Review: Bonnie and Clyde

One of the great films of the sixties, or any other decade, Bonnie and Clyde remains a monument to what Hollywood can offer when the stars align and a reminder of why Warren Beatty’s legacy stretches beyond his bedroom conquests.

This two-disc set not only offers up a pristine version of the film (beautifully remastered visuals, crisp sound) it also helps tell the tale of how it got made through an impressively mammoth cast of now, pretty much all award-winning or/and legendary, contributors, including director Arthur Penn, screenwriter Robert Benton, creative consultant Robert Towne, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, art director Dean Tavoularis, editor Dede Allen, all the principals (even Faye Dunaway, who was conspicuous by her absence from the Chinatown disc) and of course Beatty himself, on top form as he drily asserts: “I’m not sure if this is exactly how things actually happened but it’s certainly how I like to think they did…”

Back in 1967, Beatty was seen by some as a has-been pretty boy. Indeed an infamous Esquire profile of the time portrayed him as exactly that. Director Arthur Penn had just made the resolutely unsuccessful Mickey One. Gene Hackman, Michael J Pollard, Estelle Parsons and the rest of the cast were hardly basking in the glow of success. As Beatty observes: “Everyone connected with the movie knew they could do better…”

 

Beatty had to practically beg studio boss Jack Warner to greenlight the film (and, indeed Warner never warmed to it, trying to bury its release in drive-ins and bewildered by its subsequent success). Screenwriters  David Newman and Robert Benton, clearly inspired by the New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut, initially wanted  a French director not the lugubrious Penn. And the first, very European, draft had Clyde as bisexual.

All of which is fascinatingly essayed in the various documentaries included here. Made for the History Channel, ‘Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde’ offers some useful context and comparisons between Hollywood myth and reality (unsurprisingly, the real Bonnie And Clyde were somewhat less photogenic than Beatty and Dunaway) and has some startling contributors (including Clyde Barrow’s sister).

 

The trailers included show Warner Bros had no idea what they had, marketing the film like it was an extended episode of Batman the TV show, full of pop art colours and ludicrous exclamations (They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people!!)

But the stand-out is the excellent three-parter, ‘Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde’ which tells all the familiar tales, and a variety of lesser known gems about the production of the film and its tortured route to eventual success.

Of course, despite all this extras-goodness, the main event remains the film itself…

A punchy, jittery, wildly ambitious rewriting of American folklore and movie conceits, fueled by the times and tearing into the Hollywood rule book, Bonnie And Clyde helped usher in the era of the auteur, and still stuns today.

As movie pairings go, there are few better than the devilishly handsome, yet crucially impotent Clyde Barrow (Beatty), and the bored-out-of-her-brain, wild for change and desperate for love Bonnie Parker (Dunaway).  

 

Sweeping across an America hollowed out by the Depression and desperate for folk heroes, the tale of the infamous bank robbers starts in sunny, almost comic, tones as Barrow attempts to steal Mrs Parker’s car and ends up with her daughter. But, as the duo picks up a gang of misfits and miscreants (all admirably played by a cast that would go on to great success) the group become a metaphor for the disenfranchised and the misunderstood.

 

No wonder then, that on campuses across America, it was embraced by an audience tired of being offered bland ‘family entertainment’ on the big screen while seeing the Vietnam War unfold on their televisions.

The early sunshine hue of the film is slowly replaced with something altogether darker as the gang’s journey grows insidiously less comfortable, less romantic and less likely to end well. Dynamic set-pieces are followed by contemplative, naturalistic moments of quiet desperation and a rich melancholy.

 

Tearing up film clichés with each passing scene, Penn and Beatty serve their story well and in the process highlight the mediocrity of habit and the lack of ambition that had crept into the movies. By the time of the gang’s eventual demise, inevitable though it is, the slow motion bullets could almost be seen as ripping into the studio system itself.

 

Here was adult cinema, thrilling and provocative, brittle and unpredictable, full of sex and violence and modish sensibilities. Hollywood would never be quite the same again. Or at least, that’s how it seemed.

© 2020 by Aubrey Day.