'Bonnie and Clyde': THR's 1967 Review

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1967's 'Bonnie and Clyde'

In 1967, a Warren Beatty film described by one critic as "part black comedy and part elegy" arrived in U.S. theaters. Bonnie and Clyde went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Awards and claimed two wins: Best supporting actress for Estelle Parsons and best cinematography. THR's original Aug. 7, 1967, review is below: 

With the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts release of Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty connects with his first unqualified success as an actor and an outstanding achievement in his first commitment as a producer. Part black comedy and part elegy evoking the American Southwest at a time when the economy and the human spirit lay fallow in the wake of the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde also marks a new peak in the work of director Arthur Penn, an exceptional screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton and the emergence of Faye Dunaway as a screen personality equal to the importance of her assignments. Their film is destined to be among the year’s most discussed, honored and profitable.

The screenplay by Newman and Benton follows Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow from their meeting in Midlothian, Texas, in 1931 through three years of headline-magnifying robberies and killings, climaxing with their death under a thousand-round rain of bullets in a police ambush near Arcadia, La. Though newspapers entertained their readers with tales of their cunning and brutality, the Barrows gang is pictured as having been clumsy practitioners who succeeded in spite of internal bickering and miscalculation and seldom took enough from their poor, small-town targets to sustain them to the next heist. But during a period when a life in crime was one of the few available avenues of free enterprise, newspapers and rumor elevated them to the status of folk heroes, a distortion which would make their capture or annihilation by police seem a more awesome victory.

Clyde is pictured as a likably deranged young man for whom violence and danger are necessary means of expression. The life he assumes provides both personal satisfaction and sexual sublimation. Asked if he would change any part of his life, Clyde replies only that he would alter the means of the same operations. In the midst of their flights, he sighs, “Ain’t life grand!” Bonnie shares with Clyde the excitement of lawbreaking, a love of publicity, the symbolic attraction to guns, delight in the chases in which they escape their pursuers, but she wearies early in the game, fatalistically accepting the inevitably of their early deaths. One of the film’s most eloquent interludes involves her reunion with her mother and relatives, a moody sequence with filtered and slowed action, and protracted editing underscoring unspoken sorrows.

The dialogue is spare and tuned to the ear and the region. The ingenuity of the chases is superbly timed, building to peak hilarity and fading to blackouts. While the film was made on location throughout Texas in cities which have little change since the early thirties, the film sustains the documentary evocation of period one has long associated with Warner Brothers pictures. Penn manages to emphasize the relation of the story or legend to its time and place by excellent restatement of full and long shots. Again and again, his camera angles progress not into but away from the character action, placing it in perspective with the land.

Violent images are an important part of Penn’s directorial style, but his camera never lingers on gore. A fragmentary glimpse, sufficient to make the dramatically relevant impact, is enough. The same taste is evident in his handling of sex.

Beatty’s performance captures beneath a raisin-eyed squint of incredulity the high spirits and resource of youth in a period during which both these qualities and hope had been denied to many. Despite the life he leads and his savoring of the notoriety, the character sustains a curious personal ethic as well as personal charm. Miss Dunaway’s performance as Bonnie, as emancipated post-flapper posing for her own publicity photos with a borrowed cigar in her teeth, seems a more subtle creation, kicks-courting on the surface, but betraying in reactions a greater awareness of consequence and loss.

Gene Hackman, as the older brother who literally takes the back seat to Beatty, is just about perfect, while Estelle [Parsons] creates a richly detailed characterization as his petty wife, a preacher’s daughter. Once the point has been made, perhaps she is allowed to overdo the strident wailing just a little too much. Michael J. Pollard has his most sympathetic and varied role to date as the gang recruit responsible for the theft and maintenance of the many vintage autos which propel the gang across the Southwest. Pollard’s face is one of our most delightful scenic wonders. That he has been given the opportunity to back it up with a fine performance is good news indeed.

Dub Taylor, as Pollards father, who sets the trap for Bonnie and Clyde, to obtain leniency for his son, is very good in another authentic regional role. Denver Pyle, as the Texas Ranger who tracks the gang over state lines to collect the bounty for their bodies; and Gene Wilder and Evans Evans, as a kidnapped couple who find out a few things about each other while salving the loneliness of their captors, provide excellent support.

Burnett Guffey’s Technicolor cinematography is outstanding, as is the meticulous art direction of Dean Tavoularis and set decoration by Raymond Paul. Francis E. Stahl’s sound recording provides natural dialogue, and orchestrates the extraneous sounds of the flat lands, the far-off train whistles, crickets and winds, to augment the mood of the film. The costuming by Andy Matyasi and Norma Brown, make-up by Robert Jiras and hair styles by Gladys Witten also contribute to the verisimilitude of time and place.

Source music of the period is neatly employed. After their first killing, when the gang seeks refuge in a movie theatre, the mocking lyric of “We’re in the Money” from Gold Diggers of 1933 provides an ironic counterpoint. “Deep in the Arms of Love” sets the opening of the film, while Eddie Cantor is heard on a motel radio. The Flatt and Scruggs recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” provides the riotous accompaniment to the getaways. Charles Strouse reprises the sentimental sounds of clarinet, violin, and ukulele in a fine score that is distinguished more by its effect than its omnipresence.

The film’s editing by Dede Allen is superior. – John Mahoney.

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