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

No Way Out (1987)

No_Way_Out_(1987_film)_posterIn the 1970s political paranoia involved issues in the realm of Watergate. Government conspiracy and that type of thing perfectly embodied by some of Alan Pakula’s best films. But it’s important to realize in order to better understand this particular thriller, the 1980s were a decade fraught with fears of Soviet infiltration compromising our national security. The Cold War was still a part of the public consciousness even after being a part of life for such a long time already. So No Way Out has a bit of Pakula’s apprehension in government and maybe even a bit of the showmanship of Psycho with some truly jarring twists.

The conflict is surprisingly close and even if it involves the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon and various other arms of government, Roger Donalson’s film only takes great interest in maybe three or four characters really.

From early on its evident that Kevin Costner is our everyman and the person who we will be investing our time in for the rest of the film. It’s a star-making performance to add to a string of classics including the Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves.

The always capable Gene Hackman takes on the role of Secretary of Defense and his ultra-loyal right-hand man Will Patton goes to great lengths to protect his superior. They are key to the storyline as is Lt. Commander Tom Farrell’s girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who also moonlights as the Secretary’s mistress. Her character is lively and a crucial player but over time it becomes evident that above all else she’s used to serve the plot and ratchet up the tension.

Already you can begin to see the complications and their ensuing implications. But that is only the beginning of No Way Out because in its latter half it drops off the deep end with a seismic shift that shakes up everything we knew before about this world.

It’s in these moments that I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d seen this before somewhere and it’s easy to see the striking resemblance to the 1940s noir The Big Clock. On further examination, the two stories do share some of the same plot points from Kenneth Fearing’s novel but this is certainly a re-imagining meant for the 1980s transposed to a politically charged arena.

Once more we have the authorities looking for a phantom man but the said man seems to be the only one who knows he is innocent. Off such a foundation No Way Out builds a pulse-pounding narrative that at times feels utterly absurd but it also tapped into the fears of that age and even this one that our highest modes of government are being undermined by our enemies. The Big Clock boasted a more idiosyncratic and colorful script but No Way Out certainly works well as a highly underrated thriller.

My initial assumption would have been that Hackman would have played a bigger role and potentially had a shot of pulling the spotlight away from Costner but our lead remains our lead to the very end, dashing in a uniform and incredibly fearless when it comes to defying authority.

If nothing else it leads to a vacuous car chase that ends up on foot in a Subway station. Hackman and Fernando Rey did a better job of it in The French Connection but that does not take away an ounce of the enjoyment. Because whether you’re ultimately a fan of them or not, No Way Out does have some monumental twists that will either leave you scratching your heads incredulously or cause you to fly off the handle in indignance.  If you crave a good old-fashioned political thriller 80s-style No Way Out is worth it.

3.5/5 Stars

Hoosiers (1986)

hoosiers_movie_poster_copyright_fairuseThe last time I saw Hoosiers it was on VHS and I was only a boy and I hardly remember anything. Gene Hackman yelling. Dennis Hopper as a drunk. Jimmy the boy wonder, “The Picket Fence”, and of course Indiana basketball at its finest. But in those opening moments, as he drives into town and walks through the halls of his new home, I realized just how much I miss Gene Hackman. Yes, he’s still with us but the moment he decided to step out of the limelight and retire from his illustrious career as an actor, films got a little less exciting. His passionate often fiery charisma is dearly missed.

Norman Dale is a character who precisely reflects those very inclinations. He’s a man who had a long stint in the Navy following a lifetime ban from collegiate basketball. Supposedly he punched out some kid. The particulars aren’t all that important but what the town of Hickory represents for him is a second chance, a clean slate to leave his mark on.

And through a no-nonsense philosophy coupled with tough love he looks to get his pistons firing on all cylinders, the ultimate goal to lead his team to a winning season. However, his tactics early on receive the ire of most of the local fan base as well as many of his players who willfully walk out on his new regime.

Barbara Hershey is the skeptical love interest who is nevertheless a cut above most of the other locals. She went away for college and returned home in an effort to care for her family. She has the coach pegged early on but he is an individual who meets the pressure of the town’s expectations and combats them the only way he knows how, by coaching hard, fundamentally sound basketball.

Certainly, at first, his boys have their misgivings but once they buy into his system and realize that he will fight for them to the end, they really do become a team–the very word that they chant every time they leave their huddle. It’s meant to define them in every game they play. Hackman’s screaming tirades are just as good as I remember as he berates referees about every call imaginable, all in an effort to intercede on behalf of his players. Meanwhile. Dennis Hopper falls into the role of disgraced father catapulted to redemption with tremendous ease showcasing his typical savvy as a character actor.

Sometimes I consider the 1980s (rather unfairly) an era devoid of quality filmmaking but a film like The Hoosiers in its goodness, as sentimental as it is, feels so utterly sincere in all of its endeavors that it hard not to be won over. The rhythms of the plot are all there to develop one of the lasting feel-good stories of a generation and Hoosiers simultaneously set the groundwork for numerous subsequent and, more often than not, lesser sports films.

There’s one scene in particular that resonated with me. It’s not necessarily crucial but it’s poignant speaking to the character of the man before us. A young man comes to not only his teacher but to his coach questioning why Dale is giving the boy’s drunken, ostracized father a chance as an assistant coach. And essentially the answer has to do with grace. No one else will give the man a second chance. No one. But doesn’t he deserve it? Maybe not at all but Coach Dale is willing to give it to him. You get the sneaking suspicion he feels precisely this way because no one ever offered him any grace when he faltered. Small towns can often be rigid, set strictly in the ways of tradition. There’s no room for errancy or disgrace of any type but then coach comes to town and changes things. Redemption is possible.

As was commonplace at the time, every day is rife with Biblical imagery no more practical than an illusion to David versus Goliath in the State Championship. Because coach Dale and his boys are big fish in a small pond transported to a veritable ocean. But he says it all when with hands together in one final huddle he says proudly, “I love you guys.” At this point, the results really don’t matter though they play a good game. Something to be proud of, reflective of everything they’ve done the entire season, one last final exhibition of what they are — a team — first and last.

I was never a gifted basketball player hailing from the Kurt Rambis school of hustle and hard knocks and that makes me thoroughly appreciate this film. It’s fundamentally sound on and off the court. It also helps that I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia. Whether they like it or not Indiana basketball will always be defined by Hoosiers.

4/5 Stars

Review: The French Connection (1971)

frenchcon5There is a pervading gritty realism to William Friedkin’s French Connection that undoubtedly took some cues from the French New Wave and the Neorealist movements. Hand-held cameras are taken to the streets of New York and to the train terminals. There is literally trash piling up in the gutters, old dilapidated bathroom stalls, and worn out facades all over the city. It’s urban, depressed, and a place of crime. In many ways this film is like Bullitt for New York, in fact, Steve McQueen was even offered the lead.

However, this time around our main cop is Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider). Both play a key role, but Popeye (the man with the hat) is of the greater interest. He’s a wise guy, belligerent, barking, loud-mouthed hot head, often driven by obsession in his job. He also happens to be an undercover cop in the narcotics division. He’s used to getting dirty and using the rough stuff when necessary. After all, it’s a jungle out there and there’s no room for pushovers.

From the get-go, we come to understand that this story has a French Connection, in Marseilles to be exact, and we know who is involved (Fernando Rey). We just cannot quite pick out all the details. Simultaneously, on a hunch, Doyle and Russo start running surveillance on a guy they happen upon in a club. Things don’t quite add up since he runs a deli called Sal and Angie’s by day and lives it up at night. An undercover informant also tips Popeye off to a big shipment of heroin that’s coming in.

frenchcon9Sal Boca has to be into something and so a game of tailing begins on the streets after he and his French contacts are spotted together. Frog 1 named Charnier (Rey) has Popeye on his tail only to shake him adeptly. That’s only the beginning, however, after a sniper comes after Popeye and yet another chase ensues. The fugitive boards a train and Doyle commandeers a car to follow close behind. Thus, was born one of the greatest car chases of all time and it doesn’t even involve two cars. After the adrenaline of that moment has worn off Doyle and Russo are on another stakeout and this time impound a car belonging to frog # 2 Henri Devereaux. Popeye has a gut feeling that the vehicle’s dirty and they literally tear it apart end to end, with little luck. But he’s a force of nature and very little will get in the way of his obstinate drive.

frenchcon11When the drop finally takes place everything goes off smoothly enough, but there’s a roadblock, and Popeye is waiting for them with a playful wave. He’s got them now. The final roundup leads him into an old warehouse as the hunt continues, but The French Connection finishes open-ended. Sal was gunned down, the meeting was busted, but not everyone was caught, and Charnier seems to have vanished into thin air. To top it off, Doyle shoots the wrong man and without flinching continues his obsessive hunt.

Friedkin’s film was partially based on true events from the 1960s and the two men the story was patterned after actually are featured as the boys’ superior Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan) and federal agent Bill Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who has a longstanding dislike for Doyle. Their presence in the production of this film helps to lend to the realism and nuances that the film is able to take on. The score isn’t all that noticeable, but it’s a tense arrangement that adds some underlining anxiety to some scenes. Stakeouts get more interesting than you would ever give them credit for. Really on the simplest level, this film is about one man’s hunt, his obsessive chase, which at times no longer seems about justice at all, but personal vindication.

4.5/5 Stars

The Conversation (1974)

6d644-theconversationDirected by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, this film begins with a commonplace conversation between a young man and woman in the relatively busy Union Square in San Francisco. As they make their way around their words seem of little importance and yet unbeknownst to them they are being followed and recorded. 

The mastermind behind it all is the surveillance expert Harry Caul who uses his know-how and a small team to track their words from a van.  As a professional and a highly respected member of his field, Caul is guarded and he tries not to concern himself with the reasons behind his surveillance. However, as he works his magic in his private lab space, Caul finally does become affected when he picks up on bits and pieces of the conversation. It deeply troubles him and he continually plays the tapes back. 

Because of his concern, Caul holds out on giving the tapes to the assistant of the Director, the man who commissioned the job. The aide pressures him more and more and then finally Caul finds the tapes are stolen. Fearing that the couple is in grave danger, Caul takes the room right next to theirs, but unfortunately despite his best efforts, his fears seem to be confirmed. After searching the empty room Caul goes to confront the Director only to find that things are not as they seem and Caul is the only one who realizes it. The disillusioned man is then threatened over the phone and informed that now the shoe is on the other foot and he is under constant surveillance. Little did he know the implications of the conversation… 

Gene Hackman may have played more memorable characters like Popeye Doyle, Lex Luthor, or even Norman Dale in the Hoosiers, however, I am not sure if he played a more complex character than Harry Caul. He is a detached man who has no telephone, tells white lies about his birthday, has multiple locks on his door, keeps his equipment caged and he has no significant relationships. The other side of him loves the saxophone and is a devout Catholic. He is no hero and not what we would normally call a villain. He is Harry Caul a lonely, confused human who has tendencies for good but still constantly struggles to reconcile that with his career. Above all, The Conversation is a thought-provoking psychological thriller which gives the audience lots to mull over.
 
4.5/5 Stars

The Best Films of Gene Hackman

1. The French Connection
2. The Conversation
3. Hoosiers
4. Superman
5. Bonnie and Clyde
6. Unforgiven
7. The Royal Tenenbaums
8. I Never Sang for my Father
9. Superman II
10. Get Shorty
11. Crimson Tide
12. Night Moves
13. No Way Out
14. Mississippi Burning
15. Young Frankenstein

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

The French Connection (1971)

af50c-thefrenchconnectionIn this crime thriller starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, two detectives, Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo, work the grimy, tough streets of Brooklyn. They think they have happened upon a narcotics job and they use tapping and tailing to close in on the suspicious activity with a french connection. With no real results, they get pulled off the special assignment. That all changes after an unexpected twist followed by a wild chase. Doyle and his partner are finally close to cracking the case but it still takes more work and even more waiting. Finally, they seem to have the culprits but it ends far from perfectly for them. Up to the end Doyle is bent on finding “the frog” who has eluded him for so long. The ending felt a little too abrupt for my liking. However, this film did a good job at portraying the ugly and dirty side of New York realistically.

4.5/5 Stars

Unforgiven (1992)

e1e9a-unforgiven_2Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Morgan Freeman, the film opens with two cowboys who disfigure a prostitute. The sheriff, Little Bill (Hackman) gives them a punishment but the other women pool their funds to pay for bounty hunters. A young gun requests the help of a former outlaw Will Munny (Eastwood) so they can collect the payment. However, because his deceased wife changed his ways, at first Will is reluctant. In need of money, he eventually heads off and brings along his old partner Ned (Freeman). After an initial conflict in the town of Big Whiskey, they kill the first one of their targets. Ned backs out and leaves the other two to get the second victim. After they do it, they find out Ned met trouble from the merciless sheriff. The young gunslinger gets cold feet and so an angry Munny heads into town for the final showdown. Eastwood’s character is interesting because he starts out trying to be good but he finally reverts back to his old ways. In this film it is difficult to tell who is bad or good. Everyone is simply human.

4.5/5 Stars