I was only ten years old when the country was gripped by Bonnie and Clyde mania. Okay, that’s overstating it, it was nothing like the previous year’s Bat-mania, but it was pretty significant. Songs were written about them, women were wearing berets, and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became the go-to tune for car chases. As I said, I was ten, and Bonnie and Clyde was rated M, so that was a no-go. This seems peculiar in that it wasn’t long after that I saw The Moonshine War (rated GP, which is what the M rating turned into) at a friggin’ kiddie matinee.
This is the biggest problem with waiting this long to see Bonnie and Clyde: I have seen most of the movies that came after. Corman had St. Valentine’s Day Massacre out almost immediately; Moonshine War and Bloody Mama shortly after. John Milius’ Dillinger, an unjustly ignored movie, came in 73. And these are just the gangster-oriented movies that owe a debt to Bonnie and Clyde. Seeing the Corman-produced flicks is easy, they crop up on cable and even broadcast channels often. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Bonnie and Clyde.
The original script was very influenced by the French New Wave, and was, in fact, meant to be directed by Francois Truffaut. The naturalistic acting, the frankness on sexual matters, and the realism of the violence all become inevitable once this is understood- but it is almost impossible, having seen the cinema that descended from it, to comprehend exactly how much of a bellwether this was for American movies, how it starkly signaled a changing of the guard. Jack Warner hated the movie and tried to bury it, perhaps because he didn’t understand it because this wasn’t the sort of gangster movie Warner Brothers had been known for – the criminals were the heroes, for God’s sake! Perhaps possibly because he feared it as a harbinger of a new age he equally could not understand. That’s how I wound up seeing The Moonshine War on a Saturday afternoon – the Rialto just ran the same thing they did in the evening, because the Hayes Code supposedly kept the entertainment toothless, as it had for decades.
Bonnie and Clyde‘s timing was fortuitous, perhaps accidentally so; casting the young outlaws as anti-establishment counter-cultural crusaders as the anti-war movement was getting up to speed in America. But the chipping away at “The Code” was, at least planned and deliberate, fueled by the adult-oriented European movies that were all the rage; Clyde Barrow, in the original script, is bisexual; in the finished product, that is replaced by chronic impotence, at least until he realizes that Bonnie has immortalized him in poem, at which point he successfully, triumphantly makes love to her. That would not have been so overt even a year earlier, if attempted at all, and the resistance against an earlier scene, in which Bonnie attempts to pleasure him orally was severe (admittedly, the angles are so wrong in the scene, it looks impossible anyway, but still). And then there is the blood, quite a bit of it.
It’s a violent movie about a violent subject, and Penn states it was the first time that audiences ever saw a gun fired and result of the bullet hit in the same shot. Sergio Leone likely beat him to that, but it was the first time in an American movie. Hell, it’s even in the theatrical trailer! Quick cutting, slow motion, hundreds of blood squibs: all two years before The Wild Bunch.
The best comparison I can come up with is – unsurprisingly, if you know me – from comic books. Watchmen was fresh and bracing when it first came out in 12 issues. Nobody had ever taken on these superhero tropes in quite that way. It was astonishing, a game changer. When the inevitable movie came out in 2009, a lot of people read it for the first time, and they didn’t see what all the shouting was about; in the twenty-plus years since, everything that was new and radical about it had been appropriated by the mainstream; the rebel had been co-opted. This is the major problem I encountered when I watched Bonnie and Clyde for the first time last night; it was constantly reminding me of other movies, when other movies should be reminding me of Bonnie and Clyde.
But that is not to slight the craft in evidence here – Bonnie and Clyde is still a great movie, and feels like it could have been made last month, it has aged that well. The professional actors on display are all tremendous: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder, Evans Evans, Dub Taylor. It is a movie well worth watching – I just wish I had seen it sooner. Like 40 years sooner.
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