A bona fide landmark in American film, Bonnie and Clyde stands the test of time the same way its protagonists did: by breaking all the rules. In 1967, the Vietnam War was raging and the nation was in turmoil, but The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 ("the Hays Code") was still in effect. The code decreed that "Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail"; Bonnie and Clyde didn't just push the envelope here, but tore it open. "Suggestive postures and gestures are not to be shown"? How about a clear suggestion of oral sex? "The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." Bonnie and Clyde doesn't shrink from the wrongdoing of its titular bank robbers, but nevertheless embraces their status as sympathetic "folk heroes."
That Bonnie and Clyde was at the forefront of a new wave in American moviemaking is evident from the talent involved. Director Arthur Penn (Little Big Man) wrangled producer-star Warren Beatty ("Clyde"), fresh starlet Faye Dunaway ("Bonnie"), and unproven character actor Gene Hackman, as well as screenwriters David Newman & Robert Benton (worked over by "special consultant" Robert Towne). Cinematographer Burnett Guffey and supporting actress Estelle Parsons would take home Oscars for their work. Actor Gene Wilder, art director Dean Tavoularis, and costume designer Theadora Van Runkle—all first-timers on a film set—would get plenty more work, and the latter set the fashion world on its ear with her designs for the glamorous leads.
Though the filmmakers cherry-picked the essential elements of the true story and allowed significant dramatic license, there's an essence of truth to the way the gang was viewed by both the authorities and the general public, natural enemies during the Great Depression. The film also captures the sexual appeal of crime that held the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow together and the codependent fraternal dynamic between Clyde and Buck Barrow (Hackman). The key action sequences depicting run-ins with the law are solidly based in fact.
The story diverges into artful fiction when it comes to the details of Bonnie and Clyde's relationship. The story hits the ground running with the two meeting and taking to the road as robbers in quick succession, conflating true events. If the sexual heat—at least in flirtation—accurately represents the couple's courtship, Clyde might not have taken so kindly to his depiction as sexually frigid ("I'm not much of a loverboy," as Clyde puts it). Certainly, this was the notorious lothario Beatty's greatest acting challenge (the role also foreshadows the hair-trigger sociopathy of Beatty's Bugsy Siegel). But the impotence adds a unique romantic tragedy to the story as a test and proof of the duo's love for each other.
Dunaway gives an equally strong star performance, as Bonnie wakens to the realization that her dream is a nightmare: true love trapped in sexless limbo, criminal thrills spelling a life fearfully on the run and careening toward death. "When we started out, I thought we was really going somewhere," she tells Clyde. "But this is it. We're just going." The screenwriters understand that Parker's real-life poem "The Story of Bonnie & Clyde" is essential, capturing a woman too far gone to turn back, but too spirited to be misunderstood. Hackman nails Buck, particularly his duets with Beatty, Parsons injects the proper note of hysteria, and Pollard breathes life into the off-kilter naivete of a man who commits crime because he has nothing better to do.
The screenwriters layer in signs of the times: farmers—one white, one black—venting over the bank foreclosure of their farm, as well as Clyde's sad attempt to rob a bank that's already gone under. Clyde's too dim to understand why a butcher wants to kill him for stealing meat ("I ain't against him"), and though he's stealing in part because he has no other viable options, Clyde also demonstrates he hasn't the vision to consider any other way. The landscapes through which the gang travels reflect the time's emptiness, none more so than the dry dune that's the only safe place for the Parker family to see Bonnie.
Bonnie and Clyde's first scene announces its tactic, with hothouse flower Bonnie's fierce boredom suddenly punctuated with bad-boy danger and intrigue. The picture is all energy, whether in high-running tension, car-chase and Tommy-gun action, or humor, best exemplified by the very funny interlude positioning Wilder and Evans Evans Frankenheimer as swept-up squares. The energy also emerges from Penn's stylistic approach, itself a tension between Hollywood traditionalism (Guffey's position) and Penn's intuitive instincts. One moment's a striking crane shot, the next is sophisticated '60s-style handheld. The striking use of Flatt & Scruggs' fast-pickin' "Foggie Mountain Breakdown" helps to set the tone.
Bonnie and Clyde is excellent evidence that Hollywood doesn't make 'em like they used to, just as Penn and company weren't making Bonnie and Clyde the way Hollywood used to. No bullshit lighting (Penn favored source lighting), no overdone color correction, no fear of the too old or the too new. From its classic opening (snapshot credits set to "Midnight," low in the mix like a memory) to its indelible, lyrically violent closing, Bonnie and Clyde embodies the agony and the ecstasy of challenging the way of the world.
Warner Home Video does a significant service for film history with its new special editions of Bonnie and Clyde. Making the most of what's available to them in 2008, the DVD producers give the film a stunning presentation and surround it with valuable bonus features involving the noteworthy talents who made the film. Warner isn't calling this the "Ultimate Collector's Edition" for nothing, and it's even more astonishing in Blu-Ray high-definition.
It's great that someone at Warner is paying attention, since director Arthur Penn is 85—with film artists like him not getting any younger, the work of the studio's DVD arms is all the more vital. First, the film itself returns in a freshly scrubbed digital restoration that puts all previous washed-out (and featureless) editions to shame. Warm color and impeccable detail are the highlights of this masterfully film-like transfer. Aside from a few skipped frames (the soundtrack is uninterrupted) during the scene in which Clyde steals Eugene's car—apparently a fault in the source element—the image is fantastic. It even handles adeptly the family reunion scene, shot with a trick process meant to give it a hazier feel than the rest of the film. (Home-theater buffs may not sing the praises of the clear-sounding mono soundtrack, but the original source elements were unavailable.)
In producing an all-new documentary, Warner hired the right man for the job: Laurent Bouzereau. The guy behind Universal's Hitchcock and Spielberg making-ofs, Bouzereau turns out meaty, no-stone-unturned making-ofs filled with great stories. Bouzereau constructs "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde" (1:05 with a "Play All" option) in three parts. The first, "Bonnie and Clyde's Gang" (22:39) explains how the project came together with Penn after being rejected by Francois Truffaut, George Stevens, and William Wyler. Creative decisions in the scripting are dissected (like how bisexuality became impotence), and the talent is gathered to recall how they came on board and topics like the "fights" between Warren Beatty and Penn. Participants include Penn, Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Robert Benton, Robert Towne, and Curtis Hanson, who has a surprising connection to the film.
Part two, "The Reality and Myth of Bonnie and Clyde" (24:11) not only covers what it promises in terms of history but also the film, going on to discuss its style and influence, themes, and "ballet of death." Theadora Van Runkle, art director Dean Tavoularis, editor Dede Allen, actress Evans Evans Frankenheimer, press agent Dick Guttman, and Morgan Fairchild (who was Dunaway's double!) join the conversation. Part three, "Releasing Bonnie and Clyde" (18:09) details the film's editing, Jack Warner's opinion, the critical reaction, and the popular reception to the film, which was a sensation.
Warner also sees fit to include an excellent 1994 History Channel documentary, "Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde" (43:15). The doc demonstrates that there's much more to the story, including Bonnie's estranged husband and a daring prison break. A number of expert authors are interviewed, along with a few surviving witnesses, such as Clyde's sister. Others are heard through narrated words, and the doc also includes recreation footage shot in the '30s and actual footage of the death scene and subsequent funerals.
Next up are two priceless "Deleted Scenes" (5:28 with a "Play All" option). "The Road to Mineola" (2:08) is a diner sequence; "Outlaws" (3:20) is a trim from the scene following Clyde's first killing. Both scenes feature Beatty, Dunaway and Pollard, and were cut for pacing shortly before the film's release. Unfortunately, the audio could not be located, meaning the scenes are silent and subtitled. The latter scene is of particular interest, both for its dramatic lighting and its daring intimation that a sexually neglected Bonnie might turn to Moss.
"Warren Beatty's Wardrobe Tests" shows the often forgotten drudgery necessary to prep a film. Accompanied by film score, the reels show Beatty doing his chores somberly and gradually loosening up and getting a bit punchy (watch his mouth carefully to discern a near-utterance of the "mother" of all swears). Finally, we get the "Teaser Trailer" (1:13) and "Theatrical Trailer" (2:58), a good point of comparison for how washed out and dull the picture has looked for years. The trailer was right when it promised, "There has never been...You have never seen...A motion picture like this one!"
A two-disc DVD edition includes all of the above, while the two-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition" version includes a 36-page hardcover book, a 24-page reproduction of the press book for the original 1967 release, and a mail-in offer for a poster. My review refers to the dazzling Blu-Ray edition, in a lovely hardcover book-style package that, like the DVD collector's edition, includes 36 pages of behind-the-scenes photos, promotional art, background information (Oscar listing, bios and a Jack Warner memo), and newspaper articles both contemporary to the film and more current (a two-part 1997 piece from the L.A. Times).
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