They just can’t kill Bonnie and Clyde. And yet, for anyone born after the release of Arthur Penn’s insurrectionist 1967 outlaw picture, this Molotov cocktail of a movie doesn’t pack the same flash it once did. Granted, with its amoral protagonists, unflinching violence and complex sexual dynamic, the film represents a seismic shift in Hollywood storytelling, but 40 years later, it stands as little more than a fossil of that revolution. The film was so effective at upending convention that its one-time novelty has long since been co-opted by the norm and polished by subsequent filmmakers, leaving the rebel statement looking downright square to contemporary eyes.
Now, by garnishing a new two-disc anniversary edition (simultaneously available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD) with an hourlong behind-the-scenes documentary, Warner Bros. serves to elevate the film’s own mythology to a level on par with its subjects. Editor Dede Allen recalls Penn’s initial desire to shoot in black and white, a plan the studio nixed, and observes, “In a way it was a good decision because I don’t think (the film) would have lasted the way it has had it been in black and white.”
But it is Allen’s work, more than the cinematography or violence or wink-wink style, which remains the production’s most vital element, still raw enough to perturb modern audiences: If the movie doesn’t make you angry, it simply isn’t working. Alternating between frisky, on-edge bursts and periods of near-total torpor, Allen’s skittish editing excuses unexplained ellipses (like the one that precedes Bonnie running off into the overcast cornfield) and allows for shocking cuts (such as the leap to Bonnie’s startled expression when she learns that Gene Wilder’s joy-riding bachelor is an undertaker) with little concern for shot-to-shot continuity.
From Hitchcock’s shower scene to Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence, editing has historically been where cinema inflicts its greatest violence, and yet “Bonnie and Clyde” achieves its first big shock in-camera when Clyde commits his first murder: “The code was that you could not fire at somebody and have them in the same frame get hit. You had to have a cut, and I designed that scene so that it would not have a cut,” remembers Penn, who rigged the shot so when Beatty fires, the window cracks and paint-red blood splatters the man’s glasses.
Even the finale — a virtuoso feat of montage Allen credits to assistant Jerry Greenberg — relies on practical tricks. The cutting is brutal, alternating between multiple cameras running at different speeds, but the violence is more than merely suggested: Penn broke from the stylized depictions of past films and introduced a sense of naturalism that transformed audience expectations forever.
It would take only two years before Sam Peckinpah raised such choreographed bloodletting to grand guignol levels with “The Wild Bunch,” but the tradition persists today, occurring everywhere from “No Country for Old Men’s” self-stitchery scenes to the gruesome hyperbole that saturates “Sweeney Todd.” It’s not fair to hold “Bonnie and Clyde” accountable for how widespread such imagery has become in today’s R-rated movies, but there’s no escaping the irony that the film’s calculated treatment of violence has, over the course of 40 years of imitation and influence, numbed contemporary audiences who think nothing of “Scarface” (the over-the-top Brian De Palma version) or “The Sopranos.”
Such a twist surely would have terrified New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, whose now-infamous attacks on “Bonnie and Clyde” (which arrived amid a series of jeremiads against on-screen violence) prompted Pauline Kael’s even more notorious rejoinder, “Too many people — including some movie reviewers — want the law to take over the job of movie criticism; perhaps what they really want is for their own criticisms to have the force of law.”
In a sense, the legend of these critical battles hold more excitement than the film itself: Crowther was put out to pasture by the end of the year, Kael leveraged her freelance essay for the New Yorker to win a post as the magazine’s lead film critic, Roger Ebert flipped for the movie during his first year on the job, and Newsweek’s Joe Morgenstern and Time’s Stefan Kanfer both reversed the knee-jerk dismissals published in their respective magazines (in Morgenstern’s case, that meant overturning his own initial review).
More than a few critics’ reputations were made or broken on a film that, today, seems to hold only marginal appeal for the under-30 set. So what was all the fuss about? Considering the sheer volume of fresh scholarship devoted to “Bonnie and Clyde” — ranging from Patrick Goldstein’s oral history for the Los Angeles Times (dutifully reproduced in the 32-page, booklet-style case of Warners’ new hi-def editions) to Mark Harris’ just-published in-depth survey of the 1967 best picture nominees, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it’s relatively easy to reconstruct the curious milieu into which the film was first released.
Deliberately conceived to be the first American stab at harnessing the wily style of the French New Wave (and expressly written for Francois Truffaut to direct), “Bonnie and Clyde” fully embraced the raucous, free-wheeling aesthetic of Hollywood’s overseas competition. Those films were themselves half-competent imitations of American genre cinema, which meant when “Bonnie and Clyde” tipped its haute couture fedora to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player,” it was indirectly referencing those classic American crime films, such as Nicolas Ray’s “They Live by Night” and Howard Hawks’ “Scarface,” that had inspired those French directors.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the countless imitators to follow in “Bonnie and Clyde’s” bullet-riddled wake certainly reinforce its place in the canon: For starters, the movie paved the way for the hail-of-gunfire ending of George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), the shameless exploitation of Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama,” the baroque hyper-stylization of Robert Aldrich’s “The Grissom Gang” (1971), the romantically self-destructive couple in Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) and the inevitable deconstructionism of Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” (1974), not to mention untold others.
Though critics were frequently dismissive of such semi-transparent imitators, each successive attempt sanded some of the edge off what had seemed so sharp and immediate to 1967 audiences. By the time I first encountered “Bonnie and Clyde,” not long after watching 1993’s “True Romance” (a Quentin Tarantino-scripted, “Badlands”-inspired couples-on-the-run homage that features Patricia Arquette stabbing James Gandolfini in the foot with a corkscrew), Penn’s film seemed downright tame by comparison.
For those who defended Penn’s film at the time of its release, the violence was a source of considerable concern. No doubt provoked by such social martinets as Crowther, Kael spends a good portion of her marathon essay defining the circumstances under which she finds violence to be appropriate; she frames the film itself as an elaborate “put on,” explaining that “the whole point of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is to rub our noses in (the violence), to make us pay our dues for laughing.” (As it happens, that laughter is one of the elements that ages least effectively, and entire sequences, such as the one in which C.W. Moss thick-headedly parks the getaway car during a robbery-in-progress, misfire entirely today.)
Viewed at a time when the very role of film criticism seems to be imploding, hurried into extinction by the democratic every-opinion-is-equal fallacy of the Web, there’s an undeniable fascination in the notion that critics had anything to do with the film’s success. Warner had no trouble rounding up eight raves from the picture’s Montreal Film Festival debut for its initial advertising, yet the reputation persists that Kael’s impassioned defense somehow revived the film’s fate (a view corrected in a record-straightening
It also discusses the ending, a virtual no-no amid the “spoiler”-averse sentiment that predominates popular criticism today. For years, Variety served as a lone exception to this rule, factoring a film’s resolution into the conversation and thereby documenting for posterity a reaction to how the film actually resolves itself (after marketing, easily the most reliable measure of its financial success). It’s perfectly understandable that readers should wish to preserve a certain virginity before seeing any given film, but after taking in movies such as “No Country for Old Men” or “There Will Be Blood,” they actively seek out insights into endings politely left undiscussed in print — a conversation that has since shifted to the realm of blogs and message boards online, fast becoming the great watercoolers of the world.
Still piqued by issues raised by the film’s violence a full 40 years after Crowther, A.O. Scott recently took up the subject in The New York Times, equating the debate to the current uproar over so-called “torture porn” (a genre few realize actually predates “Bonnie and Clyde,” courtesy of such European extremists as Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci). “Even the most bloodthirsty moviegoer would be likely to leave a real fusillade like the one at the end of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ sickened and traumatized, rather than thrilled,” Scott wrote, acknowledging Penn’s aim “to push the pretense — the art — as close to trauma as possible.”
At stake was the “tasteful” depiction of violence, a preposterous notion still debated now as (some) critics embrace the emotional terrorism of “Reservation Road” (in which a family spends the movie suffering the loss of a child killed off-camera) or “Rendition” (where a literal-minded critique of U.S. government-sponsored torture is somehow deemed more respectable than horror-movie metaphor), while attacking the explicit — yet clearly artificial — depictions to be found in “Hostel: Part II” or “Funny Games U.S.” (both direct indictments of whatever urge compels audiences to watch sadistic horror movies in the first place).
But could any 21st-century viewer watch “Bonnie and Clyde” today and chuckle through the couple’s banjo-scored hijinks, only to be “slapped” (to use Kael’s metaphor) by the grisly wakeup call lurking in its final scene? For that matter, could anyone, then or now, conceivably be expected to enter the film ignorant of the couple’s eventual fate? Surely contemporary audiences watch “Bonnie and Clyde” with a certain growing anticipation, looking forward to that infamous finale — however much that might offend the sensibilities of Scott, who concludes with the grim “suspicion that … Bosley Crowther was right.”
If anything, the surest way for anyone born after 1967 to know the movie is working is if the tension becomes so great they actually feel for the doomed characters — an increasingly hard feat today, since Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are now saddled with all the associations their stardom evokes, making it relatively impossible to think of them as anything more than movie stars playing dress-up.
Still, the film remains so firmly entrenched in the canon that Penn may observe, “It hasn’t aged. … You see it today, and it sort of invents itself before your eyes,” in the mini-doc, safe in the assumption that no one will cry foul. The picture’s impact is undeniable, and the extras do an admirable job of retracing the film’s conception, production and release, but the fact remains that the film’s primary appeal is now historic.
The revolution has passed, and Morgan Fairchild, who grew up in Texas and played Dunaway’s driving double in the film, is closer to the truth when she predicts, “Now kids look at it, and it would probably seem pretty tame.” Tame? No, but these days Clyde Barrow isn’t the only one struggling with impotence (a conceit easily winked away by Beatty’s offscreen reputation) — but the concern isn’t nearly so fashionable when faced by the movie itself.