“Bonnie and Clyde” – Arthur Penn’s iconic gangster film
By Erin Overbey, archive editor, THE NEW YORKER
In a 1998 interview, the film critic Pauline Kael responded to a question about her legacy by saying that, if she acknowledged her influence, “I’m an egotist, and if I say no, then I’ve wasted my life.” Kael’s answer perfectly encapsulates her piquant literary style. Between 1967 and 1991, Kael contributed more than five hundred pieces to The New Yorker.
After her appointment as the magazine’s film critic, in 1968, her subjects included the making of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” the abiding appeal of the actor Cary Grant, the fevered urban landscape of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and the sci-fi fantasia of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” Known for her slashing wit and rippling prose, Kael’s critiques—both positive and negative—came to be legendary. In the October 21, 1967, issue of the magazine, she published “Bonnie and Clyde,” a sweeping review of Arthur Penn’s brutal gangster film.
Kael famously submitted the essay to The New Republic, which declined to print it, before sending it to The New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn. In the piece, she writes about the ways in which American audiences have come to view violence in films as a joke, a put-on—and how the public’s sensibilities are often unmoored by films that don’t subscribe to conventional views of morality. Great art, and great movies, Kael argues, allow an audience to absorb singular insights into, and expressions of, humanity’s flaws, as well as its strengths.
“To ask why people react so angrily to the best movies and have so little negative reaction to poor ones is to imply that they are so unused to the experience of art in movies that they fight it. Audiences at ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ are not given a simple, secure basis for identification; they are made to feel but are not told how to feel,” she writes. Kael’s essay indelibly transfigured the cultural conversation about violence and sensationalism in film during the nineteen-sixties and seventies. It endures as a landmark piece of criticism due, in part, to its vigorous defense of the profound virtue of low, as well as high, art. More than anything, the piece is a truly great jaunt. As it unfolds, Kael takes us on a transcendent ride beyond our own preconceptions and wrests American poetry out of popular culture
By Pauline Kael, October 14, 1967, THE NEW YORKER
How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? “Bonnie and Clyde” is the most excitingly American American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate.” The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies—go too far for some tastes—and “Bonnie and Clyde” divides audiences, as “The Manchurian Candidate” did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard. Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it. “Bonnie and Clyde” brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about. And once something is said or done on the screens of the world, once it has entered mass art, it can never again belong to a minority, never again be the private possession of an educated, or “knowing,” group. But even for that group there is an excitement in hearing its own private thoughts expressed out loud and in seeing something of its own sensibility become part of our common culture.
Photograph from Everett
Our best movies have always made entertainment out of the anti-heroism of American life; they bring to the surface what, in its newest forms and fashions, is always just below the surface. The romanticism in American movies lies in the cynical tough guy’s independence; the sentimentality lies, traditionally, in the falsified finish when the anti-hero turns hero. In 1967, this kind of sentimentality wouldn’t work with the audience, and “Bonnie and Clyde” substitutes sexual fulfillment for a change of heart. (This doesn’t quite work, either; audiences sophisticated enough to enjoy a movie like this one are too sophisticated for the dramatic uplift of the triumph over impotence.)
Structurally, “Bonnie and Clyde” is a story of love on the run, like the old Clark Gable–Claudette Colbert “It Happened One Night” but turned inside out; the walls of Jericho are psychological this time, but they fall anyway. If the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed almost from the start, and even to them while they were living it, to be the material of legend, it’s because robbers who are loyal to each other—like the James brothers—are a grade up from garden-variety robbers, and if they’re male and female partners in crime and young and attractive they’re a rare breed. The Barrow gang had both family loyalty and sex appeal working for their legend. David Newman and Robert Benton, who wrote the script for “Bonnie and Clyde,” were able to use the knowledge that, like many of our other famous outlaws and gangsters, the real Bonnie and Clyde seemed to others to be acting out forbidden roles and to relish their roles. In contrast with secret criminals—the furtive embezzlers and other crooks who lead seemingly honest lives—the known outlaws capture the public imagination, because they take chances, and because, often, they enjoy dramatizing their lives. They know that newspaper readers want all the details they can get about the criminals who do the terrible things they themselves don’t dare to do, and also want the satisfaction of reading about the punishment after feasting on the crimes. Outlaws play to this public; they show off their big guns and fancy clothes and their defiance of the law. Bonnie and Clyde established the images for their own legend in the photographs they posed for: the gunman and the gun moll. The naïve, touching doggerel ballad that Bonnie Parker wrote and had published in newspapers is about the roles they play for other people contrasted with the coming end for them. It concludes:
Someday they’ll go down together;
They’ll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief—
To the law a relief—
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.
That they did capture the public imagination is evidenced by the many movies based on their lives. In the late forties, there were “They Live by Night,” with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, and “Gun Crazy,” with John Dall and Peggy Cummins. (Alfred Hitchcock, in the same period, cast these two Clyde Barrows, Dall and Granger, as Loeb and Leopold, in “Rope.”) And there was a cheap—in every sense—1958 exploitation film, “The Bonnie Parker Story,” starring Dorothy Provine. But the most important earlier version was Fritz Lang’s “You Only Live Once,” starring Sylvia Sidney as “Joan” and Henry Fonda as “Eddie,” which was made in 1937; this version, which was one of the best American films of the thirties, as “Bonnie and Clyde” is of the sixties, expressed certain feelings of its time, as this film expresses certain feelings of ours. (“They Live by Night,” produced by John Houseman under the aegis of Dore Schary, and directed by Nicholas Ray, was a very serious and socially significant tragic melodrama, but its attitudes were already dated thirties attitudes: the lovers were very young and pure and frightened and underprivileged; the hardened criminals were sordid; the settings were committedly grim. It made no impact on the postwar audience, though it was a great success in England, where our moldy socially significant movies could pass for courageous.)
Just how contemporary in feeling “Bonnie and Clyde” is may be indicated by contrasting it with “You Only Live Once,” which, though almost totally false to the historical facts, was told straight. It is a peculiarity of our times—perhaps it’s one of the few specifically modern characteristics—that we don’t take our stories straight anymore. This isn’t necessarily bad. “Bonnie and Clyde” is the first film demonstration that the put-on can be used for the purposes of art. “The Manchurian Candidate” almost succeeded in that, but what was implicitly wild and far out in the material was nevertheless presented on screen as a straight thriller. “Bonnie and Clyde” keeps the audience in a kind of eager, nervous imbalance—holds our attention by throwing our disbelief back in our faces. To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at “Bonnie and Clyde” are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges—that they appreciate the joke—when they catch the first bullet fight in the face. The movie keeps them off balance to the end. During the first part of the picture, a woman in my row was gleefully assuring her companions, “It’s a comedy. It’s a comedy.” After a while, she didn’t say anything. Instead of the movie spoof, which tells the audience that it doesn’t need to feel or care, that it’s all just in fun, that “we were only kidding,” “Bonnie and Clyde” disrupts us with “And you thought we were only kidding.”
This is the way the story was told in 1937. Eddie (Clyde) is a three-time loser who wants to work for a living, but nobody will give him a chance. Once you get on the wrong side of the law, “they” won’t let you get back. Eddie knows it’s hopeless—once a loser, always a loser. But his girl, Joan (Bonnie)—the only person who believes in him—thinks that an innocent man has nothing to fear. She marries him, and learns better. Arrested again and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, Eddie asks her to smuggle a gun to him in prison, and she protests, “If I get you a gun, you’ll kill somebody.” He stares at her sullenly and asks, “What do you think they’re going to do to me?” He becomes a murderer while escaping from prison; “society” has made him what it thought he was all along. “You Only Live Once” was an indictment of “society,” of the forces of order that will not give Eddie the outcast a chance. “We have a right to live,” Joan says as they set out across the country. During the time they are on the run, they become notorious outlaws; they are blamed for a series of crimes they didn’t commit. (They do commit holdups, but only to get gas or groceries or medicine.) While the press pictures them as desperadoes robbing and killing and living high on the proceeds of crime, she is having a baby in a shack in a hobo jungle, and Eddie brings her a bouquet of wild flowers. Caught in a police trap, they die in each other’s arms; they have been denied the fight to live.
Because “You Only Live Once” was so well done, and because the audience in the thirties shared this view of the indifference and cruelty of “society,” there were no protests against the sympathetic way the outlaws were pictured—and, indeed, there was no reason for any. In 1958, in “I Want to Live!” (a very popular, though not very good, movie), Barbara Graham, a drug-addict prostitute who had been executed for her share in the bludgeoning to death of an elderly woman, was presented as gallant, wronged, morally superior to everybody else in the movie, in order to strengthen the argument against capital punishment, and the director, Robert Wise, and his associates weren’t accused of glorifying criminals, because the “criminals,” as in “You Only Live Once,” weren’t criminals but innocent victims. Why the protests, why are so many people upset (and not just the people who enjoy indignation), about “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which the criminals are criminals—Clyde an ignorant, sly near psychopath who thinks his crimes are accomplishments, and Bonnie a bored, restless waitress-slut who robs for excitement? And why so many accusations of historical inaccuracy, particularly against a work that is far more accurate historically than most and in which historical accuracy hardly matters anyway?
Audiences at “Bonnie and Clyde” are not given a simple, secure basis for identification; they are made to feel but are not told how to feel. “Bonnie and Clyde” is not a serious melodrama involving us in the plight of the innocent but a movie that assumes—as William Wellman did in 1931 when he made “The Public Enemy,” with James Cagney as a smart, cocky, mean little crook—that we don’t need to pretend we’re interested only in the falsely accused, as if real criminals had no connection with us. There wouldn’t be the popular excitement there is about outlaws if we didn’t all suspect that—in some cases, at least—gangsters must take pleasure in the profits and glory of a life of crime. Outlaws wouldn’t become legendary figures if we didn’t suspect that there’s more to crime than the social workers’ case studies may show. And though what we’ve always been told will happen to them—that they’ll come to a bad end—does seem to happen, some part of us wants to believe in the tiny possibility that they can get away with it. Is that really so terrible? Yet when it comes to movies people get nervous about acknowledging that there must be some fun in crime (though the gleam in Cagney’s eye told its own story). “Bonnie and Clyde” shows the fun but uses it, too, milking comedy out of the banality and conventionality of that fun. What looks ludicrous in this movie isn’t merely ludicrous, and after we have laughed at ignorance and helplessness and emptiness and stupidity and idiotic deviltry, the laughs keep sticking in our throats, because what’s funny isn’t only funny.
In 1937, the movie-makers knew that the audience wanted to believe in the innocence of Joan and Eddie, because these two were lovers, and innocent lovers hunted down like animals made a tragic love story. In 1967, the movie-makers know that the audience wants to believe—maybe even prefers to believe—that Bonnie and Clyde were guilty of crimes, all right, but that they were innocent in general; that is, naïve and ignorant compared with us. The distancing of the sixties version shows the gangsters in an already legendary period, and part of what makes a legend for Americans is viewing anything that happened in the past as much simpler than what we are involved in now. We tend to find the past funny and the recent past campy-funny. The getaway cars of the early thirties are made to seem hilarious. (Imagine anyone getting away from a bank holdup in a tin Lizzie like that!) In “You Only Live Once,” the outlaws existed in the same present as the audience, and there was (and still is, I’m sure) nothing funny about them; in “Bonnie and Clyde” that audience is in the movie, transformed into the poor people, the Depression people, of legend—with faces and poses out of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” In 1937, the audience felt sympathy for the fugitives because they weren’t allowed to lead normal lives; in 1967, the “normality” of the Barrow gang and their individual aspirations toward respectability are the craziest things about them—not just because they’re killers but because thirties “normality” is in itself funny to us. The writers and the director of “Bonnie and Clyde” play upon our attitudes toward the American past by making the hats and guns and holdups look as dated as two-reel comedy; emphasizing the absurdity with banjo music, they make the period seem even farther away than it is.
Playfully posing with their guns, the real Bonnie and Clyde mocked the “Bloody Barrows” of the Hearst press. One photograph shows slim, pretty Bonnie, smiling and impeccably dressed, pointing a huge gun at Clyde’s chest as he, a dimpled dude with a cigar, smiles back. The famous picture of Bonnie in the same clothes but looking ugly squinting into the sun, with a foot on the car, a gun on her hip, and a cigar in her mouth, is obviously a joke—her caricature of herself as a gun moll. Probably, since they never meant to kill, they thought the “Bloody Barrows” were a joke—a creation of the lying newspapers.
There’s something new working for the Bonnie-and-Clyde legend now: our nostalgia for the thirties—the unpredictable, contrary affection of the prosperous for poverty, or at least for the artifacts, the tokens, of poverty, for Pop culture seen in the dreariest rural settings, where it truly seems to belong. Did people in the cities listen to the Eddie Cantor show? No doubt they did, but the sound of his voice, like the sound of Ed Sullivan now, evokes a primordial, pre-urban existence—the childhood of the race. Our comic-melancholic affection for thirties Pop has become sixties Pop, and those who made “Bonnie and Clyde” are smart enough to use it that way. Being knowing is not an artist’s highest gift, but it can make a hell of a lot of difference in a movie. In the American experience, the miseries of the Depression are funny in the way that the Army is funny to draftees—a shared catastrophe, a levelling, forming part of our common background. Those too young to remember the Depression have heard about it from their parents. (When I was at college, we used to top each other’s stories about how our families had survived: the fathers who had committed suicide so that their wives and children could live off the insurance; the mothers trying to make a game out of the meals of potatoes cooked on an open fire.)
If there is such a thing as an American tragedy, it must be funny. O’Neill undoubtedly felt this when he had James Tyrone get up to turn off the lights in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” We are bumpkins, haunted by the bottle of ketchup on the dining table at San Simeon. We garble our foreign words and phrases and hope that at least we’ve used them right. Our heroes pick up the wrong fork, and the basic figure of fun in the American theatre and American movies is the man who puts on airs. Children of peddlers and hod carriers don’t feel at home in tragedy; we are used to failure. But, because of the quality of American life at the present time, perhaps there can be no real comedy—nothing more than stupidity and “spoof”—without true horror in it. Bonnie and Clyde and their partners in crime are comically bad bank robbers, and the backdrop of poverty makes their holdups seem pathetically tacky, yet they rob banks and kill people; Clyde and his good-natured brother are so shallow they never think much about anything, yet they suffer and die.
If this way of holding more than one attitude toward life is already familiar to us—if we recognize the make-believe robbers whose toy guns produce real blood, and the Keystone cops who shoot them dead, from Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and Godard’s gangster pictures, “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders”—it’s because the young French directors discovered the poetry of crime in American life (from our movies) and showed the Americans how to put it on the screen in a new, “existential” way. Melodramas and gangster movies and comedies were always more our speed than prestigious, distinguished pictures; the French directors who grew up on American pictures found poetry in our fast action, laconic speech, plain gestures. And because they understood that you don’t express your love of life by denying the comedy or the horror of it, they brought out the poetry in our tawdry subjects. Now Arthur Penn, working with a script heavily influenced—one might almost say inspired—by Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player,” unfortunately imitates Truffaut’s artistry instead of going back to its tough American sources. The French may tenderize their American material, but we shouldn’t. That turns into another way of making “prestigious,” “distinguished” pictures.
Probably part of the discomfort that people feel about “Bonnie and Clyde” grows out of its compromises and its failures. I wish the script hadn’t provided the upbeat of the hero’s sexual success as a kind of sop to the audience. I think what makes us not believe in it is that it isn’t consistent with the intelligence of the rest of the writing—that it isn’t on the same level, because it’s too manipulatively clever, too much of a gimmick. (The scene that shows the gnomish gang member called C. W. sleeping in the same room with Bonnie and Clyde suggests other possibilities, perhaps discarded, as does C. W.’s reference to Bonnie’s liking his tattoo.) Compromises are not new to the Bonnie-and-Clyde story; “You Only Live Once” had a tacked-on coda featuring a Heavenly choir and William Gargan as a dead priest, patronizing Eddie even in the afterlife, welcoming him to Heaven with “You’re free, Eddie!” The kind of people who make a movie like “You Only Live Once” are not the kind who write endings like that, and, by the same sort of internal evidence, I’d guess that Newman and Benton, whose Bonnie seems to owe so much to Catherine in “Jules and Jim,” had more interesting ideas originally about Bonnie’s and Clyde’s (and maybe C. W.’s) sex lives.
But people also feel uncomfortable about the violence, and here I think they’re wrong. That is to say, they should feel uncomfortable, but this isn’t an argument against the movie. Only a few years ago, a good director would have suggested the violence obliquely, with reaction shots (like the famous one in “The Golden Coach,” when we see a whole bullfight reflected in Anna Magnani’s face), and death might have been symbolized by a light going out, or stylized, with blood and wounds kept to a minimum. In many ways, this method is more effective; we feel the violence more because so much is left to our imaginations. But the whole point of “Bonnie and Clyde” is to rub our noses in it, to make us pay our dues for laughing. The dirty reality of death—not suggestions but blood and holes—is necessary. Though I generally respect a director’s skill and intelligence in inverse ratio to the violence he shows on the screen, and though I questioned even the Annie Sullivan–Helen Keller fight scenes in Arthur Penn’s “The Miracle Worker,” I think that this time Penn is right. (I think he was also right when he showed violence in his first film, “The Left Handed Gun,” in 1958.) Suddenly, in the last few years, our view of the world has gone beyond “good taste.” Tasteful suggestions of violence would at this point be a more grotesque form of comedy than “Bonnie and Clyde” attempts. “Bonnie and Clyde” needs violence; violence is its meaning. When, during a comically botched-up getaway, a man is shot in the face, the image is obviously based on one of the most famous sequences in Eisenstein’s “Potemkin,” and the startled face is used the same way it was in “Potemkin”—to convey in an instant how someone who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the irrelevant “innocent” bystander, can get it full in the face. And at that instant the meaning of Clyde Barrow’s character changes; he’s still a clown, but we’ve become the butt of the joke.
It is a kind of violence that says something to us; it is something that movies must be free to use. And it is just because artists must be free to use violence—a legal right that is beginning to come under attack—that we must also defend the legal rights of those filmmakers who use violence to sell tickets, for it is not the province of the law to decide that one man is an artist and another man a no-talent. The no-talent has as much right to produce works as the artist has, and not only because he has a surprising way of shifting from one category to the other but also because men have an inalienable right to be untalented, and the law should not discriminate against lousy “artists.” I am not saying that the violence in “Bonnie and Clyde” is legally acceptable because the film is a work of art; I think that “Bonnie and Clyde,” though flawed, is a work of art, but I think that the violence in “The Dirty Dozen,” which isn’t a work of art, and whose violence offends me personally, should also be legally defensible, however morally questionable. Too many people—including some movie reviewers—want the law to take over the job of movie criticism; perhaps what they really want is for their own criticisms to have the force of law. Such people see “Bonnie and Clyde” as a danger to public morality; they think an audience goes to a play or a movie and takes the actions in it as examples for imitation. They look at the world and blame the movies.
Will we, as some people have suggested, be lured into imitating the violent crimes of Clyde and Bonnie because Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are “glamorous”? Do they, as some people have charged, confer glamour on violence? It’s difficult to see how, since the characters they play are horrified by it and ultimately destroyed by it. Nobody in the movie gets pleasure from violence. Is the charge based on the notion that simply by their presence in the movie Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway make crime attractive? If movie stars can’t play criminals without our all wanting to be criminals, then maybe the only safe roles for them to play are movie stars—which, in this assumption, everybody wants to be anyway. After all, if they played factory workers, the economy might be dislocated by everybody’s trying to become a factory worker. Would having criminals played by dwarfs or fatties discourage crime? It seems rather doubtful.) The accusation that the beauty of movie stars makes the anti-social acts of their characters dangerously attractive is the kind of contrived argument we get from people who are bothered by something and are clutching at straws.
There is a story told against Beatty in a recent Esquire—how during the shooting of “Lilith” he “delayed a scene for three days demanding the line ‘I’ve read “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” ’ be changed to ‘I’ve read “Crime and Punishment” and half of “The Brothers Karamazov.” ’ ” Considerations of professional conduct aside, what is odd is why his adversaries waited three days to give in, because, of course, he was right. That’s what the character he played should say; the other way, the line has no point at all. But this kind of intuition isn’t enough to make an actor, and in a number of roles Beatty, probably because he doesn’t have the technique to make the most of his lines in the least possible time, has depended too much on intuitive non-acting—holding the screen far too long as he acted out self-preoccupied characters in a lifelike, boringly self-conscious way. He has a gift for slyness, though, as he showed in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” and in most of his films he could hold the screen—maybe because there seemed to be something going on in his mind, some kind of calculation. There was something smart about him—something shrewdly private in those squeezed-up little non-actor’s eyes—that didn’t fit the clean-cut juvenile roles. Beatty was the producer of “Bonnie and Clyde,” responsible for keeping the company on schedule, and he has been quoted as saying, “There’s not a scene that we have done that we couldn’t do better by taking another day.” This is the hell of the expensive way of making movies, but it probably helps to explain why Beatty is more intense than he has been before and why he has picked up his pace.
It’s difficult to know how Bonnie should have been played, because the character isn’t worked out. Here the script seems weak. She is made too warmly sympathetic—and sympathetic in a style that antedates the style of the movie. Being frustrated and moody, she’s not funny enough—neither ordinary, which, in the circumstances, would be comic, nor perverse, which might be rather funny, too. Her attitude toward her mother is too loving. There could be something funny about her wanting to run home to her mama, but, as it has been done, her heading home, running off through the fields, is unconvincing—incompletely motivated. And because the element of the ridiculous that makes the others so individual has been left out of her character she doesn’t seem to belong to the period as the others do. Faye Dunaway has a sixties look anyway—not just because her eyes are made up in a sixties way and her hair is wrong but because her personal style and her acting are sixties. (This may help to make her popular; she can seem prettier to those who don’t recognize prettiness except in the latest styles.) Furthermore, in some difficult-to-define way, Faye Dunaway as Bonnie doesn’t keep her distance—that is to say, an actor’s distance—either from the role or from the audience. She doesn’t hold a characterization; she’s in and out of emotions all the time, and though she often hits effective ones, the emotions seem hers, not the character’s. She has some talent, but she comes on too strong; she makes one conscious that she’s a willing worker, but she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing—rather like Bonnie in her attempts to overcome Clyde’s sexual difficulties.
Although many daily movie reviewers judge a movie in isolation, as if the people who made it had no previous history, more serious critics now commonly attempt to judge a movie as an expressive vehicle of the director, and a working out of his personal themes. Auden has written, “Our judgment of an established author is never simply an aesthetic judgment. In addition to any literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long been interested. He is not only a poet . . . he is also a character in our biography.” For a while, people went to the newest Bergman and the newest Fellini that way; these movies were greeted like the latest novels of a favorite author. But Arthur Penn is not a writer-director like Bergman or Fellini, both of whom began as writers, and who (even though Fellini employs several collaborators) compose their spiritual autobiographies step by step on film. Penn is far more dependent on the talents of others, and his primary material—what he starts with—does not come out of his own experience. If the popular audience is generally uninterested in the director (unless he is heavily publicized, like de Mille or Hitchcock), the audience that is interested in the art of movies has begun, with many of the critics, to think of movies as a directors’ medium to the point where they tend to ignore the contribution of the writers—and the directors maybe almost obscenely content to omit mention of the writers. The history of the movies is being rewritten to disregard facts in favor of celebrating the director as the sole “creative” force. One can read Josef von Sternberg’s autobiography and the text of the latest books on his movies without ever finding the name of Jules Furthman, the writer who worked on nine of his most famous movies (including “Morocco” and “Shanghai Express”).
Anyone who goes to big American movies like “Grand Prix” and “The Sand Pebbles” recognizes that movies with scripts like those don’t have a chance to be anything more than exercises in technology, and that this is what is meant by the decadence of American movies. In the past, directors used to say that they were no better than their material. (Sometimes they said it when they weren’t even up to their material.) A good director can attempt to camouflage poor writing with craftsmanship and style, but ultimately no amount of director’s skill can conceal a writer’s failure; a poor script, even well directed, results in a stupid movie—as, unfortunately, does a good script poorly directed. Despite the new notion that the direction is everything, Penn can’t redeem bad material, nor, as one may surmise from his “Mickey One,” does he necessarily know when it’s bad. It is not fair to judge Penn by a film like “The Chase,” because he evidently did not have artistic control over the production, but what happens when he does have control and is working with a poor, pretentious mess of a script is painfully apparent in “Mickey One”—an art film in the worst sense of that term.
Some of the best American movies show the seams of cuts and the confusions of compromises and still hold together, because there is enough energy and spirit to carry the audience over each of the weak episodes to the next good one. The solid intelligence of the writing and Penn’s aura of sensitivity help “Bonnie and Clyde” triumph over many poorly directed scenes: Bonnie posing for the photograph with the Texas Ranger, or—the worst sequence—the Ranger getting information out of Blanche Barrow in the hospital. The attempt to make the Texas Ranger an old-time villain doesn’t work. He’s in the tradition of the mustachioed heavy who foreclosed mortgages and pursued heroines in turn-of-the-century plays, and this one-dimensional villainy belongs, glaringly, to spoof. In some cases, I think, the writing and the conception of the scenes are better (potentially, that is) than the way the scenes have been directed and acted. If Gene Hackman’s Buck Barrow is a beautifully controlled performance, the best in the film, several of the other players—though they are very good—needed a tighter rein. They act too much. But it is in other ways that Penn’s limitations show—in his excessive reliance on meaning-laden closeups, for one. And it’s no wonder he wasn’t able to bring out the character of Bonnie in scenes like the one showing her appreciation of the fingernails on the figurine, for in other scenes his own sense of beauty appears to be only a few rungs farther up that same cultural ladder.
The showpiece sequence, Bonnie’s visit to her mother (which is a bit reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s confrontation with his mother, Marjorie Main, in the movie version of “Dead End”), aims for an effect of alienation, but that effect is confused by all the other things attempted in the sequence: the poetic echoes of childhood (which also echo the child sliding down the hill in “Jules and Jim”) and a general attempt to create a frieze from our national past—a poetry of poverty. Penn isn’t quite up to it, though he is at least good enough to communicate what he is trying to do, and it is an attempt that one can respect. In 1939, John Ford attempted a similar poetic evocation of the legendary American past in “Young Mr. Lincoln;” this kind of evocation, by getting at how we feel about the past, moves us far more than attempts at historical re-creation. When Ford’s Western evocations fail, they become languorous; when they succeed, they are the West of our dreams, and his Lincoln, the man so humane and so smart that he can outwit the unjust and save the innocent, is the Lincoln of our dreams, as the Depression of “Bonnie and Clyde” is the Depression of our dreams—the nation in a kind of trance, as in a dim memory. In this sense, the effect of blur is justified, is “right.” Our memories have become hazy; this is what the Depression has faded into. But we are too conscious of the technical means used to achieve this blur, of the attempt at poetry. We are aware that the filtered effects already include our responses, and it’s too easy; the lines are good enough so that the stylization wouldn’t have been necessary if the scene had been played right. A simple frozen frame might have been more appropriate.
The editing of this movie is, however, the best editing in an American movie in a long time, and one may assume that Penn deserves credit for it along with the editor, Dede Allen. It’s particularly inventive in the robberies and in the comedy sequence of Blanche running through the police barricades with her kitchen spatula in her hand. (There is, however, one bad bit of editing: the end of the hospital scene, when Blanche’s voice makes an emotional shift without a corresponding change in her facial position.) The quick panic of Bonnie and Clyde looking at each other’s face for the last time is a stunning example of the art of editing.
The end of the picture, the rag-doll dance of death as the gun blasts keep the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde in motion, is brilliant. It is a horror that seems to go on for eternity, and yet it doesn’t last a second beyond what it should. The audience leaving the theatre is the quietest audience imaginable.
Still, that woman near me was saying “It’s a comedy” for a little too long, and although this could have been, and probably was, a demonstration of plain old-fashioned insensitivity, it suggests that those who have attuned themselves to the “total” comedy of the last few years may not know when to stop laughing. Movie audiences have been getting a steady diet of “black” comedy since 1964 and “Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Spoof and satire have been entertaining audiences since the two-reelers; because it is so easy to do on film things that are difficult or impossible in nature, movies are ideally suited to exaggerations of heroic prowess and to the kind of lighthearted nonsense we used to get when even the newsreels couldn’t resist the kidding finish of the speeded-up athletic competition or the diver flying up from the water. The targets have usually been social and political fads and abuses, together with the heroes and the clichés of the just preceding period of filmmaking. “Dr. Strangelove” opened a new movie era. It ridiculed everything and everybody it showed, but concealed its own liberal pieties, thus protecting itself from ridicule. A professor who had told me that “The Manchurian Candidate” was “irresponsible,” adding, “I didn’t like it—I can suspend disbelief only so far,” was overwhelmed by “Dr. Strangelove”: “I’ve never been so involved. I had to keep reminding myself it was only a movie.” “Dr. Strangelove” was clearly intended as a cautionary movie; it meant to jolt us awake to the dangers of the bomb by showing us the insanity of the course we were pursuing. But artists’ warnings about war and the dangers of total annihilation never tell us how we are supposed to regain control, and “Dr. Strangelove,” chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity. It was experienced not as satire but as a confirmation of fears. Total laughter carried the day. A new generation enjoyed seeing the world as insane; they literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Once something enters mass culture, it travels fast. In the spoofs of the last few years, everything is gross, ridiculous, insane; to make sense would be to risk being square. A brutal new melodrama is called “Point Blank,” and it is. So are most of the new movies. This is the context in which “Bonnie and Clyde,” an entertaining movie that has some feeling in it, upsets people—people who didn’t get upset even by “Mondo Cane.” Maybe it’s because “Bonnie and Clyde,” by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back into death. ♦
—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: October 24, 2020 at 06:49PM