Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Bonnie and Clyde


I remember where I saw this during its first, controversial re-release. (It was re-released because Warners hated it so much they banished it to the drive-in circuit until a growing number of critical voices began to be heard.) It was in a packed theater in Sausalito, Marin County, and we were closer to the front than I like—and I like to sit pretty close. It stunned me, and pretty much everyone else. No movie other than 2001 was ever so misunderstood at first, prompting any number of backtrack reviews by shame-faced critics. Roger Ebert was one of the first ones who got it right. This is a masterpiece, that was mistaken for an exploitation bloodbath.
And it could have gone so wrong. When Warren Beatty took over the production (accepting 40% of the gross for payment because he wanted so badly to make it; it made him a wealthy man) he had someone in mind for the part of Clyde Barrow, before he decided to take the part himself. He wanted to cast … wait for it … Bob Dylan. Oh lord, I’ve heard of a lot of near-disasters in casting, like George Raft almost playing Rick in Casablanca, but this is the worst. Can’t you just see that idiot stumbling and mumbling his way through Texas? Love your music, Bob, but you can’t act for beans.
The movie is very loosely based on the bloody and brief careers of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, but I won’t go into all the hundreds of changes they made here. If you’re interested, there is chapter and verse at Wiki and the IMDb. I’ll only mention that Estelle Parsons (who deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting) as Blanche Barrow was so far from the reality that Blanche sued, and won an out-of-court settlement. Blanche was not the hysterical, bumbling ditherer written here, but a full-fledged member of the Barrow Gang.
So please, do not look at this as an historical document. They made almost all of it up. The best way to appreciate it is as a fable, inspired by real persons and events. And as such, it shines. All five main acting performances are simply great, Faye Dunaway in particular. Arthur Penn directed with a sure hand, helped by editor Dede Allen. They filmed it mostly in small Texas towns that hadn’t changed much since the 1930s, including Waxahatchie and Midlothian, places my family drove through a hundred times on our way from Fort Worth to my grandparents’ house in Corsicana. They captured the look of films of that era, only in Technicolor (Beatty wanted to shoot in B&W, but was overruled), and with a different sensibility. I mean, we just hadn’t seen this level of realistic violence in the movies at that time. The violent shoot-outs were masterpieces of quick cutting and blazing guns and exploding squibs. And the slaughter of the two at the end left people just stunned. (BTW: One more fact … though it was clearly an execution, it’s not hard to understand why the lawmen poured so much lead into that car. Both of them were armed, Clyde was a crack shot, and the back seat was full of Tommy guns, Browning rifles, pistols, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. These were not nice people.)
What I hadn’t recalled so well, not having seen it in many years, is how goddam funny it is. Before the blood really starts to run, there are many scenes that made me laugh aloud, like when Clyde tries to rob a bank that failed three weeks before … and then took the poor teller out to the car to confirm the fact to Bonnie. Or when they hijack a young couple and get friendly with them. That was Gene Wilder, in his first movie role. Simply hilarious.
There are also scenes of great sensitivity and pathos. Apparently an early draft had Clyde be bisexual. Instead they went for impotence, possibly coming from his two years of being in prison, where he might have been raped. “I told you, I ain’t no loverboy.”) That makes him so much more interesting than if he was just your standard anti-hero stud. And Bonnie being so bored with her small-town life that she wanted him in spite of that. This is one of those movies where I wouldn’t change a frame.