Sunday, August 14, 2011

1967 - Bonnie and Clyde

Another show is over. The final performance of The 39 Steps at the Bristol Valley Theater came and went today, and I am currently packing up and getting ready to head back to New York City tomorrow. And for the first time this year, I do not have any immediate plans for any upcoming performing ventures. With an improv show in Las Vegas, an off-off-Broadway show in New York, a short film in Delaware and a play in Naples, it's been a busy year so far. Let's hope the next project is just around the corner...

Next up in the review of 1967's Best Picture nominees is...

Bonnie and Clyde
Arthur Penn
David Newman & Robert Benton
Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, Evans Evans, Gene Wilder
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Parsons)

It's the Great Depression and young Clyde Barrow (Beatty) is fresh out of prison for armed robbery. While attempting to steal a car, he is interrupted by the pretty Bonnie Parker (Dunaway). The two hit it off right away and, before you know it, they're planning bank robberies. At a gas station in the middle of nowhere, they pick up oddball C.W. Moss (Pollard), who agrees to join them on their criminal escapades. Soon, the gang grows in number again with Clyde's older brother Buck (Hackman) and his reluctant wife Blanche (Parsons). As their robberies become more violent, Bonnie and Clyde begin to attract the attention of law enforcement as well as the national media, who turn them into infamous superstars.

Bonnie and Clyde doesn't waste any time up front. The beginning moves at a swift pace with our two heroes (or, more accurately, anti-heroes) meeting in the first scene and running away together almost immediately. Even their first recruit, C.W. Moss, doesn't seem to require much time to think things through. He steals from his boss and hops into Bonnie and Clyde's car after knowing them for less than a few minutes. With such a fast-paced set-up, there is little time to familiarise ourselves with the situation but, since the couple's life subsequent to their meeting is very much the whirlwind, the speedy first act is actually quite appropriate, not to mention exciting.

What makes the story particularly interesting is its central relationship. In fact, it would be reasonable to describe the film as a story about a unique relationship, rather than a story about Depression-era bank robbers. Sure, they are bank robbers and this certainly plays a role in their relationship, but the film is clever to focus on how Bonnie and Clyde interact and grow. It is a fascinating affair - Clyde suffers from some kind of sexual dysfunction and Bonnie is bothered by the resultant lack of intimacy. In fact, with the gang always around, the two rarely find themselves alone, so it is more than merely sexual intimacy that they are forgoing.

Then there is the issue of celebrity. The newspapers write sensational stories about them, attributing far more robberies to their name than they actually committed. The hype reaches such heights that even their surviving victims are excited to be swamped by photographers and journalists listening to their tales. It seems this craving for a good story at the expense of the truth is not just a modern predicament.

Bonnie and Clyde is one of several films to share the record for the most acting nominations among its cast. Five actors received nods, the first such acknowledgement for each of them. The picture's two stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (pictured), both up-and-comers at the time, work well together, delivering a convincing portrait of the infamous couple. Michael J. Pollard snagged his only Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category for his suitably quirky portrayal of C.W. Moss. In the same category, Gene Hackman - who barely looked any different then than he does now - was recognised for his fine work as Buck Barrow. The only winner of the five was Estelle Parsons, who nabbed the Supporting Actress award for one of the most annoying characters ever to appear on screen. Blanche's constant screeching and complaining are played with delectable perfection by Parsons. And then there's Gene Wilder, appearing in his film debut. Wilder's piteous persona and unique delivery are superbly applied to his role as the undertaker that Bonnie and Clyde kidnap for a brief time.

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  1. I once read a review that said the film has interesting ingredients but they're not meshed or organized well -- I couldn't agree more. The whole narrative/direction simply feel loose and imprecise, with little in the way of true dramatic clarity. Bosley Crowther, was correct in saying that it's too light and comically wacky. The banjo music? Maybe in a parody...

    All told, the one true element that works is Faye Dunaway's performance, which seems to illuminate the kind of human core the rest of the film can't find.

  2. Hey Matt

    I saw Bonnie and Clyde last week and I thought it was a really interesting film. Mostly because it *wasn't* structured like a classic cops and robbers movie.

    The weird asexual relationship between Bonnie and Clyde was never adequately explained - and I liked that.

    What made the movie feel so modern for me was the obsession with fame and notoriety. Not that far removed from the current cult of counting twitter followers and facebook friends.


  3. A page turned in cinema in 1967, and two of the reasons were The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Back then, I was a 20 year old college student, and if not a card carrying member of the counter culture, an onlooker and sometimes participator.

    Bonnie and Clyde was like nothing seen before it - glamorous anti-heroes and in your face screen violence. Of course it was revisionist history, but that was for the old folks to complain about. One of them was the venerable New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. After he wrote his scathing review and brow beat the New York Film Critics Circle into switching their votes from Bonnie and Clyde, he discovered the parade had passed him by. He soon announced his retirement.

    From the titles that switched from white to blood red, to those first scenes of the unbelievably sexy (and obviously naked) Faye Dunaway to the astonishing and literal dance of death at the end, I knew I had seen something new and different.

    That was then and this is now. As someone Bosley Crowther's age now as I re-watched it, I still feel its innovation and charisma, but perhaps I can see just a wee bit of his point of view. I can't find any fault with the acting. It remains my favorite performance of Faye Dunaway. Estelle Parson's shrill acting is still like fingernails on a chalkboard, but I can't fault her work here. She is very good. Veteran cinematographer Burnett Guffey did some amazing shooting here. I particularly liked the dreamlike scene of the visit to Bonnie's family, where he slowed the camera speed down just a bit. I do agree with Brandon that the tone of the picture is harder to take now. Back then, the blue grass banjo music was fairly unique, although the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies made it popular first. However, since 1967, with shows like The Dukes of Hazard pounding you over the head with it, it just doesn't hold up. The scenes of the Barrow Gang yucking it up in the car as the police shoot at them add just too much silliness.

    So, even though it has lost some of its luster, it still packs a punch and I believe its place in film history is deserved.