Monday, December 10, 2012

Bonnie and Clyde

BONNIE AND CLYDE          A                    
USA  (112 mi)  1967  d:  Arthur Penn

You’ve read the story of Jesse James--
Of how he lived and died;
If you’re still in need
Of something to read
Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang.
I’m sure you all have read
How they rob and steal
And those who squeal
Are usually found dying or dead.

There’s lots of untruths to these write-ups;
They’re not so ruthless as that;
Their nature is raw;
They hate the law--
The stool pigeons, spotters, and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers;
They say they are heartless and mean;
But I say this with pride,
That I once knew Clyde
When he was honest and upright and clean.

But the laws fooled around,
Kept taking him down
And locking him up in a cell,
Till he said to me,
“I’ll never be free,
So I’ll meet a few of them in hell.”

The road was so dimly lighted;
There were no highway signs to guide;
But they made up their minds
If all roads were blind,
They wouldn’t give up till they died.

The road gets dimmer and dimmer;
Sometimes you can hardly see;
But it’s fight, man to man,
And do all you can,
For they know they can never be free.

From heart-break some people have suffered;
From weariness some people have died;
But take it all in all,
Our troubles are small
Till we get like Bonnie and Clyde.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas,
And they have no clue or guide;
If they can’t find a fiend,
They just wipe their slate clean
And hang it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There’s two crimes committed in America
Not accredited to the Barrow mob;
They had no hand
In the kidnap demand,
Nor the Kansas City Depot job.

A newsboy once said to his buddy:
“I wish old Clyde would get jumped;
In these awful hard times
We’d make a few dimes
If five or six cops would get bumped.”

The police haven’t got the report yet,
But Clyde called me up today;
He said, “Don’t start any fights--
We aren’t working nights--
We’re joining the NRA.”

From Irving to West Dallas viaduct
Is known as the Great Divide,
Where the women are kin,
And the men are men,
And they won’t “stool” on Bonnie and Clyde.

If they try to act like citizens
And rent them a nice little flat,
About the third night
They’re invited to fight
By a sub-gun’s rat-tat-tat.

They don’t think they’re too smart or desperate,
They know that the law always wins;
They’ve been shot at before,
But they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.

Some day they’ll go down together;
They'll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief--
To the law a relief--
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, by Bonnie Parker, 1934

BONNIE AND CLYDE, for better or for worse, changed the landscape of American cinema, as it brilliantly mixes sex and violence, caricature with realism, folksy humor with bullets and death, where as soon as the humanist portrayal of the Barrow gang makes one sympathize with them, they'll go on another violent-tinged escape with devastating consequences, where bullets are raw and graphically ugly.  Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway provide a master class in acting as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, legendary outlaws from the 30’s, especially Dunaway who may give the performance of her career here, never more vulnerable, and that’s saying something.  From the opening scene where she stands naked at a window looking out at Clyde inspecting her mother’s car, it recalls the opening in Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973), capturing the same cloistered details of small town life where the dangerous outsider status of criminal male behavior is the woman’s only ticket out of town, especially for such a sensuous woman as Bonnie who has to accept the dreariness of nothing ever changing in a dirt poor Texas town and little to hope for during the Depression era of the 30’s.  A charmer and sweet talker like Clyde shows signs of reckless masculinity never before seen in her small, dusty town, where she fondles his gun like a sexual object, which gets him all riled up where he feels the need to show off in front of his young girl and decides to rob the first store he sees, immediately making their escape together where Bonnie couldn’t be more sexually aroused afterwards, so much so that Clyde has to stop the car and pull her off of him.  They literally have to invent the idealized version of themselves that they want to be, and the sound of  “We’re Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker…We rob banks” does the trick.  Using stunningly effective close up shots of the two glamorous leads, including fashion shoots with Faye Dunaway, posing in her beret, toting a pistol in her hand and a cigar in her mouth, they become pin up and poster celebrities for Hollywood magazines, becoming mythical figures in real life as well as on the silver screen.  It’s an interesting idea to hype the image, blending sex and violence, to tell the story about notorious bank robbers who became mythical outlaws, their legend growing even stronger after death. 

What’s immediately apparent is the level of violence onscreen, much of it brutal and ugly, where people really are hurt and debilitated, which only escalates with later directors such as Sam Peckinpah who brings a sense of poetry and a final freeze frame to the screen, where there’s plenty of shootouts here with police and people do get killed, which is a system shock following such easy going humor.  Despite the appealing charm of the leading couple, it’s clear what they do for a living is a despicable choice, irrespective of the glamorization, yet they are romanticized through bank robberies, wild shootouts and spectacular car chases in vintage cars, not to mention the illicit romance.  This, then, becomes the theme of the film, as despite reviling crime, outlaw figures can become heroes, as Bonnie & Clyde soon become in American folklore, defying authority, supposedly driven to commit crimes, appealing to the poor because legend had it they only stole the bank’s money, usually small rural banks, and did not take what was in the pockets of the poor farmers.  This appealed to the nation’s growing sense of injustice, blaming the banks for the severe hardships suffered from the economic meltdown of the Depression, as the outlaw gang exerted a good-natured sense of fairplay, as when they capture a Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) and let him live, sending a humiliating photo to the newspapers with Bonnie Parker draping her hands all over him.  This kind of stuff dazzled the public’s imagination demonstrating the misfit outlaws had personality and a sense of humor.  Soon the Barrow gang expanded to include Michael J. Pollard as C.W. Moss, pitch perfect as a rural gas station attendant who’s got nothing better to do with his life, also Gene Hackman as hillbilly brother Buck Barrow and his shrieking wife Estelle Parsons as Blanche, a preacher’s daughter, but also a reference to the swooning melodramatic anxiety of Tennessee Williams, who despite winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, is perhaps the least impressive from this standout ensemble cast, none of whom were box office stars at this point in their careers. 

Like THE GODFATHER (1972), one of the great crime sagas of all time, the director humanizes the criminals, brings them down to earth where onscreen they seem just like you or me, giving them a folksy quality, especially in the brilliant family sequence where they’re playing with the kids, eating ice cream, rolling them down a sand dune, but also in an eerily quiet moment when C.W. drives up to a hobo camp asking for water, where people slowly gather around the wounded couple bleeding in the back seat of the car and voluntarily offer them food and blankets.  Bonnie Parker sent poems and photographs to the newspapers showing them off as a populist outlaw gang, similar to the Zodiac killer who sent cryptic letters in code to the newspapers as well, the kind of stuff that only adds intrigue to the nature of the crime itself, as it seems to deflect the gross horror of the killings and instead helps perpetuate a mythical image of Bonnie and Clyde as misunderstood, star crossed lovers.  When reality finally catches up to them under a hail of gunfire, Texas lawmen shoot 187 rounds of bullets into them, a hugely exaggerated amount, which is a comment itself on just how much the police reviled this outlaw couple.  By ending the film with this visual imprint of excessive violence, it does bring back into focus just exactly what they did for a living, as they carried a heavy arsenal with them wherever they went, and despite the idealized dime store depictions, these were notorious killers.  The humorous banter between the characters is particularly effective, especially in a scene where they pick up Gene Wilder and his girl friend just for the hell of it after stealing his car, buying hamburgers and telling jokes in the car, but then immediately dump him on the side of the road in the middle of the nowhere several hours later when they discover he’s an undertaker.  This kind of dark humor perfectly suits this film, as it’s a charming, character driven depiction of a short-lived road to destruction.  BONNIE AND CLYDE set the tone, as did Penn’s earlier film Mickey One (1965), for a different style of American film, and not just with violence, but also in the existential realism of the performances, where there’d be no Five Easy Pieces (1970) without the theatrical innovations of Arthur Penn - - a very underrated director who only completed 13 feature length films. 

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