*. This is one of those movies that there’s been so much written about, it’s hard to think of anything new to add.
*. It’s not usually considered one of the greatest movies of all time, but it’s frequently found placed on a very short list of the most important/significant/groundbreaking. In a nutshell, it stands at the beginning of the New Hollywood, a watershed moment documented in such books as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Pictures at a Revolution.
*. What was the New Hollywood? I’d describe it as European art house comes to America, where it was adapted to more traditional forms of entertainment. Like the gangster film.
*. It’s worth keeping in mind how out of style the gangster film was by the 1960s. After the great run of gangster movies in the 1930s the genre shifted into noir, which was something different, and in the 1950s had basically petered out. The French, however, had not forgotten.
*. The story was originally pitched to Truffaut but he was busy. But the script, which strikes me as pretty unexceptional, was perhaps the least New Wave thing about the final film. More in tune with the continental zeitgeist was Dede Allen’s editing, which remains the most contemporary aspect of the film today.
*. It’s hard to enter into this movie today except through the critical lens, because to some extent its story is one of a shift in criticism as well. It was famously panned by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, but by then Crowther, in the words of Richard Schickel, “was a tiresome old fud, and people had long since wearied of his cluelessness.” Meanwhile, newbie Roger Ebert (only six months on the film beat) wrote a rave and Pauline Kael championed it in The New Yorker. This was a critical changing of the guard as well, and the movie became the ground where a new generation of critics would fix their standards.
*. I want to spend just a moment on Crowther’s review. Here’s the pull quote: “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair [that is, Bonnie and Clyde] as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie. . . . This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth.”
*. There are two traps Crowther’s review falls into. They aren’t what I would call critical fallacies, but they are tendencies that can lead evaluation astray.
*. In the first place, he passes moral judgment. The problem with moral judgments is that they’re your morals being applied to the work of someone who might not share them, with the critic punishing the film by a foreign code of conscience. Also, morality is elastic, by which I mean it changes and adapts to different cultural contexts. In short, it quickly dates. If you run with morality you run the risk of gaining a reputation as a prude or “tiresome old fud.”
*. The other place Crowther goes wrong is in making an issue out of historical accuracy. Again, this is not necessarily a wrong thing to do. Sticking with gangster films, it’s something that bothered me quite a bit in Bugsy, and somewhat less in Public Enemies. But the defence is too easy (even a documentary film is something other than an objective reporting of the facts), and you have to consider to what extent the filmmakers were even trying to be authentic. Here you could blame them somewhat, as Bonnie and Clyde was marketed as being a true story, at least initially. But I don’t think this was really their goal, and the sexual angle alone would suggest that they were taking a free hand with the historical record. According to Penn “I didn’t think that for a minute we were creating any kind of real world or society. . . . The movie is an abstraction rather than a genuine reportage.”
*. The main reason it made such an impact was because it was a movie of firsts. There was a lot of neophyte talent, from Dunaway and Hackman to costume designer Theadora Van Runkle. But what really surprised people, shocked them even, was the mixture of violence with sex and comedy.
*. In the first place, the violence was real. As Pauline Kael noted, it shows us “the dirty reality of death — not suggestions but blood and holes.” The squibs helped. I mentioned in my notes on Night of the Living Dead (1968) how, on the DVD commentary for that film, they say they were the first movie to use squibs. Bullitt came out the same year and made the same claim. This movie came out a year earlier, but in fact a Polish film apparently beat all of them by twenty years. In any event, all the blood seemed like something new, at least in so mainstream a movie.
*. Dunaway is just so good in this movie. Why have I never liked her in anything else even half as much? I mean Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown and Diana Christensen in Network are outstanding parts but I’m not sure they’re great performances by Dunaway. In contrast, Bonnie isn’t nearly as full a role, but she makes it seem even bigger.
*. By the way, and in case you’re wondering, I don’t include Dunaway’s turn as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest on this list because, while I think she’s terrible in that movie, being terrible is what the role demanded.
*. It’s important that Dunaway is so good because this is really Bonnie’s movie. Compared to her, Clyde is a senseless clod. It’s no gift of foresight that makes her so sensitive to intimations of their mortality; it’s mere obliviousness on Clyde’s part that he doesn’t pick up on the same.
*. You know it’s Bonnie’s movie because we begin with her, prowling naked in that sauna of an upstairs bedroom. I swear I can smell her every time I watch this scene.
*. Dunaway’s close-ups, of which there are quite a few, are also more interesting because there always seems to be something going on behind her face. In contrast, there doesn’t seem to be anything behind Clyde’s good looks. I’m reminded a bit of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. It’s not quite the same dynamic, but similar.
*. Shooting through a window screen in the scene where Bonnie visits her mother is far too disjunctive visually and doesn’t work at all. It also seems as though everyone knew this at the time. Even the film’s champions singled it out for criticism. I wonder why Penn couldn’t see it.
*. But this is the only really jarring misstep. At the end of the day this is a movie that succeeds because it’s smart, takes risks, and, that most essential element of all, just gets lucky. Talent and exuberance count for a lot, but for a production with so many moving pieces the stars have to be alignment for it to all come together. When they do, the resulting energy carries it along even through the rough patches.
*. The lesson that a great movie is in large part an accident, however, is not one that anyone learns, mainly because there’s no real point in learning it. Except to remind people that it’s probably not worth trying the same thing again.