They Done Them Wrong
by Jim Steinman '69
BONNIE AND CLYDE, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Directed by Arthur Penn and produced by Warren Beatty. Screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton. A Warner Brothers release in Technicolor. At the Amherst Cinema, 30 Amity St., Amherst, through Tuesday, Nov. 7. Running time : 111 minutes.
“Bonnie and Clyde” forces its viewers into its center, where they are hopelessly surrounded by contrasting emotions and suddenly changing moods, jolted from rapturous delight and uproarious hilarity to numb-eyed horror and chilling sadness. The movie is not a comedy, or a tragedy, or an authentic American folk ballad, or a romantic adventure, or a sociological survey of the atmosphere of the American depression, or a psychological probing into the minds of two fun-filled killers. It is all of these. “Bonnie and Clyde” refuses to be labeled but demands to be seen. It is one of the finest American films of our time.
The structure of the plot is simple. We follow the adventures of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as they form the "Barrow Gang" and roam the dusty pits of the Mid- and Southwest during the 1930's, stopping along the way to rob some banks and kill quite a few people. The story is based on fact, but only loosely. What Arthur Penn, the director, and Robert Benton and David Newman, the writers, are creating is not merely a dramatization of a bloody excerpt from history but a harrowing journey into the reason for that history, into the seeds of that violence.
Bonnie and Clyde might be perfect romantic leads for any frilly comedy of the '30s. They are often gay, amusing, warm, and endearing. And extremely likable, even when they stare dumbly at the globs of flesh that swim away from the heads of their poor unsuspecting victims. Even then, Hollywood never had it so real. For Bonnie and Clyde are just folks, good-humored, unpretentious, down-to-earth, healthy American stock. Who happen to live in a vacuum, and who try to fill it in their own meager way. Rob some banks, tear the brains of those who try to hurt them. That's all.
And they become genuine folk heroes to the people, who, after all, never felt much for banks anyway, and certainly don't when there's nothing to put in them. And as for those mashed, frozen faces left behind to crash wetly upon the pavement, bloody tunnels bored through their eyes, well – those things happen. Life is hard all over. It sure was a swell robbery though. And that Bonnie, she's just so pretty.
The violence in "Bonnie and Clyde" is terrifyingly real and brilliantly used. As our two heroes race away from a bank in their rickety jalopy, hillbilly music comes galloping happily into the picture, and we find ourselves smiling nostalgically at the Keystone Cops chase that seems to be taking shape. Cars careen, Bonnie giggles, Clyde looks determined, the music tickles, the screen seems to jump up and down, and then there's a shot. And somebody dies. And the blood is real, and the flesh is torn, and the tissue is dissolving, and the bones are shattered. And we see it all. And we stop laughing. The violence in this film is not sadistic, nor is it exploited for its own sake; it is the force that brings us, along with Bonnie and Clyde, back to reality. Death cannot remain an abstract for too long. Eventually it appears, and it crawls into our eyes, and we have to let it enter our minds. And those moments of suddenly revealing "mind expansion" occur throughout "Bonnie and Clyde." The movie manipulates its audience mercilessly. No one can comfortably sit back and know what to expect.
Everything in "Bonnie and Clyde" is extraordinary. Warren Beatty is perfect as Clyde, shy, country and considerate. Faye Dunaway as Bonnie is beautiful, sad, vital and haunting. The music is, a stroke of genius, the editing is stunning, and Penn's direction is poetic, exciting, and evocative. So many scenes stand out. The startling love scene between Bonnie and Clyde, as both realize without doubt the nature of Clyde's impotence, a dark, sensitive scene accented softly with Bonnie's hopeful moans and Clyde's confused sighs of helplessness. The hazy, dreamily out-of-focus reunion of Bonnie and her mother, both surrounded by the gang, rifles in hand, all lost like puppets in a sandy endless plain. The wonderful, if contrived, moment near the end, when Clyde can finally make it with Bonnie. Amidst a wealth of green grass they lie together, Clyde bubbling over with a child's pride that he is finally perfect in his love-making and Bonnie shining shyly that she has finally accepted the sacrament of life from one man. And that is enough.
And the final scene, their murders by the forces of "law and order," probably the most shocking, most amazing single scene I've ever come across in any film. Clyde, smiling at the day, strolling across the grass, unsuspecting at the flight of birds before the death / rattle / knell of Thompson sub-machine guns, hidden in ambush, leeringly spill their images to the air. And Bonnie, sitting cleanly beautiful in the open car, life separated by metal. And only a little bit before they were smiling on the grass, and we had come to know. What had been almost two hours of violence, murder, bank robberies, outlaw mayhem, and humor, shown in her eyes as a lifetime of love. The meaning off it all. Two of America's children, wedded in violence, becoming calm and beautiful, and finally shattered to bits. And the audience leaves the theatre, staggered, confused lost, and completely, remarkably silent. Words cannot exist at that moment of resolution, and breathing seems more valuable than ever.
Source: Amherst Student archives