by Tony Dayoub
It is number 42 on the American Film Institute's top 100 movies. It is notable for bringing Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman to the attention of moviegoers around the world. It was Gene Wilder's film debut. It was the first film Warren Beatty produced. And above all, it is arguably the film that ushered in the era of "auteur cinema" that was so dominant in the 1970s, even though the film was released in 1967, and the film was hardly the solitary vision of its director, Arthur Penn. Bonnie and Clyde is all these things and more, and it was finally released last week on Blu-ray and standard DVD in a version much improved over its first DVD release in 1999.
Warren Beatty was not an unknown at the time he decided to produce this film, but he definitely saw the opportunity to further his career with the David Newman & Robert Benton-penned script. The two former magazine staffers first presented the script, covering the exploits of gangster folk heroes Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, to François Truffaut. A leader of the French New Wave, his Jules et Jim had some influence on the story. Truffaut turned it down, but recommended it to Beatty, who was in the market for something to shepherd into production. Not only did Beatty see the chance to give it his all and launch his career as a power player in Hollywood. He saw the possibility of transcending his pretty-boy career with his portrayal of the gangster Clyde Barrow. The sometimes self-conscious Beatty has rarely seemed as dynamic as he does when wooing Dunaway's Parker into complicity at the start of the film.
He also was generous enough to offer the part of his brother Buck to the then unknown Gene Hackman. This was the beginning of a trend as Beatty has always surrounded himself with actors he has befriended in movies throughout his career, such as Reds and Dick Tracy. After costarring with him in Lilith, Beatty had said Hackman was the best thing about the movie. This and other anecdotes are referenced in the wonderful documentary, Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde included in the special features). In that doc, Hackman tells of how very close he was to quitting as an actor before this movie brought him an Academy Award nomination.
Together with director Arthur Penn, Beatty made an extraordinary effort to bring this film in line with the French New Wave films that were causing such a stir at the time. Penn contributed his speed and agility in setting up the camera from his time as a TV director. Beatty used his own frustrations with the studio system to stoke the fire fueling the cast and crew. As told in the documentary, the pair made a pact to argue about whose filmmaking approach was going to be best for that day's shooting. Whoever got tired of the discussion first would usually lose the debate.
This gave the film its fresh freewheeling flavor that contributed to the development of the "auteur cinema" that subsequently prevailed in the late 60s and 70s American film. Sexual frankness in film was largely absent at the time of its release. Yet both men pushed the envelope in scenes depicting Clyde's impotence and Bonnie's naive remedy... oral sex, a box-office taboo in the 60s. The drastic tonal changes from rollicking to comedy to jarring violence and the now famously shocking abrupt ending were further evidence that the pair were out to change the art of American film. Even though this was not the solitary vision of one director, the lunatics were clearly running the asylum, so to speak. The era of the domineering studio boss was fast approaching its apocalypse.
Gain an appreciation for one of the more entertaining and fast-paced classics by making this one a star in your movie collection. You won't be disappointed.
Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.