triumph at the golden collars
still wondering what’s next

#3: bonnie and clyde (arthur penn, 1967)

(This is the 48th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie that really entranced me, although I can’t say it was the first movie that taught me new things about film. I loved it very much, but in 1967, that just meant if someone asked, I could say it was my favorite movie. Later I learned about its roots in the French New Wave, and of course, after the fact one can see Bonnie and Clyde as the first movie in the Golden Age of American Cinema. And now I know that Pauline Kael’s epic, overlong review of the film helped give it a second life when it appeared to have bombed, and that this was the first time Kael had a real impact, but when I was 14, I’d never heard of Pauline Kael.

Gene Hackman is one of my favorite actors, and this is the first time I noticed him … he is terrific, as always. Dede Allen was one of the great editors, and Bonnie and Clyde is one of her finest works. It is a crime that the movie got 10 Oscar nominations (and won two), yet Allen got no recognition from the Academy.

As for why this movie is so close to my heart, I blame the romance between the title characters. They aren’t glorified (in fact, Entertainment Weekly trashed a reissue, accusing Arthur Penn of condescending to his characters). They are, in fact, a bit dim, never connecting their actions to the consequences. But they share an intimate relationship, with each other and with the audience, which may be why the film bothered so many on its release: love and violence are mixed in a startling fashion. (Humor and violence are also used in this way. Especially the first time you watch it, your reaction is something like funny, cute, funny, slapstick, funny, WHAM THAT GUY GOT SHOT IN THE FACE! As Kael noted, Bonnie and Clyde replaces the spoofy “we were only kidding” with the disruptive “and you thought we were only kidding.”)

When I watch, I always convince myself that they won’t die at the end. But Clyde himself explains why the movie will always end with their death. Bonnie asks him what he would do if a miracle allowed them to start over, clean with no record. Clyde thinks for a second, hems and haws a bit, and then says, “I guess I'd do it all different. First off, I wouldn't live in the same state where we pull our jobs. We'd live in another state. We'd stay clean there and then when we'd take a bank, we'd go into the other state.”

 

The comments were an inspired bunch of memories of the first time people saw Bonnie and Clyde. I couldn’t resist re-telling my own version: “When I saw Bonnie and Clyde when it first came out (or at least, when it first hit the suburbs), I wanted to see it so badly that I went, even though I had just contracted chicken pox. I didn't tell anyone until after I'd seen the movie (infecting the entire theater in the process, of course).”

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