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.


Tony Dayoub said...

"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."

Surely when viewed in the context of the time when it was released, one must make certain allowances for its limitations. They primarily stem from establishment notions on feminism, sociological forces behind crime, and psychosexual myths prevalent in the mid-sixties.

BONNIE AND CLYDE is THE transitional film between old Hollywood movies and the new Hollywood period where artistic concerns superseded commercial ones.

Ed Howard said...

Definitely very true, Tony, and perhaps I was a bit harsh on the film — but that's what I meant when I said it was both very modern and very of its time. Its limitations are pretty much the limitations of the era it was made in. It's a historically important film, no doubt about it, but I can't help feeling conflicted about it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

So glad you're writing about this. Among other things it's a reminder of Peter Biskind' egregiousness, in that he has no way of comprehnding Warren Beatty as anything other than a pussyhound. B & C, was made in 1967 -- which is to say six years after he made his motion picture debut -- in an unprecedented starring role -- in Splendor in the Grass That he was now producing testifies to the fact that he was at this point in his career considerably more than just a movie star.

The film's rather ambitious use of peiod detail (The Burma Shave signs, the clothes, etc.) really changed things for period filmmaking in Hollywood.

I see Michael J. Polland frequently around L.A. -- usually at Book Soup, and often on the bus. Bonnie and Clyde gave him a brief vogue -- that included a co-starring role with Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale in a Christian-Jacque epic known stateside as The Legend of Frenchie King. That he hasn't had a decent part since Steve Martin's Roxanne is a terrible shame.

Sam Juliano said...

When BONNIE AND CLYDE was released it was immediately greeted with an almost equal measure of exultation and condemnation. It's visionary style and bold filmmaking as I recall earned the adoration of Pauline Kael among others, but many were turned off by the awkward mix of comedy and tragedy, its sympathetic treatment of the title characters, its historical inaccuracies and it's graphic depiction of violence. This was 1967 after all, but like Mike Nichols's THE GRADUATE, released the same year, American filmmakers were ready to take liberties that defined teh emergence of a new era not only in the cinema, but in American culture.

While I'll admit that I always had an issue with Kael's "nervous imbalance argument" where she contends that the film keeps us on edge by "throwing our disbelief in our faces," I agree that it's ludicrous to take issue with the historical "innacuaracy" as this film is more accurate than many in this sence, and besides, so what? Film doesn't need to be informed by accuracy, but rather by vision and interpretation.

I'm far more in line with Ms.; Kael when she argues that BONNIE AND CLYDE's violence is fully justified as "violence is its meaning." Indeed! Hence, when a man is shot in the face during the film, because he is in the wrong place at the wrong time, we remember a similar image in Eisenstein's POTEMKIN, where similarly, and innocent bystander is victimized.
The argument that Penn was too sympathetic to these killers, according to Kael is inconsequential, as she rightly notes "that doesn't mean we're all going to become killers: Part of the power of art lies in showing us what we're NOT capable of. We see that killers are not a different breed but are us without the insight or understanding or self-control that works of art strengthen.

I can't agree with some of your rather serious issues in the paragraph that begins with "As much as these performances bring to the film" although I'm also well aware that you issue just as much praise here too, especially in th eparagraph that begins with "The film certainly does have a propulsive, invigorating energy."
The issue that the characters are steeped in "corn and sentiment" is in my view justified because this film is really a combination of a gangster film, a tragi-romance, a road/buddy film and a screwball comedy.

Of course in the end, this is an exceedingly shocking film, that brings tragedy full circle, all that more affecting with the disarming comedy, which always seemed to intensify the serious tone.

Tom said...

Very good review. I like your take on the scene with Bonnie and the undertaker, and what she could have been thinking. There's room for alot of interpretation there.

Jandy Stone said...

I agree with most of your review (and it's a well-thought-out, well-expressed one as usual!), but I pretty much think Bonnie & Clyde is a perfect movie - there's not a thing I would change about it.

The thing with the mythos of the couple is, I think, integral to the film - not a "corny", romanticized take on the couple from Penn's point of view so much as the view that Clyde in particular wanted of himself. He introduces himself and Bonnie as bank robbers before they actually are, they routinely go out of their way to gain notoriety and do so in a very theatrical way (as with the ranger), and Clyde is only able to perform sexually after Bonnie immortalizes him in poetry. Now, if that's cornball in and of itself, okay, but I don't think it is. I think that longing for a mythos comes from the characters. (It's also a very New Wave-esque longing - what else is Breathless's Michel doing but mythologizing himself as Bogart?)

Ed Howard said...

Good points, David.

Sam, I'm with you about the irrelevance of "accuracy" in this context: it doesn't really matter so much if the movie's Bonnie and Clyde match the real ones as long as they're compelling. Which, for the most part, they are of course. Anyway, there's a lot to like in the film, and its tonal shifts are often worthwhile, although I'm not entirely comfortable with all the tones it visits during those shifts.

Tom, I agree that that scene, like many in this film, is very open to interpretation, which is always a good thing.

Jandy, that's a great reading of the film's mythologizing. I agree that the characters are engaged in a lot of self-mythologizing, I just wish that I didn't feel like Penn was often playing their game. But, again, in some ways I'm nitpicking what's actually a very complex and multilayered movie. As this thread shows, it's very possible to read certain elements in this film in very different ways.

Tom said...

I also liked how the writers came up with CW Moss; a composite character based on several of the real-life members of the Barrow gang.

What did you think of the character of Malcolm, CW's father, played by Dub Taylor? I saw his character as the moral figure in this film.

Adam Zanzie said...

It's embarrassing, but because it's been awhile since I've seen Bonnie of Clyde, I've forgotten about 50% of what happens in it. I remember the gang picking up Gene Wilder and buying a cheeseburger with him, I remember those scenes of Estelle Parsons running around screaming like a maniac, I remember the scene where she and Gene Hackman get killed, and and I remember the scene where they go to Michael J. Pollard's house and his father conspires to have them reported. But I don't have any memory of how Bonnie and Clyde actually meet. And the infamous "we rob banks" scene doesn't at all come to mind for me, for unexplained reasons.

Maybe it's because when I first watched the film, I totally took the experience for granted. I knew it was going to be a great film, and didn't expect to be mindlessly blown off my feet. It's one of those classic films that I'll probably have to buy someday, so that I can watch it numerous more times and allow my appreciation for it to grow.

In fact, Penn is a filmmaker whom I intend to start discovering any day now. The only other film of his I've seen is Little Big Man. Hoffman and Chief Dan George were both great in that film, but I had a lot of problems with the way that Penn turns General Custer into a cartoonish villain. I must have missed the whole point of that film: to satirize history. After all, the Hoffman character clearly says at the beginning that the Battle of Little Big Horn was not "an adventure". But, I disgress.

Did Penn do anything essential after the 60's and 70's? The popular notion I've heard is that he ran out of artistically interesting things to say when the radicalism of those two decades came to an end.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is one of those films I keel telling myself to watch again, only to come up with excuses not to watch it. It's been years, and there are portions I don't remember at all.

Though I didn't have trouble with the "face value" approach to the "nonsense mythology" -- because I thought that was part of the point -- I found the "corn" to be just plain irritating. I wouldn't argue with the approach, and Tony makes some fine points further justifying the cornball tone, but I also can't pretend that it doesn't serve as an obstacle.

Ed Howard said...

Tom, CW was definitely a great character. But his father wasn't really a "moral figure" in my view: he was dominating and fairly nasty towards his son, and seemed to turn over Bonnie and Clyde not so much out of morality as his fear of getting roped into complicity with their crimes.

Adam, it's very easy to forget the details of films, especially those that don't really blow you away. I have a feeling that, over time, much of this film will fade from my memory too, leaving behind only the imprint of Dunaway's searingly sexy, hard-nosed performance. Like you, I need to see more Penn, maybe it'll give me more of a perspective on his sensibility. The recent death of Rohmer certainly put Night Moves on my radar considering how often it was cited for the famous Gene Hackman line. In looking at Penn's IMDB page, I was surprised to see, though, how little he actually made after the mid-70s. Looks like he did burn out or lose interest in filmmaking for some reason.

Jason, I'm obviously with you on that. The cornball portraits of folksy rural types was fairly grating.