Monday, 6 September 2010

Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde takes off from the first frame, taking the viewer with it, and doesn't come back down until the the last scene when we come crashing back to Earth, just like the rag doll corpses of our heroes.

This film shows us so much. Thinking back on it now I am astounded at how perfect it was in telling its story without actually telling us anything. An example? The opening scene: Bonnie, naked, pouting in front of a mirror, writhing on her bed and banging the head board with her fist. Immediately we know she is yearning for more, a way out of her dead-end life, her dead end town, her sexual frustration. A lesser film would need an explanatory conversation, a voice-over even: "I was sick of this life and boy did I need a good lay".

Then Clyde walks by, sharp in a tailored suit and fedora. Does this film need a 'cute-meet' as Billy Wilder would say? No, a glimpse of Bonnie through a window suffices for the story to begin.

They rob a grocery store and take off into the country. Upon parking (no pun intended) Bonnie pounces on Clyde but is cast aside. You see Clyde can't get it up - its never explained why this is so, and it certainly doesn't look like a conscious effort on his behalf. Its like their exploits in general: the bank jobs keep adding to their excitement, their driving gets faster, more erratic, their murders more frequent, but there is never a big payoff - where is this all leading to? You feel that if they actually got round to finally having sex then the killing spree might end. But there isn't any climax to this film, just a short sharp let down, the deafening roar of machine gun fire ripping us out of our reverie.

Too many articles focus on how Bonnie & Clyde changed American cinema, a history lesson through celluloid. You could sit through this film and really study its impact on the industry and write a thesis about how the 60s and the bloodletting in Vietnam at the time were as much a part of the film as the dustbowl. But that would be to miss out on what is such a vital film, such entertainment.

You can immerse yourself in the beauty of it, at the nostalgia of the back projection in the cars, at the golden hues of Burnett Guffrey's cinematography, at the chemistry between the two leads - Warren Beatty's goofy smiles, Faye Dunaways childish, glowering moods - the attention to detail (see those corn crops they're running through when Bonnie goes missing? They're poor crops - it's the depression after all), at the whip-crack humour and bawdiness of it all.

Of course there is so much artistic licence in the film - this isn't reality. Bonnie & Clyde apparently met at a friend's house, far less romantic than a glimpse on the street; according to most accounts Bonnie never got into the thick of a fire fight during the life-span of the gang; and the character of Hamer was never captured and humiliated by the gang before he finally managed to gun them down. All this is interesting trivia but pointless criticism. Bonnie & Clyde isn't reality, even though its intensity and passion make us feel that it can only be real life we are watching. Bonnie & Clyde isn't reality- it is pure cinema.

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