"We rob banks."
To say that director Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" was a landmark film in 1967 would be something of an understatement. It set a new tone for violence in movies, it deftly combined action and humor, and it predated "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" by several years as a kind of "buddy" picture. In these regards, I can't think of many other releases that have equaled "Bonnie and Clyde" in the past four decades.
The prologue tells us that Clyde Barrow (played by Warren Beatty) was born to sharecroppers, became a petty thief early on, and as the story begins in 1931 had just served two years in a Texas state penitentiary for armed robbery. He got out early for good behavior. Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) was born in 1910 in Rowena, Texas, and by 1931 was working as a waitress in a West Dallas cafe. The pair met when Clyde tried to steal Bonnie's momma's car. Unsuccessfully.
But it was love at first sight. Or infatuation. Or mutual need. She wanted to escape her dismal life, and he wanted somebody to impress with his guns and daring. Two minutes later, they are robbing a grocery store and making their getaway together as though they had known each other all their lives.
The pair enlist a witless gas-station attendant, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), as their getaway driver and mechanic as well as persuade Clyde's hell-raising brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck's wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), a preacher's daughter, to join up with them. Together they form the Barrow gang, robbing banks and running from the police for two-and-a-half years.
The setting is the time of the Great Depression, when bank foreclosures, unemployment, and widespread poverty made outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the rest of their ilk popular celebrities to the common folk, who admired their sticking it to the bosses and banks and people of "authority." Bonnie and Clyde played to the masses by having their pictures taken in various dramatic and outlandish poses, like Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and a Tommy gun in her hands, pictures that appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the country and helped turn them into folk heroes.
The movie never shirks from violence or the sight of blood, and, indeed, it is the story's bloody ending that continues to elicit shock even today. This was trendsetting business in 1967, when up until that time most actors died in movies by simply falling over, not being splattered with gore. Yet, it is not just the new outlook on brutal reality that helped make "Bonnie and Clyde" a classic. It's the combining of humor and humanity with the brutal action we see in the picture.
Turning two murderous criminals into likeable characters, however, also earned the movie a few demerits from critics of the time. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'" Well, to each his own. Surely, no one is going to take this movie for a genuine piece of documented history. It is a movie, pure and simple. You accept it as such. A couple of years later, George Roy Hill would use the same techniques to fashion "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," only Hill would add even more humor. The gimmick worked again.
Beatty plays Clyde as a charming rogue, a movie-star handsome drifter with a penchant for earning money the easiest way possible--by stealing it. Was the real Clyde Barrow as captivating and happy-go-lucky as he's portrayed here? Probably not. Does it matter? Certainly not. Besides, Beatty shows us Clyde's tempestuous side, too, his anger and his frustration. What's more, the movie raises the question of whether Clyde's fascination with guns had anything to do with his sexual inadequacies. Not that the film comes right and tells us that Clyde was sexually impotent, but it comes close, hinting later that it had more to do with psychological matters. The movie leaves the subject rather vague.
Dunaway plays Bonnie in a less colorful manner than Beatty handles Clyde. Perhaps it's the nature of the character. We don't get to know her mood swings as much as we get to know Clyde's. Bonnie isn't as temperamental as Clyde is, except when she longs to go home and realizes she can't. Still, Dunaway has some emotional range to play around with, and Bonnie comes off as a real human being, rather than a stock gangster's moll.
The others in the cast perform well, with Estelle Parsons winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. However, while she does a fine job, she didn't entirely convince me the performance was Oscar-worthy. Her character's sole purpose seems to be to panic and scream as much as possible. Hackman is more persuasive as the boisterous brother, Pollard is quietly disarming, and in various supporting parts there are Denver Pyle as a determined Texas Ranger; Dub Taylor as C.W.'s father; and, surprisingly perhaps, Gene Wilder--in his first big-screen movie role--as a bewildered innocent caught up in the outlaws' trail.
Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton (with an uncredited Robert Towne helping out) say in the disc's accompanying documentary that they were striving to produce a kind of New Wave realism in their story, which accounts for all the bloodshed and personal character interaction. However, I'm not sure the screenwriters expected director Arthur Penn ("Little Big Man," "Alice's Restaurant") to inject as much humor into the story as he did. Bonnie and Clyde's first few bumbling attempts at crime are more comic than serious. Then, as the plot proceeds, the violence becomes more intense and the gun battles become more severe.
The Academy nominated "Bonnie and Clyde" for practically every award they could offer, with the aforementioned Ms. Parsons winning for Best Supporting Actress and Burnett Guffey winning for Best Cinematography. Surely, the look of the film is almost as important as its violence, humor, and characters. Guffey recreates the feel and appearance of Depression Era Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Louisiana in his depiction of the lonely countryside, the hollow desolation, the dispirited society, and the generally broken tenor of the times, helped in no small measure by Flatt and Scruggs's "Foggie Mountain Breakdown" playing in the background.
"Bonnie and Clyde" whizzes by in a compact 111 minutes, while carrying an image of people and places that is hard to forget. If you haven't seen the film, it's worth a look. If you haven't seen it in quite a while, it's worth a revisit.
Warner Bros. engineers remastered the video from restored original film elements, and the results are excellent for a movie some forty years old. It's true there is a fair amount of film grain evident in outdoor location footage, some shots are a bit soft, and facial hues can be a touch dark on occasion, but, that said, the majority of the colors are quite realistic, the definition is superb for an SD disc, and the screen is clean, clean, clean. Contrasts, too, are strong, if a little glassy, and the overall appearance of the film is probably as good as the day WB made it.
I'm afraid the movie's original monaural soundtrack doesn't come up as well remastered as the video does. The Dolby Digital 1.0 processing brings out a pinched, nasal quality in the voices, with a touch of background noise thrown in at higher volume. Midrange clarity is key, though, so despite the vocal characteristics, the dialogue is easy to understand. The overall sound has good impact but not a lot of range.
Disc one of this Two-Disc Special Edition contains the feature film and little else. There are thirty-five scene selections but no chapter insert; a full-screen teaser trailer and a widescreen theatrical trailer for the film; English as the only spoken language; English, French, and Korean subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the bulk of the extras. Here, you'll find a new, fortieth-anniversary, commemorative documentary, "Revolution: The Making of Bonnie and Clyde," sixty-four minutes and divided into several chapters. Warren Beatty hosts it, and it includes segments on just about every aspect of the filmmaking. Interestingly, it tells us that initially the screenwriters wanted French New Wave director Francois Truffaut to helm the project, but he was busy with another commitment, so they brought in Arthur Penn. They had wanted Truffaut because they had attempted a kind of New Wave naturalism in the script, which they figured a French director could appreciate.
Anyway, after that, you'll find a History Channel documentary, "Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," forty-three minutes, that provides details on the real-life outlaws. Then, there is a seven-minute segment on Beatty doing wardrobe tests; and two deleted scenes lasting about five minutes. The discs come housed in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a colorful, embossed slipcover.
"Bonnie and Clyde" may seem a bit tame compared to today's shoot-'em-ups, but it still carries a punch, skillfully combining violence and humor in equal measure. More important, though, you'll get to know these characters and appreciate them, whether they represent the actual, historical figures being another question altogether. The movie weathers the test of time.