Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 18: Bonnie and Clyde

"Come on, put yer pants on boy, we gonna take some pictures."

I am currently reading a book called "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" by Mark Harris. It's essentially about the development, production and aftermath of the five Best Picture nominees from 1967: Doctor Dolittle, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and Bonnie & Clyde. The story behind Bonnie & Clyde is almost as interesting as the movie itself. It began in 1962 when two journalists, Robert Benton & David Newman, who fancied themselves screenwriters, wanted to write a screenplay for their favorite director, Francois Truffault, to make as his English-language directorial debut.

Truffault was involved with the project for a while, as was Jean-Luc Godard, but both eventually moved on to other projects and the fillm landed in the lap of one of the few American maverick auteurs at the time, Arthur Penn. Warren Beatty, who at the time was struggling to live up to his desired image of being more than just another pretty face, decided that he wanted to move into producing, and this film would make him the first actor/producer since Charlie Chaplin.

All fascinating, interesting stuff, but it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if the movie weren't any good. Thankfully for us, the movie is fantastic. It truly is the first American feature to embrace the style of the French New Wave and it was the birth of a new wave of American independent film production. Beatty plays Clyde Barrow, a criminal who's just been released from prison when he meets up with a small-town Texas waitress named Bonnie Parker, played by the devastatingly gorgeous and talented Faye Dunaway.

She becomes turned on by his bad boy ways, thieving and robbing, and agrees to go with him, wherever it is that he's going, and live a life on the lam. Along the way they meet up with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) a mechanic who they convince to join them as a getaway driver. The Barrow Gang is soon complete as they meet up with Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons).

Bonnie and Clyde become the first mythologized American outlaws since Jesse & Frank James and Billy the Kid. Their reputation preceeds them wherever they go, and they find it harder and harder to lay low after robbing a bank. Everytime they end up somewhere waiting for the heat to die down, it flares up again, and they find themselves on the run. As a side note, I recently watched Terrence Malick's Badlands for the first time, and going back to watch Bonnie & Clyde again, it's easy to see the influence of the latter on the former, but Malick is more a director influenced by the stillness and calm of American directors like George Stevens, so his film plays more poetically than the visceral Bonnie & Clyde. It's no less a film and I suggest you make a double feature of it sometime.

All five of the actors were nominated for Academy Awards in 1967, and though only Estelle Parson won, it undeniably launched the others, save Pollard, into the stratosphere. Hackman would win his first Oscar four years later, Dunaway nine years later, and though Beatty never won an acting Oscar, he would win several as producer and director of Reds in 1981. Much like yesterday's review of Dazed and Confused, it's wonderful to see the birth of the careers of so many brilliant actors being traced back, essentially, to one film. Even Gene Wilder pops up in a small but brilliant role as an undertaker who finds himself and his girlfriend kidnapped by The Barrow Gang when they steal his car.

The film also won, rightfully, an Oscar for it's Cinematography which is fantastic, but I think the award it was most deserving of, it did not win, and that is Best Editing. Dede Allen created this style of editing that we've become so accustomed to in the ensuing decades, but it's truly breathtaking to see it come to life here. The quick cuts before the outlaws are finally gunned down at the end, as Clyde looks to the bushes, then to the flock of birds that fly away, finally the intense and all-too-quick last glances between the lovers before they are killed in a hail of gunfire are probably the best moments in a film filled with great moments. On a side note, Hal Ashby won for editing In the Heat of the Night, and he's one of my all-time favorites, so I won't begrudge him that.

Bonnie and Clyde is a brilliant film and one of the true touchstones of American cinema. It's a film that you can easily watch over and over again and never tire of. It's as much a landmark American film as Citizen Kane, Casablanca and other noteworthy trailblazers before it. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and Warner Bros. deluxe edition bluray that was released a few years ago is amazing. The transfer is incredible and it feels like you're seeing the film the way audiences in 1967 did.

Tomorrow's film will be another from that incredible Best Picture race, Mike Nichols' The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft & Katharine Ross.

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