Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

In 2012, ARGO and LINCOLN proved again that moviegoers love films about real people and historical events, CrazyFilmGuy included.  I want to learn everything about the real life subject after I see a film. When GLADIATOR (2000) came out, I fell in love with all things Roman.   After watching Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), I became obsessed with the conspiracy theories regarding Kennedy's death and read four books on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My conclusion. Contrary to Oliver Stone's film, Lee Harvey Oswald was the only killer. As much as we love films about real people and real events, we must remember that films sometimes take dramatic license with the truth.  Contrary to what we see in the film ARGO, the truth is the Canadian ambassador played almost as important a role in helping the six Americans escape Iran as the Ben Affleck CIA character.  In LINCOLN, the Connecticut senators did not vote against abolishing slavery as the filmmakers indicated.  They voted with Lincoln to abolish slavery. So let movies about the famous and infamous entertain you but don't take the story as gospel.

So with that said, I went into BONNIE AND CLYDE not knowing much about either of these famous criminals of the Great Depression. Did the real life bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker even look like good looking movie stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway? I'll save that answer for later but BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) directed by Arthur Penn, presented to audiences Hollywood's version of the infamous armed robbers. Penn and his screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton (with some assistance from story consultant Robert Towne who later wrote CHINATOWN) don't glamorize their exploits and yet we find ourselves rooting for them. BONNIE AND CLYDE like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) two years later gave audiences anti-heroes to root for. Both films fit in well with the anti-establishment mood of the United States in the late 60's.

BONNIE AND CLYDE begins in 1932 as the Great Depression lingers. Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is a bored high school Texas girl who hates her job as a waitress in a West Dallas cafe. She dreams of being famous, getting out of Texas. She spies a young man eyeing her mother's car, preparing to steal it and confronts him. His name is Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), an armed robber recently released from prison after two years for good behavior.  Bonnie flirts with the handsome Clyde. He brags about what he does.  Bonnie doubts him so Clyde robs a store to impress her. They flee in a stolen car and so begins the legend of  Bonnie and Clyde.

Bonnie quickly learns armed robbery is not as glamorous as it appears. It's a life of running from the law, living in empty houses and cheap motels. The first bank the two of them try to knock off together has no money. They pick up another member for their gang, a baby-faced gas station attendant named C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) who becomes their getaway driver. In their next attempt, Bonnie and Clyde do rob a bank but Clyde kills the bank manager as he jumps on their car. The killing bothers Clyde and C.W. but Bonnie seems excited by it. Clyde hooks up with his brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his annoyingly loud wife Blanche (Estelle Parson), a preacher's daughter. Clyde likes the family feeling but  Bonnie just wants to be alone with Clyde.

The real Bonnie and Clyde

The Barrow Gang begins it's crime spree throughout the Midwest. While hiding out in Joplin, Missouri, the local police ambush them. A fierce firefight ensues but the Barrow Gang escapes, only after killing a few lawmen. A Texas Ranger named Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) almost apprehends them as they rest near a lake. Instead, the Barrow Gang catch Hamer and humiliate him, posing for photographs with the tied up Ranger. Clyde dreams they'll give up robbing banks when times are better but Bonnie realizes they're not going anywhere, just running.

Bonnie and Clyde are now famous outlaws. The police and locals enjoy the notoriety of their encounters with the gang. But the gang begins to encounter lawmen with more guns and even armored cars. During another gunfight with the police in Iowa, Buck is mortally wounded and Estelle blinded in one eye. Bonnie and Clyde and C.W. drive off into the woods but the police surround them. The three barely escape and both Bonnie and Clyde are wounded. C.W. takes them to his father Ivan Moss's (Dub Taylor) home to hide out and recuperate. While Bonnie and Clyde talk of marriage, Ivan meets with Hamer, cutting a deal with the lawman to spare C.W. by giving up Bonnie and Clyde. As Bonnie and Clyde return to the Moss house from a romantic picnic, they are ambushed along the roadside by Hamer and his men hiding in the brush in a bloody finale.

The filmmakers characterization of Bonnie and Clyde is one of the films many strong points. The film opens with Bonnie applying lipstick, admiring herself in the mirror before throwing herself on her bed, grabbing the headboard like she's a prisoner in her own room. Like many teenage girls, she dreams of glamour and fame but she's bored, stuck in a dead end waitress job. She sees Clyde Barrow as her ticket to become famous. In a way, Clyde is her Prince Charming, rescuing her from her dreary life. After robbing a bank, they go to a movie theater showing GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933.  Bonnie is enthralled with the Busby Berkley dancers as the song We're in the Money plays. Bonnie believes she'll be in the money. But the life of an armed bank robber is anything but glamorous and usually short lived.  Still, Bonnie is enamored with being a famous criminal. Bonnie is also attracted to Clyde sexually, her hormones raging. Clyde appears sexually impotent for the first two thirds of the film. He admits that he's "no loverboy" and Bonnie becomes frustrated when Clyde won't consummate their encounters. Clyde's sexual power is his gun. At one point, Bonnie caresses the barrel as Clyde shows it off. But as Bonnie and Clyde head toward their demise, Clyde overcomes his sexual inadequacy and they make passionate love in a field. Even their death scene is orgasmic as Bonnie and Clyde reach for each other as their bodies shake and twitch in a barrage of bullets.

If BONNIE AND CLYDE had been made today, the third main character besides Bonnie and Clyde would have been a lead police detective or FBI agent on the case. But an interesting choice by director Penn is that the law is shown for the most part on the periphery, always a step behind the Barrow gang. Only when the Barrow gang catches the Texas Ranger Hamer and humiliate him by taking photos with the lawman do we have the first real face of authority. Hamer's rage at getting caught by Bonnie and Clyde will manifest itself when he and his posse ambush Bonnie and Clyde and riddle their bodies with machine gun fire. I had heard about the outrage toward BONNIE AND CLYDE for its violence but it's tame compared to today's films by Scorsese or Tarantino. Critics at the time equated the film's violence with the mood of the United States during Vietnam. But BONNIE AND CLYDE's violence did usher in a change cinematically toward violence and what to filmmakers would begin to show.

BONNIE AND CLYDE was a major turning point in actor Warren Beatty's career. Not long ago I watched an early Beatty film called ALL FALL DOWN (1962) and realized that Beatty began his career as the heir apparent to James Dean. Beatty played restless, tormented young men much like Dean did. But BONNIE AND CLYDE is his breakout role playing a real person, the famous bank robber Clyde Barrow. Beatty would also produce BONNIE AND CLYDE and the film's success would pave Beatty's way to have more control over the type of projects he would go on to make for the rest of his career like SHAMPOO (1975) or REDS (1981).

Clyde Barrow is a a star turning performance by Warren Beatty. Clyde's smooth and slick as he flirts with Bonnie. He's quick with a gun but struggles with intimacy when alone with her. Beatty was already a sex symbol so it's a nice stretch for him as an actor to have some sexual hang-ups as the impotent Clyde. Barrow was the son of poor sharecroppers and he never forgets his roots, relating much more to the common, struggling people than the people in nice clothes or the law.  Clyde seems most happy when he reunites with his older brother Buck. Clyde appreciates family more so than Bonnie. At times, Clyde seems a bit like Robin Hood. He doesn't rob from the rich to give to the poor but having been poor himself, he associates the banks with the affluent. During one heist, Clyde even allows a regular citizen to keep his money as they take bags from the teller.

The real Bonnie Parker, from the photos of her I have seen, was very attractive and Faye Dunaway does her justice as Bonnie both in looks and performance. When we first meet  Bonnie, she's flirty and shy and curious about Clyde and armed robbery. Once she becomes an armed robber, she's almost more dangerous and volatile then Clyde at times. But the life of a criminal begins to wear on her. She begins to loathe Buck and Blanche as they hog time she could have alone with Clyde. She becomes homesick and they risk everything to visit her mother (Mabel Cavitt). Bonnie also recognizes death is inevitable. When the Barrow gang grabs Eugene Grizzard (Gene Wilder) and Velma Davis (Evans Evans) for a joyride, Eugene reveals that he's an undertaker. Bonnie immediately has them both thrown out of the car. She will not have death riding with them. BONNIE AND CLYDE would also propel Dunaway to the next level as an actress. Dunaway would have a remarkable run of films with great leading men: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman. And Dunaway as Parker definitely brought back the beret proving fashion is cyclical.

Rounding out the BONNIE AND CLYDE cast is a young Gene Hackman as Clyde's good-natured older brother Buck. It's fun to see Beatty and Hackman together in their early careers before they became bona fide stars. Baby-faced actor Michael J. Pollard plays C.W. Moss, the gas station mechanic who joins Bonnie and Clyde's gang. I remember Pollard from an old episode of TV's STAR TREK as a scary youth named Jahn. Gene Wilder (WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) makes his first film appearance in BONNIE AND CLYDE as undertaker Eugene Grizzard and steals the few scenes he's in. Estelle Parsons as whiny Blanche won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1967. Blanche's screeching is annoying at first but Blanche is a sad, pivotal character and Parsons bring pathos to the role. Dub Taylor as C.W.'s abusive father Ivan Moss is a nice turn by Taylor who usually played more comedic roles in westerns like SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (1971) and was a favorite role player in Sam Peckinpah films. In BONNIE AND CLYDE, Ivan will turn rat and give up Bonnie and Clyde to the authorities.  Beatty, Dunaway, Hackman, Pollard, and Parsons would all be nominated for their performances by the Academy, an incredible accomplishment.  Only Parsons would take home an Oscar.

According to the Internet Movie  Data Base's trivia about BONNIE AND CLYDE, director Arthur Penn was very influenced by the French New Wave filmmakers of the 60's.  That would explain Penn's earlier effort with Beatty called MICKEY ONE (1965), a very fractured and disjointed film that would have made New Wave filmmaker Jean Luc Godard happy. I have no idea what MICKEY ONE was about but Penn and Beatty put it all together with BONNIE AND CLYDE. Penn does display some choppy edits and tone early in the film but then the film finds its feet. Because Bonnie and Clyde are bank robbers and constantly on the run, Penn gets creative and stages many of the scenes inside their getaway car, motels, and empty fields. The gun battles are ferocious and bloody, based on actual gun battles between the Barrow gang and local police. And Penn uses the Texas locations nicely shooting in small towns frozen in time from the 1930's.

So how does the film BONNIE AND CLYDE compare to the real events and people? Writers Newman and Benton nicely mix historical truth with some dramatic license. In real life, Bonnie was actually already married before she took off with Clyde and even went to jail briefly at the start of her criminal career. The real Bonnie was also seriously injured in a car accident with Clyde that injured her right leg and never healed toward the last year of her life. She either had to hop around on crutches or be carried by Clyde. The character of C.W. Moss is actually a composite of three different male accomplices who were part of Bonnie and Clyde's crime wave from 1932 to 1934. The real Bonnie and Clyde (although more likely Clyde and his male counterparts) killed 14 people. In the film, Clyde doesn't appear quite as blood thirsty as he may have been in real life.

The reality is that the Great Depression drove many folks like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd among others to turn to a life of crime to deal with the hardship people all across America but particularly in the Midwest were facing. I think Director Penn and writers Newman and Benton do an admirable job of showing the key factual events in the crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde while embellishing on certain points and characters to tell the story in a dramatic, cinematic way. BONNIE AND CLYDE was also the beginning of the bridge from studio driven films to more iconoclastic, director driven films that would begin to emerge in the late 60's and early 70's.

BONNIE AND CLYDE humanizes the legend of the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, providing insight into what these two young lovers might have been like and what drove them to begin a life of crime.  There have been other boy/girl criminals on the run movies like BADLANDS (1973), TRUE ROMANCE (1993), and NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994) but BONNIE AND CLYDE is the film that made dating a bank robber acceptable. At least in the movies. It's probably not recommended in real life.

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