The American Film Institute lists Bonnie and Clyde at number 5 on their list of the top ten gangster films of all time, and 42 on their “100 Years…100 Movies” collection. IMDb holds it at 218 on their top five hundred. For the older film generation this will come as no surprise. Bonnie and Clyde‘s release was loud and unforgettable, and represented a jump to the “New Hollywood.” Violence and sex were no longer suggestions, and the previously established style of filmmaking was beginning to unravel. In hindsight the film still distinguishes itself from it’s peers, along with The Graduate, a fellow Best Picture nominee from that year. But the unfortunate truth of Bonnie and Clyde‘s place in modern day cinema is it’s senescence. The film simply hasn’t aged well. It’s legacy lives in it’s forward momentum, and less and less in it’s quality. It glimpses at things to come, but is by no means an example of transitional perfection. A brave film that comes from a time where progress was as significant as caliber.
The film digresses from the true story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in a number of ways. For example combining a few gang members into one dopey driver, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), and simplifying events for cohesion and time. Based on a true story‘s always get this treatment, and while it may be understandable it remains a serious frustration. Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) meeting is quick and inaccurate, and the urgency with which they digress into crime borders on unbelievable. Within minutes they’re holding up a bank (one of only two or three bank robberies in the film; a strange absence considering it’s significance to their fame) and their love builds just as fast. They adopt C.W. as their scrub and are soon after joined by Clyde’s brother and his wife, Buck (Gene Hackman) and Blanche (Estelle Parsons). And the Bonnie and Clyde ride is choppy, with plans rarely more than suggested and time passing in ambiguous increments. There’s little arch to the story, with the outlaws traveling from one hideout to another, and a great deal of bickering between Bonnie and Blanche. The tone too seems to fidget. One chase scene will be given a comical treatment, with a Flatt and Scruggs lively banjo lending slapstick, then suddenly a pursuing grocer is shot in the face. This is an effective method to contrast the old Hollywood violence with the new, shocking the audience with reality, but it’s not sturdy enough to make it’s point definitive. These scenes end up feeling more confused than clever. In the final scene, heralded (I’m sure) by many, Bonnie and Clyde’s death is startling and grave, but also a bit anticlimactic. The sheer violence of it is extraordinary, but the moments just before, with a brief shared look of recognition between the outlaws, is awkward and forced. Here and in general it’s almost impossible to tell what director Arthur Penn is intending and what he’s simply stumbled into.
The Academy loved the actors and Penn’s work, rewarding them with two wins and ten nominations overall. It might not be fair to call these nominations into question so far after the fact, and recognizing the significance of the film I’ll stay away from the Best Picture and Writing nods. Still, I can’t ignore all the adoration for the performances. All the chief characters are nominated. All of them. This means the film received TWO best supporting actor nods. I’ll grant that you’re looking at a cast of all-stars, whose enumerable performances through the years have generally been stellar, but here, in this film, not one of them moved me. The closest was Michael J. Pollard, whose thick-headed C.W. recognizes loyalty as a most important trait and seems all the sadder for it. But otherwise these are simply performances. Good at times, and generally hitting their marks, but unremarkable. Estelle Parsons best supporting actress win in particular is confusing, as the character does little more than shriek and sob. And to be fair, it’s not really the actors fault’s. None of them is given much opportunity to win us over. Beatty and Dunaway, for all their screen time, seem confounded by the characters and their motivation. Clyde is an adrenaline junkie with the disgraceful problem of impotence, a bizarre choice considering that nothing (so far as I’ve seen) suggests he had any such problem. Bonnie’s drive waffles from her own desire for excitement to her loyalty to Clyde, plus a constant inner conflict with her choice to join him, another confusing liberty taken with no clear source. And these problems can’t really be heaped on the actors. It’s up to the director to inform cohesiveness of character, and Penn simply doesn’t do his job in that regard. The second Oscar came for cinematography, and while the film does have some striking moments, this again feels like an age gap dilemma. So many movies have been made in the interim with pictures so striking and so remarkable, the expectations have simply risen far past the threshold of Bonnie and Clyde.
All that said, it’s far from unwatchable. The film simply falls victim to it’s “classic” moniker. I’ve said it before, but expectation is a worm that burrows itself into your head and spews preconceived notions all over your gray matter. When I hear “classic,” when I hear “groundbreaking” or “landmark film,” I’m sorry, but I need something more than this movie has to offer. Part of this is the recognition that there wasn’t necessarily anything all that wrong with Hollywood prior to the American New Wave. Films were a bit trite, perhaps a bit caramelized, but there are some real beauties. Construction and performance weren’t merely attempted prior to the late 1960s, they were just different, if not more effective. The fact that Bonnie and Clyde is groundbreaking is great, but it also feels (and I will be the first to admit that this is ENTIRELY in hindsight) awkwardly transitional. It doesn’t know quite what it’s doing, and it’s effectiveness is hindered for that. If I sound like an ungrateful kid I certainly don’t mean to, but there’s a point where we have to get past all the things that are great about a movie and figure out the things that don’t work. I promise, this is the only way to keep moving forward.