Bonnie and Clyde still kills. Some landmark films look like imposters in retrospect, others may not hold up entirely but can still make you see what viewers once found great about them, while a precious few stand the test of time and feel as vital in old age as they did when they were born.
Bonnie and Clyde, which burst upon the nation 50 years ago (on Aug. 4 at the Montreal Film Festival, to be exact) to a firestorm of critical commentary and social controversy, belongs securely in the third category. To see it today — an experience being facilitated by Turner Classic Movies' presentation of the film in many theaters nationwide starting Aug. 13 — is to bear witness to the birth of the new, a recognizable moment when the style, mix of moods and presentation of violence in American films radically changed. The year 1967 was when the nature and look of Hollywood films began to pivot, and this movie was a main instigator.
I have to admit I was mildly apprehensive when I put in the DVD to watch the film for the first time since seeing it on three occasions in my late teens, or the same age as my film-buff son Nick, who would be joining me for his initial viewing. What seemed exciting and irreverent and boundary-breaking back in the late '60s can now often come off as corny and, by current standards of permissiveness, ho-hum; then, to include swear words or flashes of nudity was considered brave and transgressive. The old Hollywood strictures on language and behavior were just being broken, the ratings system was brand new and the specter of screen censorship was only beginning to crumble.
But even the opening credits make you feel you've suddenly entered a different world than Hollywood ever provided before; they click onto the screen, without fanfare or loud music, in a style you've never seen. From the first moments, there's a freshly provocative sexuality between Warren Beatty's Clyde and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie that ignites the action (even if it doesn't, in fact, ignite between the characters until near the end in one of the film's few false notes). Clyde's devil-may-care attitude triggers the story's brazen character, but it's Bonnie's hunger for something — sex, action, a way out of a mediocre life, immortality — that provides the engine.
What gives Bonnie and Clyde its stylistic excitement — and what so unsettled its detractors at the time — is its radical mix of moods, the extreme jumps from comedy to violence and back, the sometimes larkish approach to criminality and murder. The bracing effect of this is still surprising today and can be drawn directly back to the film's primary influence, that of the French New Wave in general and certain mixed-tone love-and-crime melodramas, in particular Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Band of Outsiders. Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton approached Truffaut, then Godard, to direct, but it was Beatty, with the intention of producing the film himself, who ultimately brought aboard Arthur Penn, who had directed Beatty shortly before in the heavily New Wave-influenced Mickey One.
The changes of tone hit you like sharp bursts of wind even today; they're among the key factors that make the film feel so alive. These moments veer from the occasional slapstick of robbery getaways to somber, elegiac scenes, cloaked in misery and regret, as in an encounter with a Grapes of Wrath-like family that's been evicted from their home, or Bonnie's visit with her aged mother. Then of course there is the famous ending, the slow-motion machine gunning of the two outlaws that outdid in terms of sheer bloody violence anything previously seen from Hollywood. It's still breathtaking today.
It was the mix of tones, perhaps even more than the explicit and sometimes jocular mayhem, that really threw some critics, and the resulting controversy famously led to the dismissal of the most powerful critic in the country, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, and the enthronement of another, Pauline Kael. An outraged Crowther called Bonnie and Clyde “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy” in which the “blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste.” By December, Crowther, who also exhibited his distaste for stylish screen violence by panning John Boorman's first-rate Point Blank that same year, had been kicked upstairs and, soon, into retirement.
Kael was still a freelance writer in her late 40s when she was so turned on by Bonnie and Clyde that she ground out a 7,000-word paean that The New Yorker, which had previously published only one piece by her, ran in full in October. Two months later, she accepted a permanent berth at the magazine.
In between came an unprecedented reversal of opinion by Newsweek's Joe Morgenstern (now of The Wall Street Journal), whose initial dubious review was superseded by a rave some weeks later.
Along with its style, another factor that helps Bonnie and Clyde jump off the screen all these years later is the exceptional cast. At the time, only Beatty was familiar to the public; everyone else — Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Wilder — was unknown but poised to make their marks. Ironically, Parsons, whose braying in the film is the one element I still find hard to take, was the only castmember to win an Oscar (supporting actress) for it. But the others all made brilliant breakthroughs here.
While it's fun to imagine what some of the other actresses Beatty considered to play Bonnie would have been like in the role — Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret and Jane Fonda were the possibilities I've always considered most intriguing — Dunaway's work here remains mesmerizing. Bonnie is the character with the most dramatic mood swings, the quicksilver reactions to extreme events, the one who instigates their self-mythologizing. Sure, the actress, who had appeared in just two films prior to this one, looks rather too decked out for the white-trash milieu — her hair is always sleekly coiffed, she's always got a nifty new outfit to wear. But, damn, she's good, living up to Clyde's effusive compliment, ”You're a knockout.”
So is the film at 50.