The Director of The Best Film Ever Made Has Died
Arthur Penn, director of Bonnie and Clyde, died on Tuesday, aged 88. Sad news: the guy never got the credit he deserved for bringing the French New Wave to Hollywood and kickstarting one of the most fruitful periods in movie history.
If I had to take one movie to a desert island, I’d take Bonnie and Clyde. It tries to do everything, and damn near succeeds. Hectic yet elegiac, modern but traditional, hilarious and tragic, romantic and shockingly violent – what more could you possibly want?
And yet the film seems neglected by today’s movie lovers – damned with faint praise as a landmark without its richly textured, ambiguous layers of meaning being fully understood. So here’s my review, to try and re-establish the film’s credentials as being both superbly entertaining and deeply thoughtful. Hopefully, the one positive that might come from Penn’s death is that audiences discover his masterpiece anew.
Bonnie and Clyde
(Arthur Penn, US, 1967)
Still effortlessly hip, witty and exhilarating, but don’t be fooled by the myth-making. This film’s true brilliance is in condemning the corrosive effect of celebrity
According to Jean-Luc Godard, all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. Nothing exemplifies that adage better than Bonnie and Clyde. Within minutes Clyde has picked up his girl, and Bonnie has seen her gun, and from there the film is bound inextricably by the link between them.
Of course, it was Godard, and his friends over in France, who directly inspired the film, and indeed writers David Newman and Robert Benton wanted him to direct it, thinking they wouldn’t find an American who understood their script’s lightning changes of tone. Amazingly, they did find an American, and in doing so Arthur Penn became a cinematic outlaw to rival those on the screen, nabbing the vitality and experimentalism of the New Wave to redefine the Hollywood move. For me, the result – even after the riches that came in the following decade – remains amongst the most perfect examples of what cinema can do. The film is a series of episodes, elegantly tied to the overall story arc but each one short and sweet enough to be different from the next: romance, comedy, action and sudden bursts of stark violence – a dizzying revue of the medium’s possibilities.
So even while Penn cannily gives events the sepia hue of a memory to maintain an ironic continuity with the past of American history and filmmaking, that quality of tonal unpredictability, together with the pop-art compositions and whip crack editing, makes this a very modern film. The result can be (and often is) seen as a pointed attack on the 1960s Establishment, with the young, hip Barrow gang taking on the old guard as personified by Frank Hamer, their underhand, greedy nemesis. Forget that Hamer’s a lawman and the heroes are murdering thieves: the film’s moral compass has been set a-wobbling by the era of the civil rights movement and Vietnam, where violence is protest, and protest is good. The film’s style is thus its substance: the shock of the new.
Such a reading is hopelessly nihilistic, but the film knows that we’re on dangerous ground if we buy into the myth. Penn wants you to believe the hype and then realize, reeling, how destructive it is: something the film’s tagline (“they’re young, they’re in love…and they kill people”) got absolutely right. The counter-cultural allegory itself is practically all talk, governed largely by the scene in which Clyde hands his gun to an evicted farmer to shoot at the house his bank has repossessed, and afterwards delivers the brilliant parting shot, “We rob banks.” Of course, at that point they do no such thing – despite Clyde’s self-belief his initial attempts to walk the walk are terrible, perhaps because he’s missing a toe – but that doesn’t stop Bonnie repeating it as a catchphrase when trying to impress CW later on. Their lives are all about the image and, if grubby reality intrudes, it’s forgotten about soon enough when the messy business of killing people gives way to raucous bonhomie – a schizophrenia that makes the film’s hopscotch structure as much an expressionistic interpretation of their mindset as it is a convention-busting gimmick.
Of course, the film’s charting of image goes even further than that, pointedly showing how the media fuels the gang’s sense of self-worth: in true ‘print the legend’ style, it’s less the events themselves than the reportage that is important in creating the myth of the Barrow Gang. The gang reads factually incorrect accounts of their alleged exploits with a mix of anger, burgeoning delight in their celebrity and even dog-wagging inspiration of future potential crimes, whilst Penn actually hangs back at one crime scene to show the media circus in full swing, sowing the seeds for Natural Born Killers three decades on. Somewhat ironically, the film itself – or, more accurately, the public’s impression of it – has become a major contributor of the myth by conferring the status of movie stars on the gang, turning the dusty photos of the opening credits into iconic Technicolor figures who continue to influence fashion today.
Perhaps this is why these days Bonnie and Clyde is so unfavourably compared to Badlands in the ‘lovers on the run’ sub-genre, because people see only the superficial pop-art glamour and opt for the more self-consciously lyrical irony of Terence Malick’s film. But such a backlash is foolish, because it’s acknowledged in Penn’s film to start with. The film is arguably even more challenging in its probing of the link between the American Dream and violence, quick to establish that it’s only when they take to murder (albeit accidentally, at first) that the gang become a) successful and b) celebrities. And that link is ingrained in the characters themselves. Psychology is complex, and toyed with throughout, not least in the persuasive assessment of the characters’ sexual triggers. For Bonnie, it’s the sense of danger and adventure that Clyde promises, but Clyde can only perform when he feels that the world believes in him as much as he does. His impotence as a villain is allied to his impotence as a lover because he needs the right arena in which to perform.
Revealingly, the film is carefully structured as a rise and fall, where the peak of Bonnie and Clyde’s success comes when it is most diluted by hangers-on, like rock stars who can only get their rocks off with groupies. The upswing in their fortunes comes only after they have assembled the gang, and the descent begins the moment they pick up – and then discard – a couple of extra bodies. This superb sequence, superficially a comedic detour with the incomparable Gene Wilder, is actually the film in microcosm. At the beginning of that sequence, the gang are so assured of their brilliance that they can delay their getaway to kidnap their would-be pursuers, and get so carried away with their seductive brilliance they even toy with the possibility of inducting them into the group. But as soon as Eugene reveals his profession (“I’m an undertaker”) the game is up and Bonnie knows it. Having achieved the status of fame they aspire to there’s only one place left to go, and the rest of the film is a downward slide into the condition that will truly mythologise them: death. The last stop is for the ‘heroes’ to consummate their legendary love affair, after Clyde finally gets the horn from reading about his exploits in the poem that Bonnie gets published in the paper. (Of course, this is the film’s final, cheekiest piece of myth-making, because in real-life Clyde was gay).
The film’s twisting complications are captured in lead performances that are enviously cool to watch but underpinned by awkwardness. Warren Beatty is excellent as a man who is both the embodiment of iconic cool and a very fragile, withdrawn psyche. Faye Dunaway is even better, perpetually flitting between the intelligence that Clyde says he sees in her, and the cold, frightening naivete of a child play-acting at being a grown-up. The flaws are deflected by beauty that is intentionally astonishing and seductive, all the more so because Penn has counter pointed them with unusual, weather-beaten faces. This is an opportunity for some unconventional stars to shine, not least Gene Hackman at the start of his formidable career, although it’s Estelle Parsons’ selflessly annoying performance as Blanche that steals the show.