#260) Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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#260) Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

OR “Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?”

Directed by Arthur Penn

Written by David Newman & Robert Benton

Class of 1992

The Plot: Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow, two Depression-era criminals only partially based on their real-life counterparts. Clyde meets Bonnie while trying to steal her mother’s car, and eventually convinces her to abandon her dead-end life in Dallas to rob banks with him. Joined later by getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s uptight wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the newly-minted Barrow Gang drive around the mid-west committing crimes and shooting anyone in their path. As the legends around them grow, so does Bonnie’s premonition that their infamy will end in tragedy.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Penn, the screenwriters, Beatty and Dunaway, and says that the movie set “filmmaking and style trends that linger today”. There’s also an essay by film critic Richard Schickel, who takes the time to slam fellow critics Bosely Crowther (who hated the film) and Pauline Kael (who loved it).

But Does It Really?: “Bonnie and Clyde” is the Hollywood movie that dipped its toes into the waters of post-Code anti-heroes. The characters of Bonnie and Clyde were victims of the Depression that rebelled the only way they knew how, by robbing banks, and New Hollywood could finally tell their story in a bold, complex way. By today’s standard the violence is all very tame, but the restraint helps ground the film, as does Arthur Penn’s confident direction and pitch perfect performances from Beatty, Dunaway, and the whole ensemble. Like many in the 1967 roster, “Bonnie and Clyde” helped define a new era of filmmaking, and is a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Shout Outs: Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. hide out in a movie house showing “Gold Diggers of 1933” following their first botched robbery together. The irony of “We’re In the Money” cannot be overstated.

Everybody Gets One: Actors Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, and Denver Pyle, aka Uncle Jesse from “The Dukes of Hazzard”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Like “The Learning Tree”, “Bonnie and Clyde” is a New Hollywood movie with some of the trappings of an Old Hollywood studio film. Be on the lookout for rear projections and recycled Foley effects.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Bonnie and Clyde” led the Oscar pack (alongside “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) with 10 nominations, including all of the “Big Five” categories. But 1967 was a strong year for movies, and the Academy spread the wealth among fellow NFR entries “The Graduate”, “In the Heat of the Night”, “Cool Hand Luke”, and the aforementioned “Dinner”. “Bonnie” managed two wins: Supporting Actress for Estelle Parsons (Blanche is the most sympathetic of the Barrow gang), and Cinematography for Old Hollywood cameraman Burnett Guffey.

Other notes

  • Among the film’s historical inaccuracies (or oversimplifications): Clyde was not impotent (nor was he bisexual, as some have claimed), C.W. Moss is a fictional amalgamation of several fringe members of the Barrow gang, and Bonnie received third-degree burns from a car accident that permanently damaged her legs. But it’s the real Blanche Barrow who suffers the most. Unlike her film counterpart, Blanche was fully aware of her husband’s criminal record and was a more active participant in the robberies. Blanche lived long enough to see the film and famously griped that Estelle Parsons’ performance “made me look like a screaming horse’s ass.”
  • This film has one of my all time favorite taglines: “They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people.”
  • Right off the bat you’re rooting for these two. Beatty and Dunaway’s natural chemistry is aided by some very smart screenwriting. These aren’t two historical figures spouting off researched facts, these are two screwed-up people trying to get their lives together.
  • Michael J. Pollard definitely took his Strother Martin lessons. I presume Pollard was a winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest.
  • This has got to be one of the rare movies where all five of the lead actors are still with us 50 years later. I will of course use this platform to urge Gene Hackman to make one more movie. Do you really want your swan song to be “Welcome to Mooseport”?
  • What’s louder in this movie: the gunplay or Estelle Parsons?
  • Pretty amazing that the Barrow Gang never runs out of gas during their getaways.
  • The best line in the movie: “And I’m bringing me a mess of flowers to their funeral”.
  • Oh Gene Wilder. Even in your film debut your screen persona is in full bloom (“Step on it, Velma!”).
  • The Parker family reunion scene was allegedly filmed with a window screen to give it a nostalgic filter. One of the locals gathered to watch the filming was Texan schoolteacher Mabel Cavitt, who was cast on the spot as Bonnie’s mother.
  • I have to say, for notorious bank robbers, Bonnie & Clyde don’t rob a lot of banks. If anything they should have gone down for their chronic carjacking.
  • One of the film’s more commendable aspects is that it manages to be a realistic love story without being too romantic or sensual. Any chance of this film being a conventional movie romance is deflated (for lack of a better term) early on, but ultimately these are two people who genuinely care about each other and accept their unified fate.
  • Man, that ending is something else. So much storytelling happening in such quick cuts. It’s brutally tragic. Or is it tragically brutal? Regardless, A+ everyone.

Legacy

  • “Bonnie and Clyde” was buried in limited release by Warner Bros., but resurrected by critics and audiences (including such new young voices as Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael) to become one of the top-grossing hits of 1967. This success jump-started the careers of everyone involved in the film.
  • Many have tried to do a more accurate biopic of Bonnie & Clyde (including a recent TV miniseries), and while they are more factual, they’re just not as exciting.
  • Perhaps my favorite spin-off from this film’s popularity: the short-lived Warner Bros. cartoon series “Bunny and Claude”. They rob carrot patches.
  • But the greatest robbery Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway ever pulled was robbing “Moonlight” of its Best Picture glory.

Listen to This: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, everybody! Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs’ quintessential reckless car chase banjo music was added to the National Recording Registry in 2004, thanks in part to its anachronistic inclusion in “Bonnie and Clyde”.

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