Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Olde Review: Bonnie and Clyde

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Friday's ASUW Films in 130 Kane may comprise the best double-bill, with one notable exception, in the entire series. They are Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Robert Benton's "Bad Company"

"Bonnie and Clyde" (Arthur Penn, 1967) "Bonnie and Clyde" caused quite a stir when it was released in 1967. It was one of the first gangster movies, at least within most casual movie-goer's memories (which isn't much) to treat these people not as psychopaths, but as ordinary people who were caught in the Depression's whirl-pool and didn't know any other way to fight it. In other words, it attempted to de-mythologize the Barrow Gang. Unfortunately, the film created as many myths as it de-bunked. But then what else can you expect when you have two "beautiful people" like Warren Beatty (who does a fine impression of Warren Oates) and Faye Dunaway (whose acting wasn't equalled here until "Chinatown" in 1974).

William Bayer in his book "The Great Movies"* has said "what is also personal about 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and constitutes its unique flavor is its curious blending of comedy and horror, its romanticization of crime as something that is fun, and that also leads to violent, bloddy death. 'Bonnie and Clyde' is both real and abstract, a gangster-movie and a comedy-romance. It is a comedy that turns dark, a romance that ends with death."

Death in "Bonnie and Clyde" is of an explicit nature. It was the first popular film to use the modern film technology to present a heightened violence that created the trend that is still going on today. Of course, no one forgets the slow-motion slaughter of the two at the end--"the dance of death"--it's dream-like quality, because Death's constant presence in their lives has turned it into a dream. Slo-Mo violence has been used after ad infinitum with no imagination and less effect**

There are other moments: the first violent death of a clerk;*** the performances of Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael Pollard, Denver Pyle and Dub Taylor; Bonnie's escape in a corn field; the death of Gene Hackman; the comedic perfection of Evans Evans and Gene Wilder (in his first movie); and probably, best of all, the reunion with Bonnie's parents before their world falls apart.

Yeah, it is Arthur Penn's finest film. Borrowing from the past, but also using his own sense of cinematic imagery, Penn has made a complete, whole film--something that can't be said of his "Little Big Man," "Night Moves," or "The Missouri Breaks" with their only occasional moments of brilliance.

Maybe the reason Penn was so successful with "Bonnie and Clyde" is the material he had to work with--the script by Robert Benton and David Newman.**** Newman and Benton wrote it hoping that Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard would direct it. Arthur Penn was extremely lucky that they were unavailable. The two later scripted "There was a Crooked Man," and, with Buck Henry, co-scripted "What's Up, Doc?" In 1972, after writing for others and seeing them reap all the laurels, Benton-Newman wrote a script and Benton got to direct it, It was called "Bad Company" and in many ways it's a better film than "Bonnie and Clyde."

Broacdcast on KCMU-FM January 20th, 1977

* Sadly, out of print, and not to be confused with Roger Ebert's "The Great Movies" series of books. Bayer's book was a fairly non-controversial heavy tome with well-written appreciations and beautiful photographs. I've still got it, and still treasure it. I became acquainted with Ebert's two-book series over a weekend, and found them both very enjoyable in Ebert's typically "personal-relationship-with-the-movies" style. He's just increased the number of "must-see" movies by about 50. *Sigh* No rest for the wicked.
** The thing that makes "Bonnie and Clyde's" death in undercranked motion so well-done, as opposed to most that came after is attributable to the editing of DeDeAllen, whose scrupulous work for Penn and Sydney Lumet, raised it above the typical use of slow-motion, which is used for exploitation purposes. I might have been harping on Sam Peckinpah on this point, but even he only used flashes of slow-motion amidst a fast edited sequence to highlight a story-point, or prolong a moment of shock. Nowadays, the sequence looks a little tame.

***Based on a similar shot in Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin"--folks were getting into film-school references at this point.

****Benton-Newman also wrote the book for "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman" the short-lived Broadway musical, which paved the way for them working on the scripts for "Superman" and "Superman II." Benton went on to direct such great films as "Kramer vs. Kramer," and my favorite of his films "Places in the Heart."

Tomorrow: "Bad Company"

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