A considerable simplification and utter fabrication of the facts, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) takes its loose tongued playful crack at one of America’s most notorious husband and wife crime waves. In reality, the duo achieved nation wide notoriety as a pair of modern day Robin Hoods for their series of daring and seemingly unstoppable bank robberies during the age of ‘the public enemy (1931-35) even though Clyde Barrow’s preference was for gas station and general store hold ups.
Newspaper headlines of the day remade the couple into infamously compelling fugitives. In reality, Bonnie never fired a gun or even directly participated in the stick ups. She was the gang’s logistics expert – planning their activities and aiding in transportation to and from the crime scenes. The 1967 film suggests a much more proactive role for Bonnie Parker, its screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton drawing on Faye Dunaway’s sexually neurotic performance to produce one of the cinema’s most enduring and electric femme fatales.
Historically regarded as the first ‘new Hollywood’ production that shattered many pre-existing taboos – for its time, Bonnie and Clyde was a runaway hit with younger audiences – its glib devil-may-care attitude towards ultra violence and sex strangely shocking yet comedic. So meager was Warner Bros. faith in the project that they offered actor Warren Beatty 40% of the film’s gross rather than pay him his standard actor’s fee. When the movie grossed over $70 million worldwide, Beatty became an overnight millionaire.
The artistic liberties taken with historical fact are many and worth noting; beginning with the reduction of gang members to a manageable five; the exclusion of any of the gang’s repeated imprisonments along the way, and finally, an complete absence of any of the cold-blooded murders they committed while on their crusade.The character of C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) is actually an amalgam of two Barrow Gang members; Henry Methvin and Henry Daniel Jones – the latter filing a lawsuit against Warner Bros. when the film was released – claiming that his credibility was ‘maligned’ in the story. The film also presents Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) as a reoccurring fop rife for the pair’s humiliation; an inept and hateful cliche of southern bigotry and inefficiency. In actuality, Hamer’s first contact with the duo was the successful ambush that riddled the couple's car in a hailstorm of bullets.
Greatly influenced by the French New Wave's non-linear editing style, Robert Benton and David Newman's screenplay opens with a screwball slapstick interpretation of Clyde Barrow’s (Warren Beatty) first stick up. Flatt & Schrugg’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown banjo music transforms crime into keystone comedy and immediately sets the tone for all the artifice that is to follow. We cut away to a sexually repressed Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) longing for the touch of a man inside her upstairs attic bedroom while her mother (Mabel Cavitt) decries her lack of ambition to do anything but laze around all day. Presumably to escape eternal boredom, Bonnie elopes with Clyde and thereafter accompanies him on every hold up.
Along the way, Clyde acquires the services of a backward clerk, C.W. Moss (Michael Pollard), his cousin Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons). This gang of five enjoys a series of stick up successes across the Midwest, much to the chagrin of Sheriff Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) whose anxiety, dismay and anger incrementally grow with each new robbery.Eventually, the authorities catch up to Clyde and his entourage. In a shoot out they capture Blanche, Buck and C.W. However, the daring duo escapes, bidding a final farewell to Bonnie’s mother before becoming the victims of a staged turkey shoot along a lonely road.
The final moments of the film are more an homage to Romeo & Juliet for the Tommy-gun age than a fitting conclusion to the traditional crime story, with Bonnie passionately reaching for Clyde moments before Hamer and his deputies open fire. The introduction of ‘squibs’ – small explosive charges detonated beneath actors' clothing – afforded this sequence its then uncharacteristic bloody finish.
Despite Bonnie and Clyde's initial success, critics of the day were appalled by the escalated level of violence depicted on the screen. Even today, controversy surrounds the movie. To be certain, from a pure narrative perspective, the story remains uneven. Characters are cutouts and cartoony. Is this employment of ultra lampoon a mere oversight on director Penn’s part or is it a more deliberate attempt to get to the heart of these two mythological criminals while breaking down artistic barriers in the movies? Time has not convinced this critic of the latter.
Although Faye Dunaway delivers a fairly straight forward performance – arguably the one credible piece of acting in the film – the rest of the cast never seem to take either the script or themselves seriously. Given the screenplay's indifference at representing the duo as big-hearted, thick-headed gun-totting avengers out for a good time, regrettably, as an audience we are left wondering what all the fuss was that made the real Bonnie and Clyde such iconic household names in the first place. The slapstick approach to violence does more than simply make the whole enterprise slightly silly, it distills Cyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker into mere figures of fun.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray bests their 2-disc special edition DVD, rectifying many of the shortcomings in its previously released single disc offering from 1997. Although red color levels appear to be slightly boosted, on the whole image quality is quite pleasing. Colors are more refined on the Blu-Ray, contrast levels deeper, fine details more sharply realized.
Film grain is accurately recreated. Certain scenes retain a soft patina and slight haze. But age related artifacts, although greatly tempered, still exist. The audio is a 5.1 PCM Dolby Digital remix with noticeable limitations in fidelity.Extras include a 43 minute History Channel bio on the real Bonnie and Clyde and a 22 minute ‘making of’ on the film. There’s also deleted scenes, screen and wardrobe test footage and a theatrical trailer to consider.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)