Monday, February 15, 2010
Bonnie and Clyde
Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde is well-known as one of the first films to bring a new, tougher sensibility to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, a sensibility that would come to define the new American cinema as the 60s transitioned into the 70s. It is an openly violent and sexualized vision of the famous criminal couple, testing the boundaries of screen representation. This is apparent right from the opening scene, in which Faye Dunaway's Bonnie lounges around naked in her room, then sees Warren Beatty's Clyde outside trying to boost her mother's car. Penn's camera does a clever little dance insuring that Dunaway shows plenty of skin without really revealing anything, as jagged jump cuts slice away whenever her motion within the frame threatens to bring her nudity across the line of acceptability. The jump cuts also stagger a closeup of Bonnie's face as she pounds on her bedpost in frustrated boredom; the jittery editing of this scene both enhances the sense of the character's anxiety and calls attention to the teasing nudity. It's an announcement that the film is going to be all about pushing boundaries, toying with the kinds of things that would have been censored in earlier eras. Penn's jump cuts also announce the influence of the French New Wave on this new Hollywood aesthetic — and indeed, both Truffaut and Godard had been associated with the film before Penn took over as director — but the bigger influence seems to be the simple desire to do things that wouldn't have been possible just a few years earlier.
The result is that Bonnie and Clyde is both startlingly modern and very of its time. Its modernity is most apparent in the performances of Beatty and Dunaway, who carry the film and bring edge and grit to their romanticized gangster characters. Beatty's Clyde Barrow is a slick, sly hood, a small-timer who projects an image far above his station, radiating an effortless cool that's easily punctured whenever he's in a tight situation, when he sweats and grits his teeth in fear. As Bonnie tells him early on, he makes a good sales pitch, but inside he's actually got nothing to sell. As for Dunaway, her Bonnie Parker is a potent screen presence, all raw sexual energy and barely controlled smolder. The film throws her and Clyde together almost instantly, without introduction, and her first few minutes in his presence are an absolute joy to watch. They walk down the street together, exchanging playful banter, Dunaway swaying girlishly, as though she's a Southern belle being courted rather than a small-town waitress flirting with a criminal stranger. Bonnie watches Clyde with mild suspicion but, more than that, a predatory desire. She eyes him voraciously, wrapping her lips around a Coke bottle and pensively tonguing the bottleneck: it's a provocative and exhilarating image, promising a film that really embraces this naughty, playful approach to these famous bank robbers.
The film certainly does have a propulsive, invigorating energy, especially in Dunaway's best moments, like her posing for a photograph with a pistol and a cigar borrowed from Clyde, or her passionate tongue-kissing with a captured Texas ranger who had been hunting the gang. At times, Dunaway seems to be driving the film all by herself, projecting a magnetic intensity that threatens to overwhelm anything else that happens to be going on in the frame with her. Even Beatty's manufactured cool can't compete with his costar's raw power.
As much as these performances bring to the film, Bonnie and Clyde is flawed from conception, since it romanticizes and mythologizes the titular couple pretty much from the word go. For all the undeniable modernity of the film's gunfights, the film is still seeped in corn and sentiment, like all the rustically impoverished caricatures who the couple encounters along their journey. These representatives of the lower class are ostentatiously intended to symbolize the duo's nonconformity and fight against the banks and the authorities. In fact, the film seems to take this nonsense mythology at face value, while also making Dunaway's Bonnie veer into unfortunate feminine hysteria that's inconsistent with her character's harder edges. Nothing Dunaway does can completely overcome the straitjackets placed on her character by the script, which makes her cling pathetically to the sexually disinterested, possibly impotent Clyde. True, in the later stretches of the film, Bonnie betrays a longing for a different life, but it's still unfortunate that the film doesn't have more of a perspective on her character's attachment to Clyde, which is simply taken for granted rather than truly developed or explored.
As a result, the film is most notable, beyond its noisy, bloody gun battles, for the subtleties of its performances. In one scene, Bonnie and Clyde and their gang pick up a young couple after stealing their car, and drive around with them, turning an initially threatening situation into a fun, free-spirited drive. But then, when the man announces that his profession is an undertaker, Bonnie abruptly demands that they kick the couple out of the car. A troubled expression flashes across her face at this moment, and it's clear that there are multiple layers to this brief scene: not only is Bonnie envisioning her own likely death, but she's perhaps sensing that this young man and his girlfriend were getting sucked into the dangerous orbit of the gang's criminal activities. There's a sense that Bonnie saw her own seduction into crime being repeated, and didn't want to see more innocents corrupted and transformed by this violent, criminal life.
Penn also gets a marvelous performance out of Gene Hackman, as Clyde's brother Buck. Hackman is loose and jovial here, the kind of guy who likes to slap his buddies on the back and eagerly tells his jokes over and over again whenever he thinks he has a new audience; the kidnapping scene's funniest moment is seeing the kidnapped couple laughing over Buck's favorite joke, as the rest of the gang glumly overact their boredom with the punchline. But there's also a deeper subtext to Buck's bonhomie, witnessed in an early scene when he's first reunited with Clyde and his initial enthusiasm slowly fades as he realizes that he actually has nothing in common with his outlaw brother, nothing to talk about. Instead, the two men sit in awkward silence for a few moments, with Buck hooting and hollering, trying to drum up some excitement about all the fun they're going to have together. Then, a moment later, "what are we going to do?" Michael Pollard, as the gang's slightly slow-witted hanger-on C.W. Moss, is equally good, bringing sensitivity and pathos to his hero-worshipping third wheel. Only Estelle Parsons, as Buck's wife Blanche, is grating and aggravating, turning her character into a shrill caricature of weak femininity, another sign of the film's dismal perspective on women.
On the whole, Bonnie and Clyde is driven by the quality of its performances, by the multiple layers and nuances these actors bring to their legendary characters. The script isn't always as satisfying, and Penn's handling of this material often turns the true bank robbers' story into artificial hokum. When Bonnie first realizes that Clyde isn't a "loverboy," the script pours out a load of bullshit about how Clyde nevertheless saw something special in Bonnie — Bonnie buys it, which is realistic enough considering her insecurity and desperation to escape her small-town ennui, but Penn seems to expect the audience to buy it as well, to see this tale as a tragic love story. At its worst moments, the film verges on melodramatic myth-making, but its better instincts often win out, bringing dark wit and bracing violence to this distinctly American story of greed, adventure-lust and the romanticization of antiheroes.