A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 22, 2016

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)

Calling a film a landmark, as Bonnie and Clyde so often has been called, does it a disservice in that it prioritizes historical significance over the aesthetic ones. It makes it difficult to appreciate or criticize the movie without recalling what it was like to see and to talk about the first time you saw it -- if, like me, you saw it in a theater when it was first released. It's a landmark because its success showed the Hollywood studios, which were mere surviving remnants of the old movie factories of the '30s and '40s, that there was an audience for something other than the big musicals and epics that had dominated American movies during the 1960s. There was a young audience out there that had grown up with the French New Wave and the great Italian and Japanese films of that decade, and was resistant to piety and platitudes. Along with The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), Bonnie and Clyde gave this audience something they were looking for, and fed the revolution in filmmaking that made the 1970s one of the most adventurous decades in film history. It's no surprise that the screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were so familiar with the New Wave that they wanted François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard to direct their movie. And even today Warren Beatty, in the opening scenes of Bonnie and Clyde, is bound to remind one of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (Godard, 1960). It was a movie that launched the careers of Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman, not to mention giving Beatty a boost into superstardom. It also put an end to some careers, most notably that of Bosley Crowther, who had been the New York Times's film critic since 1940 but was undone by his vitriolic attack on  Bonnie and Clyde, which he denounced not only in his initial review but also, after protests from the movie's admirers, in two subsequent articles. Crowther was replaced as the Times critic in 1968. On the other hand, Newsweek's critic, Joe Morgenstern, initially panned the film but, after being urged by readers to reconsider, recanted his original critique. So the question persists: Historical significance aside, is Bonnie and Clyde really any good? I'd have to say, after seeing it again for the first time in many years, that it holds up as entertainment. The acting is superb, and Burnett Guffey's cinematography, Dean Tavoularis's art direction, and Theadora van Runkle's costuming all provide a fine 1960s interpretation of 1930s style. Where it falls down for me is in substance: The screenplay, which was worked over by Robert Towne, is too preoccupied with Bonnie and Clyde as lovers with (especially Clyde) some psychosexual hangups. It only feints at demonstrating why the pair became cult figures in the Great Depression, most notably in a scene when Clyde refuses to take the money of a farmer who is in the bank they're robbing, and in a scene in which the wounded couple and C.W. Moss (endearingly played by Michael J. Pollard) stop for help at a bleak migrant camp. Only in scenes like these do we get a sense of the deep background of Depression-era misery, a fuller treatment of which might have elevated the film into greatness, the way Francis Ford Coppola's first two Godfather films  (1972, 1974) turned Mario Puzo's popular novel into an American myth. Otherwise, the criticism that it glamorizes the outlaws by turning them into fashion-model beauties still has some merit.

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