Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Great Movies: "Bonnie and Clyde"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Bonnie and Clyde
Arthur Penn, 1967

One of the many strange tricks that fiction can play is fooling us into empathizing with the bad guys. Take the hit men in Pulp Fiction -- they are mercenary killers, pretty much the most loathsome manifestation of human being by most moral yardsticks, yet for many they are sympathetic characters. They are charming, they are passably intelligent, and since we are rushed through their crises and dilemmas with them -- will they be able to dispose of the body safely? will the crime lord's wife be saved from her overdose? -- we come, to a certain extent, to identify with them.

So with Bonnie and Clyde. As we watch the fictionalized tale of these bungling crooks and their improvisational crime spree, something strange happens. We want them to succeed. They are dangerous, even careless killers, and this is presented with what by the standards of 1967 was incredibly graphic violence. But because we see the quirks and the personal relationships within the gang, because the characters are given a great deal of personal charm, and because we are shown a few instances of trivial mercy -- a customer at a bank they are robbing allowed to keep his own cash, for instance -- we develop a bond with them. We like them. We tend to root for them, even when they are busily killing law officers that the film has not invested with a back story.

Plot: There's these two young Texans who have little going on in the way of economic opportunity, scruples, or smarts. They meet, fall in love, gather a few hangers-on, and begin a life of crime. The authorities try to stop them.

Images: Recently, I remarked that Raging Bull's use of black and white photography made it seem in harmony with the decade in which it was set. Bonnie and Clyde is perhaps the opposite, bringing the 1930s to life with gorgeous color photography. Shot around thirty years after the fact, with memories of the Great Depression still vivid in many peoples' minds, the film is a convincing and beautifully detailed look at life in another era.

Dialog: A terrific script, acted exquisitely by a cast of unknowns who would go on to be big stars over the course of the next few decades.

Prognosis: Ebert claims that this is one of the most pivotal movies of all time, with a vast influence on all the movies that came after it. This is honestly a little hard for me to grasp, and Ebert is not especially specific about what he means by it. Maybe since most of the movies I've ever seen came after Bonnie and Clyde, I am so accustomed to its pervasive influence that I have a hard time recognizing its specialness.

In any event, this is not a film for those who dislike seeing actors pretending to die horribly of gunshot wounds. For those not so bothered, though, it has to be said that it's an incredibly well-crafted piece of work.


Elaine said...

I saw this in the Polk Theater in Lakeland, Florida--a first run movie! It was considered groundbreaking in a lot of ways-- I remember how unusual the credits seemed... There were some older folks who recalled that the bullet-riddled car went on a tour and people shelled out cash to view it. Hard Times!

sister jen said...

Probably at least much of what Ebert means is what you mention in your last paragraph: the violence. It's difficult for us to see this film as ground-breaking because it established--along with The Wild Bunch--new highs (lows?) for the representation of graphic violence in film. The sort of thing we see now, as in Pulp Fiction, e.g., can be directly traced back to these films. Today much of the violence in films is criticized, often rightly, as gratuitous, but in B & C Arthur Penn (and Peckinpah, in WB) were deliberately working with the horrors of this kind of violence. David Cook says that "the violence was revolutionary...was excessive for its time...[both directors] were interested in exposing their audience to certain dark realities of contemporary American life." His reading, and most, is of the films against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, of course. And also, of course, the violence shocked and outraged folks at the time. And then a year later we learned about My Lai...

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I need to sit down and watch that one. I love Luna! Never saw them live either. I'm a failure.

Michael5000 said...

I saw Luna on their farewell tour about two weeks after seeing GBV on their farewell tour. It was Bittersweet Concert Month.

Jenners said...

I've never seen this one ... but you're kind of making me want to.