Friday, August 5, 2011

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty

"Bonnie Clyde" was not supposed to be a hit movie and it nearly wound up as a  feature to be re-discovered as a "cult film" years after its release.  It took several years to bring it to the screen, at a time when American movies were evolving away from the  standard Hollywood back-lot, classic-narrative style and toward the more informal and abrupt techniques pioneered by the French New Wave.



 Both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard  were offered the direction of the film by co-producer Warren Beatty. But Truffaut wanted nothing to do with a  film actor telling him what to do behind the camera and Godard apparently thought the movie should be made as a low-budget effort as close to New York City as possible, rather than the states of Texas and Oklahoma where the actual crime spree of the Barrow Gang took place.  


The American director of "The Miracle Worker", Arthur Penn, was chosen. He had worked with Beatty on an earlier homage to the New Wave, "Mickey One", which had died a quick death at the box office and left audiences confused. 

The studio that made it "Warner Brothers" thought the idea of a bank robbery film set in the 1930's making any money in 1960's America was very unlikely.  Jack L. Warner, who had been boss of production for over three decades, saw it as an old-fashioned story of bank robbers and cops in the style of the Cagney and Bogart urban dramas that had gone out of favor after World War II.  He gave Beatty a large percentage of the potential profits on the picture, thinking it would likely play quickly in cities, die a sub-par death and then get put into drive-ins.  



It turned out that the realistic violence and honest depictions of sexuality did go over well with a lot of  audiences, although many critics like Bosley Crowder of the New York Times thought it a "film for morons". Younger critics like Roger Ebert found it to be outstanding. The studio, however,  initially refused to give it a wide release.  Beatty managed to talk the new owners of Warner Brothers into ignoring the mixed reviews and letting a wider audience see it.        

On the second release the film took off, eventually making $40 million dollars. The stark violence and bloodiness of the movie matched what people were seeing on their television screens as the Vietnam War was being reported on the evening news in  America night after night.

Gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were legendary anti-heroes in their own times--the Great Depression, when banks foreclosed on houses and farms. In the same way, disaffected and mostly younger 1960's film-goers saw the couple and their gang of bank-robbers as figuratively setting out to tweak the failed establishment.  In other words, the movie clicked in ways that couldn't be anticipated by executives in suits looking for the next "Sound of Music".


The ultra-violent ambush ending of the film is probably one of the most memorable  in film.  I saw as a kid in 1972 in theater just before the film went to television. I remember being stunned by how realistic and appalling the shoot-ups were.  If this was what shotguns and revolvers actually did to people's bodies, it was news to me. 


I had only seen movies before where people who were shot simply fell over dead, clutching their chests in a bloodless swoon before landing nicely on the floor.  The first time I saw a character in "Bonnie and Clyde" get shot square in the face, and actual red blood came out of his forehead, it was a realisation that this was more a mere entertainment but a film with a purpose: to show gun violence without the old conventions, the old lies. 


The real Bonnie and Clyde were a rather mangy looking pair,  not of the Beatty/ Faye Dunaway types by a long shot.


  . Ironically its the supporting cast, Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), who seem better suited to the lead roles from a physical  perspective.  





But the depictions of the   hero and heroine as outlaws in hard times (with the  American Dream reborn  from a smoking barrel of a Colt .45  and a fast 1933 DeSoto)  and that brutal death scene overcome  any Romanticism in my view. This is a must-see, and see again  movie.   


  1. It is a must-see film, and one of my own Top-100 of all time.

    (What's little-known is that Brigitte Bardot was an early contender for the role of Bonnie; the whole story of Bonnie and Clyde had created a bit of a 'sensation' in France at the time this film was made; there was a 1930's fashion-revival; Bardot and her then-boyfriend Serge Gainsbourg made an early music-video from a Gainsbourg song about Bonnie and Clyde.

    (There are no versions of the video available to embed - here is the link if you're interested: )

    The film truly had an international following from the day of its release - another groundbreaking aspect of the movie.

  2. Glad you've seen and appreciated this one too, Will.

    I honestly didn't know anything about the Bardot connection until I started looking for clips to this movie. I'll have to take a look at the complete video you linked to. Thanks!
    Natalie Wood was also a contender for the role. But she had had a nervous breakdown and didn't want to get back to filming again just yet (and especially not with Beatty with whom she had a realtionship with while he was sowing his wild oats.) Too bad. Although Dunaway is very good in this role, I think Natalie Wood would have knocked Bonnie Parker out of the park so to speak.

    Yes, it was huge overseas I'm sure.

  3. That video is a trip. Tough to beat Miss Bardot with her black beret and garters. :-) I can see why she was in the running.

  4. Isn't it, though? Gainsbourg and Bardot did another song together before they ceased being a couple, entitled "J'Taime - Moi Non Plus" (I Love You - Me Neither), from 1970 - it was banned in most markets (one station here in Portland played it often) - it featured, among other things, a mix of a live recording of the two of them doing the wild-thing.

    In the interest of your friends' sensibilities, I won't post a link - but it's on YouTube, if you care to find it....

  5. Sorry, but the song was sung by Gainsbourg and his mate, Jane Birkin.

  6. I watched few times Bonnie and Clyde, but I prefer Boxcar Bertha (1972), with Barbara Hershey and, David Carradine directed by Martin Scorsese.

  7. I saw this film when it was first released in UK in the late 1960s. The popularity of the film here was further enhanced by the hit single The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde by Georgie Fame that topped the charts about the time the movie was doing the rounds of British cinemas. For me the main musical interest of the film was Flatt and Scruggs and their wonderful Foggy Mountain Breakdown soundtrack

    I was already an aficionado of Bluegrass by the time the film turned up here having seen the legendary Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys at Birmingham Town Hall in 1966.

    It is I think a fitting time for you to reintroduce this classic film Doug, as a reminder of how bloody recessions can get.

    As you say Doug, the realism of the violence reinforced the messages of the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns and films like Soldier Blue that the west was actually won in a bloodbath of psychopathic lawlessness, the heyday of venture capitalism red in both tooth and claw.

    The anarchic identification with outlaws represented the little guy hitting back at the Leviathan, a role that has a long history of course and a mythology that includes characters like Robin Hood as archetypal antihero as well as representing the individual essence of the American Dream as you have indicated above Doug.

    Now we have come the full circle and it is the bankers that are holding us up and demanding our money or our lives (well, both actually) and Bonnie and Clyde are now transformed into multinational corporations on a murder spree across the Middle East and Eurasia.

    It is interesting that this sort of homicidal entrpreneurialism represents pretty much the same motive and methods as that of terrorism, which again is seen as the little guy striking back against the military industrial complex and the invading armies of the tyrant

    I think there are some very close parallels between these two forms of antihero, but faced with terrorism we all become the bank clerks of Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, reaching for the sky caught between earning a living and living long enough to enjoy it.

    An existential question about the obligations of waged labour are implicit in the realisation that the bank clerks are workers too and Bonnie and Clyde were from that perspective, a health and safety at work issue, although in the film they are portrayed as a particularly photogenic form of workplace hazard.

    It is interesting that the film itself also represents the (comparatively) little guy making good and confounding the experts and the 'great and the good' by grossing a cool $40 million dollars for Warner Bros, although I think Warren Beatty would be appalled to be described as a 'little guy' that's relativity for you in a nutshell I think.

    Thanks for this very informative review Doug and also the timely reminder that when the going gets rough the rough get going..... enter Anders Behring Breivik stage right.

  8. Good film.

    Following up other comments above, while in paris in 2006 I visited the grave of Serge Gainsbourg in Montparnasse Cemetry.

  9. It was a great film. Anytime I see it on tv I stop and watch it again. On a side note one of Clyde Barrow's relatives built my pool.

  10. "Boxcar Bertha" is a good companion piece to this film, Jose. I think it was the first studio film Scorcese directed.

  11. (Note: Bardot and Gainsbourg recorded "J'Taime" shortly before they ceased being a couple. She asked that he not release it, and he complied with that, re-recording it with Birkin. The original does exist:

  12. That Bluegrass soundtrack was a huge plus to the movie. The album was one of the biggest non-rock albums of that period as I recall. My mother, being from Tennessee, was a big Flatt and Scruggs fan having grown up hearing Bill Monroe and others from the "Grand Old Opry" radio broadcasts on Saturday nights out of Nashville.

    Yes, I think there no question bad economic events like nationwide home devaluations and bleak jobs prospects put this movie back in my conciousness. Watching it again not long ago, I sensed that human desperation more fully.

    It's not only the main characters and their violent solution to personal cash-flow problems in the movie, but depictions in the film of folks living in cars and broken down trucks along the wastelands of the Middle West that sets an enviroment more disturbingly close to those times than it was in the last part of the previous century. Suddenly scenes like the one where Clyde Barrow lets a homeless farmer borrow his gun to shoot bullets in the bank forecloseure sign in front of his former shack of a house---that takes a new resonance.

    The movie violence spawned from the likes of Segio Leone and Soldier Blue's director, Ralph Nelson, have been made familiar; its this sense of helplessness and fultility that were ingrained in this movie in such scenes; these are the "gypsy harvesters Steinbeck wrote about in the late 30's. Kids my age couldn't appreciate this when we were young; the Great Depression was an unsettling and deplorable time, but it was set firmly in the past. A newer generation might feel more fear seeing these depictions.

    It was wise of Beatty and/or Arthur Penn to use actual rural Midwesterners in the town they shot most of the movie in for some small parts like Bonnie's mother; it lends an authentcity to the film that approaches earlier Italian neo-realism films that Vittorio DeSica and latter Fellini helmed.

    And, yes, bank robbery from the inside is clearly the way to go. You can even get a $50 million dollar bonus as a CEO for draining other people's savings, not to mention to other seven-figure benefits that came to those minions who figured out how to hide toxic assets.

  13. Yes there are paralells certianly, AA. A few react with violence, committed at least in part with the idea of an invader bringing this on themselves. On the other hand, most of us (myself and afew million others at least) are the clerks of commerce in this little feature film. We don't help move the money and the other stuff because we love it; we do it because its a legal way to earn a living.

    LOL---yes, robbery is a hazard, and the photogenic qualities of the scofflaws cannot undo the nature of the actual threat to life, health and a missed coffee or tea break.

    And, yes, maybe the most ironic fact in all this is that it was Beatty and his reluctant Leviathan allies, the latter "suits" at Warner-Seven Arts, Inc., who gained the most from this film. With a leg up for Gene Hackman and Dunaway too.

    It can be said bad times bring out the worst in a few; in which case the nutjobs like Anders will be part of our collective nightmares more and more.

  14. This film certainly had a broad impact on culture, Jeff, both in fashions and artistic inspirations.

  15. Yes, it's a movie that warrents repeated viewings. A lot of the best in it is in subtle and quiet scenes, things one can't appreciate right off.

    I noticed when I was looking for clip of this movie on You Tube, Fred, that several people commented that they were related to Barrow's family or had a great-uncle who knew Bonnie Parker when she was at school and such. When you consider they killed fourteen people, it says something about celebrity in America doesn't it?

  16. The father and son who built my pool did not claim they were his nephew. I found out from another person who was the relative of one of the people they killed. It was a coincidence that both did work at my house

  17. Oh, ok Fred. So much for my theory based on that instance then.