, too. Her first scene, cavorting nude and bored in her bedroom before catching Clyde, a complete stranger to her at this point, trying to steal her mother's car, is a fabulously groundbreaking introduction. There is also an element of the French New Wave style that Warren Beatty was so infatuated with when we see Dunaway banging the brass bedstead and then widening those impossibly captivating eyes as she stares through the ominous bars of the headboard, just waiting for inspiration. Her take on the character is stunning. Bold and energetic, sensual and scheming, she nevertheless allows Bonnie to come a cropper when Clyde's aggravating sister-in-law winds up joining their crew. The sparring between herself and Estelle Parsons' Blanche is priceless but you see the underlying resentment at not being able to have Clyde all to herself cracking that confident vixen's veneer. The premonitions of disaster and death take hold later on during the amazingly funny jokey-joy-ride-cum-kidnapping of the wonderful Gene Wilder (in his first, but awesomely assured big screen role) and his girl, Velma, played by Evan Evans (!). Upon discovering that Wilder's character, Eugene Grizzard, is actually an undertaker, the whole gravity of their constant flirtation with death is suddenly rammed home to her and all the ice-breaking fun of the delinquent party taking place over burgers and French fries on the backseat is abruptly cut short. Dunaway's haunted outlook becomes one of the most touching frissons in the film, its power egged-on by her sultry pout beneath eyes that have seen too much and a doomed demeanour that, somehow, makes her even more attractive. I love the fact that she knows there is no way out for them, but that so long as they are together, Bonnie and Clyde will love one another forever and, in death, find the glory and the escape that they both longed for.
Michael J. Pollard delivers one of what was to become his trademark odd-ball performances as C.W. Moss, a simple guy plucked from being a nobody working at a gas station to becoming one of the Barrow Gang's most dependable members. His plain dumb-hick act is as endearing as those quirky mannerisms and that sleazy-dreamy voice. Gene Hackman, in an equally early role, plays Buck Barrow with a sense of humour - that joke about the cow gets better the more he tells it - a forgiving nature and a code of propriety. He knows full well that his wife Blanche is a screechy pain in the ass, but it is abundantly clear that he loves her and would never dream of leaving her behind. Hackman doesn't really provide us with much of the attitude and raw, knowing depth that he would later become a master at, but there is a whole heap of charisma on offer with his energetic and enthusiastic adherence to the Gang's antics. For her part, Estelle Parsons, who would actually receive an Oscar for her portrayal of the annoying Blanche, is wonderful - in that she does, truly, annoy. Her maniacal shrieking and hollering may be justifiable under the circumstances of an ambush with a horde of bullet-blazing cops, but even Buck deserves a medal for patience for not shooting her in the head as her voice effectively drowns out the gun-battle. It is worth mentioning, as well, that Parsons does extremely well when it comes to the more poignant aspects of the script and, as irritating as she has been throughout the film, there are a couple of overwrought and moving moments once events have taken a far nastier turn. A creepy sequence in the police cell when an old acquaintance that she can't see through her bandages comes to pay her a visit is extraordinarily potent and provides eeriness and tragedy in the same mesmerising moment.
“Wait till I get my hands on them, Velma! I'm gonna tear 'em apart!”
“What if they have guns, Eugene?”
“Listen ... er ... we better get the police and let them handle this ...”
The violence, as gratuitous as it was once deemed, is actually nowhere near as devastating as you may remember it. Sure, there are policemen getting blown away with almost merry abandon, but Penn's delivery of such scenes does not, and this is where most of those original critics and detractors got it completely wrong, celebrate or sensationalise them. The most violent scene, I think, is early on when Clyde, simply getting the groceries - albeit it at gunpoint - is forced to wrestle with an ogre of a bloke armed with a meat-cleaver. Yet Penn manages to make this scene both wildly kinetic and overtly buffoonish at the same time, diluting the savagery. In this way, I suppose, he is quite subversive. The man wielding the cleaver is just protecting the store and therefore a good guy - yet we are on poor Clyde's side, who has now given up on the supplies and just wants to escape. The bloodletting is obviously tame by today's standards and that 18 certificate - despite the moral question mark hanging over the potential hero-worship of criminals - seems a little harsh. However, beckoning-in the glorious pre-CG days of exploding squibs and blood-bags, Bonnie And Clyde provides a couple of historic standouts. The infamous body-perforating finale is obviously the main example, but check out the great, and incredibly messy instant when a cop's bullet chews through Clyde's arm as he is driving insanely around a perimeter of barking guns trying to punch a way out. Both Sam Peckinpah and makeup supremo Tom Savini were undoubtedly inspired.
Bonnie And Clyde is also fondly remembered for its many car chases. The old-style sedans and jalopies roaring around the towns and the rural backwaters look fantastic and that vintage image from all those early gangster flicks of gun-barrels poking out of windows and popping off wild shots through the dust and the sound of screaming brakes is richly nostalgic. It is also extremely clever how Penn adjusts the tone of his frequent action scenes from what could be veritable slapstick to suspense-filled adrenal-rush in the blink of an eye. This approach is certainly guaranteed to keep you on your toes. Thus, Bonnie And Clyde gets a definite thumbs-up from me. It didn't just come along to tell a quintessential tale of the dark underbelly of the American Dream, it deliberately chose to shatter the cosy cinematic medium at large and take its audience on a thrill-ride to the shadowy hinterlands between good and evil ... and have a whole lot of fun doing it.
Cool, iconic and still packing a punch, Arthur Penn's adaptation of Warren Beatty's cherished project is required viewing.
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