Written by David Newman & Robert Benton / Directed by Arthur Penn / Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard
“You’ve heard the story of Jesse James of how he lived and died,
if you’re still in need
of something to read
here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde”
– Beginning of a poem written by Bonnie Parker and published shortly before her death
Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers and presumes you will have already seen the film.
Roger Ebert said, “I don’t think people often go to the movie to have their ideas changed; but I do think they can go to the movies and have their feelings changed”. I was 12 years old when I went to see BONNIE AND CLYDE playing at the York theatre in Montreal. Until then, my theatrical experiences were limited to Disney movies, Julie Andrews musicals and the raciest thing I had seen on screen was Claudia Cardinale’s outfits in CIRCUS WORLD. From the moment the film opens, with a naked Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway in her third movie role) as seen through a gauzy curtain, looking trapped in a tiny bedroom to the climatic, violent end where our heroes die gruesomely in a hailstorm of bullets in (as described by screenwriter Robert Benton) “a masterpiece of a ballet of death”, I instinctively knew there was more to movies than Hayley Mills looking for her Siamese cat. It was my first exposure to “art” and it forever changed how I reacted to film. Needless to say, it took repeated viewings as an adult (from repertory theatres to VHS, DVD and Blu-ray) for the brilliance that is BONNIE AND CLYDE to fully set in as it is far beyond the ken of any 12-year-old.
Set in the Great Depression in the South, this is a gangster biopic loosely based on Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty, who also produced this movie) and Bonnie Parker’s exploits as small time crooks. The two move from town to town, stealing cars and pulling off small heists, when they first meet a slow witted gas station attendant, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard). Their first attempt together to rob a bank goes horribly wrong when C.W. parks the car instead of staying in the designated spot. In the confusion of trying to escape, a bank employee is graphically shot in the face through the glass window of the getaway car. Now wanted for murder, they are holed up in a motel where they are visited by Clyde’s ex-con brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his shrill, preacher’s daughter wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons who deservedly won the Oscar for best supporting actress). Now dubbed the Barrow Gang by local newspapers and painted as Depression era Robin Hoods when they allow one bank customer to hold onto his money, they are relentlessly pursued by the police and bounty hunters. Along the way, they briefly capture a mortician (Gene Wilder, screamingly funny in his screen debut) and his girlfriend and kidnap a Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) who is hell bent on revenge when they set him adrift on a boat, handcuffed, after he spits in Bonnie’s face when she kisses him for a photograph. After an ambush leaving Buck dead and Blanche captured, C.W. takes the gravely injured Bonnie and Clyde to his father’s house when a trap is set and ends in one of the bloodiest deaths in cinematic history.
It’s impossible to list the many movies that owe a debt to BONNIE AND CLYDE. From THE WILD BUNCH and BADLANDS to PULP FICTION and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and I would even argue Martin Scorsese’s and Oliver Stone’s careers are heavily influenced by this landmark classic that has not aged an iota since its theatrical release. Even the shootout in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is reminiscent of this movie. There are small scenes of such brilliance that, to this day, take my breath away: a sexually frustrated Bonnie dealing with Clyde’s impotence by unconsciously fondling a revolver. The Keystone Kops car chases scored to the banjo music by Flatt & Scruggs and then hearing that same soundtrack in the background in the horrific aftermath of violent scenes. This movie is as funny (C.W.’s father is more incensed that his son has a tattoo versus his association with murderers) as it is intense (Buck’s death to Blanche’s screams of “Daddy. Daddy” while the police circle his body and watch him die). Cinematographer Burnett Guffey’s masterful use of natural lighting – there is a scene in a cornfield where clouds briefly darken the surroundings that is sheer genius – won him an Oscar. And Director Arthur Penn (THE MIRACLE WORKER) elicits performances from Beatty, Dunaway and Hackman that deservedly made them Hollywood stars and icons while Parsons’ and Pollard’s work should be required viewing for anyone who studies the craft of acting.
BONNIE AND CLYDE remains as relevant today as it was when it was first unleashed unto an unsuspecting audience. It has an indie feel to it that was unheard of in 1967. I can think of very few movies that deserve to be called classics and it forever changed the way I feel and think about film.
BONNIE AND CLYDE screened as part of the new TIFF film series, Dreaming in Technicolor, at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The series runs through August 13 and features over 25 classics like REAR WINDOW, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and CHARADE. It launched on Friday, June 19, with the Gene Kelly masterpiece, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. For more information and for tickets, please visit tiff.net.