by Allan Fish
(USA 1967 111m) DVD1/2
We rob banks
p Warren Beatty d Arthur Penn w David Newman, Robert Benton ph Burnett Guffey ed Dede Allen md Charles Strouse m “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt & Scruggs art Dean Tavoularis cos Theadora Van Runkle
Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche Barrow), Michael J.Pollard (C.W.Moss), Dub Taylor (Ivan Moss), Gene Wilder (Eugene Grizzard), Denver Pyle (Capt.Frank Hamer), Evans Evans (Velma Davis),
Bonnie and Clyde is a phenomenon of a film, a movie that completely transformed the landscape of the American cinema, as well as the American landscape through the eyes of the cinema. No film before (and arguably since) has shown violence and murder with such realism, with such literally in-yer-face brutality. In short, it’s one of the true milestones of modern American film, a film that, along with The Graduate, The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy, lead to the collapse of censorship.
In 1931 Clyde Barrow has been released from prison for armed robbery and is on the verge of stealing a car. Suddenly he is hailed by a woman from an upstairs window, who he can see is both very young and very naked. She calls for him to hold on and she hangs out with him, finding out about his criminal past. But when she doubts he’s telling the truth, he commits a hold-up to impress her and they begin one of the most infamous crime sprees in American history, assisted along the way by their driver, a short former gas station attendant, and Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife Blanche.
For a film so wrapped up in iconography, it’s perhaps appropriate that this seminal sixties masterpiece created so much iconography of its own. The film was originally possibly to be directed by either François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, and their influence is certainly evident. There are undoubtedly essences of the nouvelle vague in the film’s energy (especially Pierrot le Fou) and it also borrowed heavily from the low-budget love on the run noirs of the forties, such as Gun Crazy. And if the eponymous pair were indeed incompetent bank robbers, they were certainly incredibly bold self-publicists, almost criminal exhibitionists who revelled in their infamy. Who can forget the shot of Dunaway’s Bonnie posing on the hood of their latest stolen car, disposable cigar in her lips, lopsided beret on her head, gun in her belt, and leg on the buffer (copied from the actual photo, her beret first borrowed by Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy)? The iconography even stretches to the use of music, with Charles Strouse’s magnificent use of the immortal Flatt and Scruggs piece forming the film’s heartbeat, occasionally punctured by the musical ditties of Warren and Dubin. Plus there’s the sun-kissed photography of Burnett Guffey, which captures the sleepy Midwest of the depression like no other, the pitch perfect editing of Dede Allen, and the unwavering direction of Arthur Penn, an often misguided director who here truly showed what he was made of.
Yet at the end of the day, it’s the cast one remembers. Pollard never matched his work here, Hackman is magnificent as Buck, the role that made him a star in the making, and Parsons deserved her Oscar as the hysterical Blanche. But who can look beyond the central duo? Beatty truly was never this good again. There’s a certain irony in his playing Barrow as impotent, his love of gunplay acting as a form of foreplay and sexual release (in much the same way as Jon Dall in Gun Crazy). Then there’s Dunaway, her 26 year old face lit up by Burnett Guffey’s camera. That immortal opening scene, with her naked in her room, prowling like a tiger in heat, her eyes full of lust and desperate for sex, pouting through the bars on her bed like a Tennessee Williams sexpot. The eyes that drive the film forward to that fateful and equally iconic finale as the characters convulse in almost orgasmic fashion under the fatal hail of bullets. “You aint gonna have a minute’s peace” Clyde tells Bonnie. “D’ya promise?” she replies. We promise you, peace isn’t in the offering but immortality most certainly is.