Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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Fifty years on and Bonnie and Clyde remains a cultural landmark as the harbinger proclaiming a new American movie had arrived on the scene. As a cinematic artifact, it is indebted as much to the 60s themselves as it is the Depression Era where its mythical crime story finds its roots.

The spark of an idea came from screenwriter Robert Benton’s own knowledge of his father’s fascination in real crime novels, which even led the elder Benton to attend the actual funerals of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It’s youth rebellion and a free love revolution by way of the 1930s mythology.

Formalistically, Bonnie and Clyde was an effort by producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn, collaborating with their screenwriters, to channel the French New Wave. It’s true that at a time, two of the movements titans, Francois Truffaut and then Jean Luc Godard, were both attached to the project. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out but the spirit they’re pictures were imbued with remain even as this effort is undeniably American.

Bringing the exciting and at times challenging art pictures of Europe to the American mainstream with a jolt of new blood, squibs included free of charge. Even if everyone didn’t realize it at the time, it signaled a rebirth of a style and philosophy that was fully alive. It only took generations of new film school filmmakers to run with it and in subsequent generations eventually, kill it.

For now, we had the fateful meet-cute, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) scantily clad, bored out of her mind, and spying the boy trying to nab her mama’s car. She catcalls him and he welcomes her — nay, challenges her — to join him. He’s Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) a small-time criminal who did a stint in prison and has two missing toes to prove it (It was his gag to get off a work detail a few days before he was paroled). They share a drink over Coca-Cola in the noonday sun. He’s intent on being a big shot and she’s disillusioned by her waitressing gig.

In a moment, he brandishes a gun to exert his manhood and he’s further coaxed on by Bonnie to rob the cash register in her quaint town. She doesn’t believe he has the gumption. A minute later he rushes out with the wad of cash and they’re on their way to a giddy life of crime so thrilling, at first, with its bouncy jangle of banjo strings. This is only the beginning. They aren’t big name criminals yet. That notoriety is born out of three words: We Rob Banks!

Yes, they do. They bring on slow-witted but able mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to keep their gears constantly turning so they can handily outrun the police and dot their native Texas with bank job after bank job. Clyde kills his first man after Moss botches their getaway and the papers start to document their harrowing exploits on the wrong side of the law.

A family reunion follows for Barrow as his older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s quibbling wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the daughter of a preacher, join their merry company. It should be noted the ladies take an immediate disliking to each other. Bonnie’s not agreeable to the domesticated lifestyle and she’s wary of Blanche, a woman she deems has no guts. It’s a perceptive observation.

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As their reputation grows, so do the prices riding on all of their heads. First, the cops look to ambush them on their holiday in Missouri. Then it’s a lone Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) who winds up getting his picture taken to be plastered all throughout the newspapers. He’s not one to forget the humiliation and he’s aiming to make them pay.

Each and every time they take to the road again, starting up their rampage across the countryside a new, casing bank after bank, while gaining a bit of mystique with the common folk. Along the way, they pick up some extra passengers (Gene Wilder and Evans Evans) to terrorize and then make a pilgrimage to the Parker home due to Bonnie’s homesickness.

But even this move is extremely dangerous and soon another police ambush follows on their latest residence that is deadlier still. It’s a downward spiral with an ever larger target being pinned on their backs. Soon they’re picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery with Buck being mortally wounded and Blanche subsequently goes hysterical and spills her guts to the authorities all but sealing the fate of our antiheroes. Bonnie was right about her.

The other three escape by the skin of their teeth though badly battered. With nowhere else to turn, they seek asylum with C.W.’s father who extends some southern hospitality. Although, behind closed doors, he isn’t too keen about his son’s new lifestyle with tattoos and all.

We know the story must end even as Bonnie has successfully canonized their legend nationwide with a poem she penned subsequently published around the country. And they are as in love as they ever were promising to get married and dreaming of a different life where they could settle down and be normal folks. They take what they can get and love each other while they can. Because justice is swift and it comes with a vengeance.

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The old mores are upheld but utilizing a new language that was aberrant and gratuitous in comparison to the traditions of the past. But that was just it. Bonnie and Clyde was somehow the perfect vehicle of antiestablishment both in form and function. It was like the perfect storm of a cultural revolution and a medium to reflect the angst of a generation.

There’s a madcap raggedness to their crime spree that’s almost comical and Penn plays it like a comedy at first. A bunch of hicks out on a road comedy caper, only it’s underscored by graphic blood-spattered violence like the industry had never witnessed before. It’s like putting the frenetic zaniness of the Keystone Kops with the violent gunplay out of the gangster tradition and it creates a disconcerting dissonance ripping apart the standards of Classical Hollywood. Because the industry had showcased degenerate criminals before — the Cagneys, Robinsons, and Bogarts — but they were always hard-bitten figures and, of course, they got their comeuppance.

Up to that point, there was arguably no characterization quite like this where our leads were young and desirable — a new kind of antihero who forged an anarchic path between Gun Crazy, Breathless, and Pierrot Le Fou.

Arthur Penn pointed out at a later date, and you could easily make the argument, for the first time film was being more accurate by showing the actual impact of a bullet on a human body. There was no cutaway. There was no inference or use of the wizardry of editing to imply the results. They were right there in from of us in all their gory reality. That was indeed groundbreaking.

Its final scene ranks right up there with Psycho‘s shower sequence for how it completely shatters everything we knew to be convention. At that point, there’s no going back. You cannot unsee it. It stays with you. Both instances brutal in their meshing of image, sound, editing, and the myriad pieces at the disposal of filmmakers to make us see something deeply manipulating.

Bonnie and Clyde would bear many of the progeny that have challenged me; films that brazenly dabble in violence, comedy, and the darkness of the human heart in almost inconceivable ways. Mixing tones, emotions, and content in a manner that is incompatible at best and deeply perturbing in their most volatile forms.

Surely, we cannot laugh at something and an instant later be subjected to the blackness of death? People cannot be villains and cast as heroes in the same breath. Everything passed down from our traditions tells us this is not the way it works. After Bonnie and Clyde, it was a whole new landscape. No question.

5/5 Stars

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Few figures in the West have the mystique in western lore as Billy the Kid, aside from a few prominent names like Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, etc. Billy Joel even famously penned a tune chronicling the life of the outlaw.

Part of the allure, no doubt, has to do with his youth and the casting of the man as a Robin Hood type anti-hero who only robbed those with excess. Inspired by a teleplay by Gore Vidal (who for the record disliked the picture), television-turned-film-director Arthur Penn makes a conscious decision to focus his story on other facets of the character.

Although slightly older, Paul Newman came into acting about the same time as James Dean and in some respects they were cut out of the same mold. At any rate, they came from a similar school of actors training in the 1950s. Though Newman was no Dean, he does a fine facsimile here. He gives a, at times, disconcerting but overwhelmingly giddy performance as Billy the Kid and somehow his age of 33 doesn’t seem to distract from the part too much. Because he’s still holding onto a decent amount of his boyish charm and good looks.

Leslie Stevens’ script features terse often tiresome colloquial dialogue in a downright peculiarly paced western. However, this is not the main point of interest anyway. For the record, William Bonney (Paul Newman) drifts onto a ranch and is taken on by a trusting cattle rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston). But that same penchant for trust winds up getting him killed in an ambush.

Though he only knew the man for a short period, Billy carries a fierce loyalty and resolves to go after the four men who conspired in killing his boss pulling, his reluctant partners Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard into it with him. Allusions to “Through a glass darkly” from Corinthians suggests a bit of the muddled kaleidoscope that the man envisions the world through.

One morning he’s howling with his boys on a wagon heaped with flour, caked in white and the next minute he’s provoking another man to draw on him just so he can blow him away. His old friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has trouble knowing what to do in the face of William’s lighting-hot personality.

The newly minted amnesty in the territory means a temporary peace, instantly obliterated by a moment of stupidity among Billy’s buddies. Though the novels back east have cast him as some fictionalized larger-than-life figure, he’s really nothing like that at all.

His buddies get it and then as the final straw, Pat vows to hunt down his estranged friend, putting on the badge of the local sheriff, after an unwanted blowup at his own wedding. Billy has alienated the one man who will make him pay. First, he brings him in to be hung and then after the kid escapes, Garrett heads out again to finish things off once.  It’s a pitiful character arc and that’s the key.

While it might be overshooting its influence to say that the Left Handed Gun singlehandedly erected a new brand of western, at the very least, it suggested a new age of the West as we knew it. Beyond this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Penn’s later work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which The Left Handed Gun is an obvious precursor to in the depiction of the outsider who uses violence almost indiscriminately.

One scene that leaves an impression involves a blurred image as Billy taunts a deputy from up above, toting a shotgun and blowing him away as he squints through the sunlight. Not only is it composed as a slo-mo killing but as his body lies in the street and people run toward him, instead of screaming, a little girl looks at his solitary boot just sitting there and proceeds to point and laugh. Her mother smacks her but the damage has been done. His death is a joke. There’s no point to it. People fail to react as they have been coached to since the dawning of the cinematic western.

There’s a senselessness to the killing which explodes with an almost haphazard vengeance. In no accordance with reason or morals nor in the end by perceived good or evil. Each bullet is yet another indication of all that is idiosyncratic in the subject matter. Not a hero, not a villain, but a perplexingly near neurotic gunslinger.

Whether it’s to everyone’s taste is another question entirely. It’s more character study than drama and in this close observation, it’s the distillation of a new kind of western hero — the anti-hero, or lack thereof, that is most notable. Today it’s less interesting because we have Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

But as a picture going against the grain, an artifact from a certain moment in time, there’s still something burning within its frames. Even if it’s not a fully cohesive effort, The Left Handed Gun is not without its flashes of artfulness and intriguing volatility. It began the work of reconstructing the mythos of the West that had been forged in the movies though there was still a great deal more to come. In fact, Arthur Penn would return to western revisioning with Little Big Man (1970) over a decade later.

3/5 Stars

The Chase (1966)

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Of all the reasons to watch this movie, I felt compelled to as a roundabout reevaluation of Robert Redford’s career as he just recently said The Old Man and The Gun would be his last film. He more recently still, admitted he never should have said he was retiring but for all intent and purposes, he’s winding down, focusing his energies on other endeavors.

The Chase is situated at the beginning of his career and although he’s not quite the star, Redford has an integral part to play. Bubba is a local boy who breaks out of prison. Due to his dashing good looks, they don’t immediately place him as a runaway criminal type but if Paul Newman could do it, I gather Redford could do it too.

If we had to pick one central conceit this would be it, except, on the whole, The Chase proves a meandering epic, purely hit or miss, especially given such a promising cast. It’s as bloated with talent as it is convoluted by so many character arcs, each coming at us from all over the place with varying degrees of interest and importance.

The local sheriff, named Calder (Marlon Brando), lives an honest life with his loving wife (Angie Dickinson). There is talk around town that the lawman is in the coat pocket of prominent banker Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Though the accusations seem dubious based on Calder’s simple integrity. However, if it is true,  he wouldn’t be the only one intent on getting on the big man’s good side.

Soon it’s Saturday night and the whole town seems to be having a party. The most coveted one is thrown by Rogers and sure enough, among his guests are the Calders. Though they hardly fit into the upper echelon, they have an open invitation because Val is intent on staying on the incumbent lawman’s good side for what he might be able to do for him.

Meanwhile, an agitated bank employee (Robert Duvall) and his coquettish wife (Janice Rule) put on a shindig for the “normal folks” who never seem to get an invitation from Rogers. The means might be humbler but they similarly get a little tipsy while play fighting, dancing, and openly flirting with anything with a pulse and a pickup line.

Two of the most accomplished adulterers and partakers in sordid gossip-worthy fodder are Emily and Damon, who are quite openly lovey-dovey, given they are both married to other people. It’s telling that the status quo is getting drunk and carousing with other’s spouses.  We hardly bat an eye because the whole town is rampant with this kind of conduct.

Despite being the lead and raking in a hefty fee, Brando spends most of the film moseying around town making house calls or patrolling the streets. In fact, initially, it feels like the most mundane and understated performance from Mr. Brando I can recall. That is until the final act where for once his hand is forced and he has to struggle for his own survival and any semblance of small-town law and order.

The only other moment where he enters such terrain again is in the final moments on the steps of the sheriff’s office; this time to deliver retribution. Because this is a film where everything seems to go awry. If the hothouse dramas of the 50s were a dying breed, The Chase might be the closest thing to a reanimation of the genre, albeit with younger, newer blood.

However, amidst this southern operatic melodrama, helmed by Arthur Penn, The Chase still comes off somewhat dated, maybe due to its evocation of earlier works. It’s as if the picture is trying to push an agenda of social importance for a new decade but simultaneously lacks a compelling framework to work within. The point is made quite clear that African-Americans and Mexican migrant workers are second-class citizens and subsequently mostly forgotten in this story. But there are few interesting conclusions on this front.

Otherwise, for the first half, there’s nothing organic or terribly alive in terms of authenticity. Because while Brando gives a fine turn, admittedly easy to overlook, most everyone else is carried away by the drama. They have nothing to give us that feels truly genuine and the story freely escalates by upping the temperature in the ongoing search for Bubba.

Finally, Redford and Jane Fonda get together, an escaped convict reunited with his long lost wife. Maybe they didn’t know it at the time but it would be the beginning of a meaningful screen partnership which has been forged over 50 years. But before long, even this brief, potentially intimate moment is interrupted by first one party, then two, and before long the whole town has turned their moment into the latest county-wide social event.

The junkyard is the finest attraction as it promises to give them the most wanted fugitive for miles around and they’ve come to be a part of the show. Soon folks are yelling exuberantly, lobbing firecrackers into the heaps of old automobiles as car horns honk in this symphony of tumult. But if this is where the climax begins it actually ends on the steps of the jailhouse in a scene that evokes if not JFK’s assassination then certainly Jack Ruby’s actions the following day. The clouds of misery linger over the frames but that’s not our biggest regret.

I think, no fault of its own, The Chase boasts almost more talent than it knows what to do with. So many actors come together at so many different crossroads of their careers. Of course, Brando is front and center. He and Robert Duvall still had The Godfather and many other classics ahead of them. Redford and Fonda were both young talents. E.G. Marshall had an illustrious career on stage and screen while Miriam Hopkins was in her twilight years in a small role. Angie Dickinson was pretty much in her prime. Even Arthur Penn had pictures with more socially incisive commentary and interesting themes including the cinema-shattering Bonnie and Clyde released the following year.

The bottom line is that in each individual case it’s easy to think of at least a handful of films each of these actors was involved in which were more enthralling than this one. It’s hard to hold a candle to that type of competition and against it, The Chase looks fairly mediocre. True, it’s a rather unfair fulcrum to measure a movie by but in this case, it’s very hard not to. Taking these unfair biases into account, it has something to offer the viewer even if it’s not quite as satiating as one would like.

3/5 Stars

Little Big Man (1970)

9a376-little_big_manAlthough the film certainly had so good parts for some reason it did not quite jell with me. Focusing on the positive first, this was a revisionist western that tried to depict an alternative picture of the American west from the eyes of Native Americans. Although not perfect it was trying. Dustin Hoffman also gave an impressive performance that found him drifting between the worlds of “the White man” and “the Indians.”

Here is where I get into the main problem that I had with the film. Most of it had to do with age and casting. It was brave and somewhat strange that Dustin Hoffman portrayed his character from his teen years up until he was over a century old. For the most part Hoffman pulled it off. I also was kind of uncomfortable with his sister Caroline who looked like she was 30 even though she was only supposed to be a child. Then, you have Faye Dunaway. That had to be the strangest thing in the film. Although younger in real life, she was Dustin Hoffman’s adopted mother for a time and she played it up.

In some ways this film reminded me a bit of The Butler because we have a main character who grows old in front of us and he ultimately has a role in many diverse bits of history. Like that film, Little Big Man is quite interesting and at times entertaining, but the implausibility of the plot can get to you.

In defense of this film, I really did not know what I was getting myself into and so it surprised me with its mix of violent drama and a sprinkling of comedy. I would have liked to have seen more of Faye Dunaway and Martin Balsam, but it is what it is. Chief Dan George was the breakout character for sure. He was very enjoyable to listen to as he mentored Little Big Man.

3.5/5 Stars

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

b1a0c-bonnie_and_clydeStarring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, with director Arthur Penn, the film chronicles the crime life of a group of notorious gangsters during the 1930s. Clyde Barrow (Beatty), a small time thief meets the beautiful young girl Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) and together they begin robbing banks. Soon they enlist the help of a dim-witted mechanic C.W., and then Clyde’s brother joins the fray bringing along his wife. They have a string of successes and they become infamous nationwide. Soon they begin to bicker among themselves and the police start to buckle down. In a shootout Buck is shot dead and Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. just barely escape. However, their actions eventually do catch up with them and thus ends the story of these two figures depicted as anti-heroes. This film is significant because it was influenced by the French New Wave but it in turn ushered in a new era of American film . It has a unique combination of comedy, romance, violence, and of course banjo music.

5/5 Stars