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Saturday, April 12, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director: Arthur Penn
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman

Any way you look at it, Bonnie and Clyde marks an important moment in American cinema. This is a watershed film, one that brutally wrenched itself free of the taboos traditionally enforced by Hollywood. Graphically violent and centering on a relationship where gender roles are inverted, it proved to be critically polarizing, and Warner Bros. more or less divorced itself from the film… that is, until the people declaring it a masterpiece began to outnumber those declaring it an abomination. Its place in the canon of American cinema is now firmly set, and forty years after its release, it remains a startling and thrilling film to watch.

The film begins with the first meeting of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), when she spots him looking like he’s about to steal her mother’s car. By this point, Bonnie has already been established for us as a restless spirit, as she sulks around her bedroom, hot and bothered by both the heat and boredom. She sees potential in Clyde, who dresses snazzily and has a vague sense of danger about him. Her intuition proves right and it isn’t long before Clyde has robbed and store and taken her on the run with him. The crime proves to be an aphrodisiac for Bonnie, who basically invites herself into Clyde’s lap as they’re in the process of making the getaway, but Clyde isn’t having any of that, and this is where the film really does become its own unique animal. The relationship between Bonnie and Clyde is, until well near the end of the film, platonically romantic. Bonnie loves Clyde and wants him; Clyde loves Bonnie but is impotent – an element which derives from the fact that the people behind the scenes were unwilling to let Beatty play Clyde as bisexual and this was the compromise that was reached. Many of the scenes between the two are marked by sexual frustration and by the inversion of traditional gender roles, as Bonnie is characterized as aggressively pursuing Clyde and Clyde is characterized not only by his passive inability, but also by his seeming lack of desire (in one scene, Bonnie informs Clyde that she wants to be alone with him. “I feel like we’re always alone,” he responds, oblivious to her meaning because he doesn’t connect to her in a sexualized way).

Along their travels, Bonnie and Clyde add a few members to their gang: C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) – the story’s Judas – and Buck (Gene Hackman), Clyde’s brother, who brings along his shrill wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons). Blanche and Bonnie prove to get along like oil and water, and Blanche’s presence causes problems between Bonnie and Clyde. Blanche, who doesn’t participate in the robberies, insists that she should get her own share of the loot, rather than having to share in Buck’s: “I coulda got killed same as everybody. And I’m wanted by the law same as everybody… I have to take sass from Miss Bonnie Parker all the time. I deserve mine.” Clyde, ever the diplomat, redistributes the money so that everyone, including Blanche, gets an equal share. What happens next is one of the most perfect and realistic moments ever captured on screen, when Clyde tries to hand Bonnie her new share, she stares daggers at him and then stops off, and Clyde just hangs his head, knowing that in his effort not to offend Buck, he’s royally pissed off Bonnie and now he’s going to pay for it.

At the time of its release – and, no doubt, even now – the film was accused of glorifying and romanticizing violence, which I don’t think is necessarily accurate even though the film was marketed in such a way as to play into that idea (tagline: “They’re young… They’re in love… And they kill people!”). It can certainly be argued that Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled end is one of the most glorious deaths in cinema, but I think that as a whole, the film really does work to demystify violence and separate it from romantic conceptions, underlying many key scenes with undertones that are initially comedic and then shifting suddenly to brutal, horrific violence in a way that leaves the audience unsettled. When people get shot in this movie, it hurts. They don’t just shake it off like super-human beings, as happens in most action films; they suffer from their injuries. In terms of the overall story, I think this film does a lot to de-romanticize the idea of love-on-the-run through both the graphic and frequent nature of its violence and the sexual frustration that marks Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship. It isn’t a pretty life they live together, and rather than being smooth, their relationship is depicted as being somehow unsatisfactory for both.

As Bonnie and Clyde, Faye Dunaway (who will forever have a free pass with me by virtue of being my favourite thing about three of my favourite movies – this one, Network and Chinatown) and Warren Beatty are perfect, neither shying away from the more controversial aspects of their characters. The supporting cast is excellent, even Estelle Parsons who spends much of the film shrieking and whining, which actually adds to the overall feeling of chaos. The direction of Arthur Penn is wonderful, drawing largely on European influences - most notably from the French New Wave - and creating a film that is at once distinctly American but at the same time distinctly unlike any other American film before it. If any one film can be credited for ushering in the auteur era that flowered between the end of the studio system and the beginning of the blockbuster “event” movie, this is it. It is a seminal American film.

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