Saturday, October 02, 2010

 

Their nature is raw, they hate all law

NOTE: Ranked No. 33 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


BLOGGER'S NOTE: This was first posted Aug. 13, 2007.

They don't think they're tough or desperate
They know the law always wins
They've been shot at before, but they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.

Someday they'll go down together
And they'll bury them side by side
To few it'll be grief, to the law a relief
But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.

"The Story of Bonnie and Clyde,"
a poem by Bonnie Parker

By Edward Copeland
Forty years ago today, a landmark film was released, a film that caused critical spats and even encouraged some famed critics to change their minds. That film was Bonnie and Clyde and it remains great until this day. In fact, it still has some, such as A.O. Scott in Sunday's New York Times, questioning whether its mix of humor and violence was a bad thing and that his ancient predecessor Bosley Crowther might have been right by being dismissive of it. Phooey on them. Just because imitators suck, that doesn't mean the original isn't still peerless.


Those lips. After the credits, with their brief notes of biography about the real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, those lips are what fill the screen and this unusual opening image (for 1967 at least) heralded the brash changes that lay ahead in Arthur Penn's film. From the lips, we get to see more of Faye Dunaway's Bonnie, seemingly pinned in a crib/cage much like Carroll Baker in Baby Doll. Then she spots the sharp-dressed man attempting to steal her momma's car and Bonnie sees a chance to bring some excitement to her drab, Depression-era world. (One thing I noticed this time that I don't remember catching before was the frequent placement of FDR posters throughout the film.) When Bonnie first meets Clyde, she notices his limp, caused by Clyde chopping two of his toes off to get out of work detail in prison, ironically just days before he got sprung. I remember reading the Mad magazine parody of Bonnie and Clyde long before I saw the film itself, so I knew the element of sexual repression that lay beneath the film. Rewatching it, I'd forgotten how much of that aspect there is, beyond Clyde's presumed impotence. In addition to that opening shot of her lips, we get lots of phallic suggestion such as the way she fondles and sips from a Coke bottle. It's funny to see legendary lothario Beatty playing an anti-stud who says of being a lover boy that he "Never saw the percentage in it." He may not be a lover, but he is one helluva of criminal and he's not modest about it. "I ain't good, I'm the best," he tells Bonnie as she decides to join his spree, even if he gets her all revved up with nowhere to boink. What's also fascinating about Penn's film is how successfully it shows how the Barrow Gang could be folk heroes in the throes of the Great Depression while not romanticizing that they are crooks who do kill on occasion. One of the best sequences to this effect is when Clyde gives Bonnie some shooting lessons on what appears to be an abandoned farm, only to be happened upon by the farm's evicted owners, foreclosed on by the bank, so Clyde lets them have their chance to shoot up the sign that proclaims the property as belonging to the bank. The farmer even lets his now unemployed black sharecropper lodge some bullets as well. As Clyde sympathizes with the men, calling the bank's actions a "pitiful shame," you understand how they could gather a following, something that makes absolutely no sense in later films that try to plumb the same territory such as Oliver Stone's awful Natural Born Killers. This scene also provides the first instance of perhaps the film's most famous line, "We rob banks," only it's Clyde who uses the phrase to describe their profession first, not Bonnie. The economic state of the country also comes through when Clyde takes Bonnie on her first robbery, only to try to stick up a bank that folded three weeks earlier. Still, you can see how they relish their reputation and encourage it, even giving customers back their own money during one robbery and laughing that they are getting blamed for robberies that occur far from where they even are. Later, when Bonnie writes the famous poem about their adventures, Clyde seems truly touched that she's "made him somebody they're gonna remember." The victims enjoy the spotlight as well, with one declaring that they did right by him and that he and his wife will gladly go to their funeral when that day arrives. Now, you can't really call it a gang when there are only two members, but Bonnie and Clyde soon get partners. First up, they encounter C.W. Moss (the ever-quirky Michael J. Pollard in his Oscar-nominated role) at the gas station he runs. The robbers are honest with C.W. about who they are and what they do and ask if he'd like to come along and Moss disappears briefly into the station's interior before returning, dumping the cash in their lap and coming along for the ride. Moss turns out to be an even worse parallel parker than Meadow Soprano when he serves as getaway driver for the first time. In that stickup, a bank employee tries to stop Clyde — permanently, forcing Clyde to kill him, but not without exhibiting remorse about the death. "Why'd he try to kill me? I didn't have anything against him?" he asks the universe. Soon, the Barrow Gang becomes five members strong when they hook up with Clyde's brother Buck (Oscar nominee Gene Hackman) and his nervous wife Blanche (Oscar winner Estelle Parsons). Of course, they meet soon after the killing and Clyde offers Bonnie the chance to get out since he knows there's no turning back since now he's a killer, not just a robber, telling her she should find a rich man, but Bonnie declares that she "don't want no rich man." "You ain't gonna have a minute's peace," Clyde warns. "You promise?" Bonnie replies. She can get her kicks in noncarnal ways as well. Of course, Clyde still is a man with a man's ego, so when Buck grills him about Bonnie, asking if she's as good in bed as she looks, Clyde lies and says she's better. Buck's own wife frequently proves a target of ridicule for Bonnie because of her somewhat prim and hesitant ways which makes Bonnie think of her as nothing more than "an ignorant hillbilly." Blanche also is leery of C.W. who just tries to be friendly as they discuss movie stars (His favorite is Myrna Loy) on their way to see a movie musical at the local theater. Bonnie proves to be a woman after my own heart, urging her companions to hush up during the film as they chatter on endlessly. People could be rude at movies even before television. There are great sequences and nice and odd touches throughout the film. Even though many of the accents are iffy and it often goes for a comic tone that seems to predict Raising Arizona, it works. There's the great scene where they humiliate a Texas marshal (Denver Pyle) to discourage "bounty hunting" and strange moments such as a scene where for some reason Pollard is wearing a WWI gas mask. Of course, there's also the classic encounter with Eugene and Velma (Gene Wilder, Evans Evans), whose car they steal but who end up going for a ride with the gang that's in turn comical and frightening, but ultimately a blast when this couple that the gang sees as "folks just like us" reveal what Eugene's profession is. The film though isn't strictly a comedy, proving unexpectedly touching when Bonnie gets a brief reunion with her family. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who won an Oscar for his work here, films the sequence as if it's a faded home movie and it's quite poignant when Bonnie seems reluctant to leave her mother, who advises, "You best keep running, Clyde Barrow." The stench of death never remains too far removed and at times the symbolism of the sexual and religious elements are a little thick, such as Clyde finally putting out before their ultimate demise, and a symbolic sharing of an apple. While the quick-cut editing of the film's climax is legendary, Penn and film editor Dede Allen use that style throughout the film and it must have truly seemed groundbreaking at the time, though hardly unique to movies. (Go back and watch the cutting of the hunt in Jean Renoir's 1939 The Rules of the Game for example.) So much has been written about that final sequence, that it almost seems pointless to add anything or to even include many screenshots of it, though I do have to get Dub Taylor as C.W.'s father seeking cover under his truck. Penn also makes frequent use of the voyeuristic elements with constant scenes of people peering through car windows, including the final shot.

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Comments:
After reading Scott's piece, I am trying my best to remain calm. The whole essay is typical Timesian thumbsucking, going on forever and saying nothing, until the end when he throws in the sucker punch: Crowther was right. NO, HE WASN'T! "Bonnie and Clyde" remains a perfect work of art, mixing humor, violence, outlaw glamour and French New Wave rhythms. It is as alive and exciting today as the day it was released. It never, ever, gets old. It's odd to read this right after I finished watching Arthur Penn's "The Missouri Breaks." As I was watching that, I kept thinking to myself, "This is no Bonnie and Clyde." But, then, nothing is. Perhaps, this is all an attempt by Tony Scott to resurrect Crowther's reputation in the vague hope that someday somebody at the Times will do the same for him. What's next: The misunderstood Rex Reed?
 
Nice work, Edward - an elegant summary of one of the best films ever made, and one which does it justice. You've encapsulated the qualities that make Bonnie and Clyde not just a revolutionary work of art, but a peerless piece of entertainment. This is one of those flicks that I can watch tens of thousands of times and never cease to view it with wonder and awe. The genius of Penn's work lies in his juxtaposition of elements - comic and tragic, lyrical and grotesque, traditional and subversive (the film pays homage to the classic ganster film, while at the same blowing the genre wide open). What I find fascinating about the film is the manner in which it so succesfully conveys the almost mythological aspects of the Bonnie and Clyde legend, while never losing sight of of the gritty, ugly realities around which it took shape. The audience can at once both appreciate the characters as folk heroes with a sort of larger-than-life status, without ever forgetting what profoundly ordinary people they really were - ignorant, uncomprehending, and deeply, deeply flawed. Not many films that have tried for a similar effect have been able to sustain the balance - usually we get either deification (the outlaw as a rebel God, a hero the audience can root for) or a thorough debunking of the myth (bare-knuckled realism in which the outlaw is stripped of all his mystique and reduced to wretchedness). It's not many films that locate the fine line in between - something which gives us a much fuller understanding of both the manner in which perception and reality are informed by each other, and the sharp ways in which they diverge. Bonnie and Clyde is not a film that offers any easy answers - which is why the Bosley Crowthers of the world were so freaked out by it. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are neither the good guys nor the bad guys - you can't shoehorn all the complexities of human behavior into comfortable little category boxes.
 
Shamus: What's next: The misunderstood Rex Reed?

Ooh! Ooh! Can I write this one? :) Can I call it "The Retched [sic] Rex Reed?"

When the House did that piece on life changing criticism, one of my 5 moments was Bosley Crowther's takedown of Bonnie and Clyde: "For someone so upset by the film's violence, he sure can't stop talking about it."

I don't know what to take from A.O. Scott's article at all. Crowther wasn't even remotely right. Reading Scott, I imagined some editor at the NY Times was holding him at gunpoint; the article spins around and around like the Wheel of Fortune and lands on bankrupt. There was no justification in his statements. It just seemed like the popular thing to say. Bonnie and Clyde begets Hostel? Gimme a break!

As for Bonnie and Clyde, two words prevent it from being classified a true masterpiece by me: Estelle Parsons. She and Shirley Booth should both be packed into a rocket with their Oscars and shot into a histrionic version of Outer Space. The real Blanche said Parsons played her "like a screaming horse's ass." Man does she nail it. As much as I love everything else about the film, whenever I watch it, I find myself fast forwarding whenever she's on. I react to her performance the way Josh R. would react if he woke up Krazy-Glued to Jessica Lange.

Granted, Parsons' performance doesn't ruin the movie--in the grand scheme, she's more a wretched nuisance than completely destructive--but I'd be a liar if I said she was anything but awful.
 
While Estelle Parsons didn't grate on me, the Oscar for supporting actress really belonged to Anne Bancroft if they'd put her in the correct category and then Faye should have won lead.
 
Yup, yup, yup. Second everyone here, especially the Shamus. I'll reproduce what I said at my place, since it really belongs here:

think Scott is far too serious a critic to indulge in contrarianism for its own sake, but his fundamental point is just plain wrong. Movie violence does not exist in a vacuum and each violent movie has to come up with its artistic and thematic rationale for depicting horrific acts. Bonnie and Clyde didn't ring down the curtain on those debates. The mere fact that he references Saw and Hostel should ring a gong--did we not see the blogosphere erupt in a very serious discussion of the violence in those movies? I was in the anti- camp there, and nobody called me square, a fussbudget or a philistine. At least, not to my (virtual) face ...

And I should add that I am re-reading "Since Yesterday," Frederick Lewis Allen's social history of the 1930s. It was written in 1941 so it has great immediacy, and the sheer godawfulness of the Depression is depicted with great force. Bonnie and Clyde gets that absolutely, perfectly right, as Edward points out here. The filmmakers are at great pains to illustrate not only the outlaws' lives, but why they appealed to the Depression-blasted masses. And what is this from Scott, about the killing of the bank employee having "no real question of self-defense"? that isn't how I saw the scene.
 
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