A squalid shoot-’em-up for the moron trade
August 13, 2017 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Bonnie and Clyde at 50 The groundbreaking film opened on August 13, 1967 to scathing reviews from traditional critics and audience indifference until being championed as a masterpiece by up-and-coming reviewers Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, finding an audience, going on to be the fourth biggest film of the year and along with The Graduate, ushering in the New Hollywood movement of the '70s posted by octothorpe (26 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It is one of the oldest American movies you can watch today without feeling like you’re watching an old movie.
That's a hell of an interesting line. 1967.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:55 AM on August 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

To put it in perspective, Buster Keaton made his movie debut in 1917 and I'd assume that moviegoers during the summer of love would have considered the fifty year old The Butcher Boy an old movie.
posted by octothorpe at 12:29 PM on August 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I adore this movie, but I'm only a couple years younger than it and I think it absolutely feels like an old movie. Not just the pacing and the language but there being an actual subtext in some scene. I don't think you could mistake it for anything but a 1960s-turning-into-the-1970s movie, aesthetically and substantively (script, performances, again subtext).

I still remember the first time I saw it--on broadcast TV when I was still a kid, so edited somewhat for television--and it was unlike anything I'd ever seen.
posted by crush at 2:07 PM on August 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Does anyone else find it unwatchable or is it just me?

Hollywood had become so stilted and formulaic, that this seemed revolutionary at the time. Citizen Kane like, it's hard to see why it was such a big change out of context.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:15 PM on August 13, 2017

Eh, I don't think it's as simple as that. I grant that's the narrative people like to push since everyone loves a good origin story, but it was more that the ground had been steadily shifting for a while, and Bonnie and Clyde happened to be the movie that became associated with the changes, more than actually causing them itself.

Just look at some of the other hits from the same year that preceded Bonnie and Clyde. The year started with The Sand Pebbles at number one, a Steve McQueen as a soldier movie, where, Spoiler alert, he gets killed in the end with his last line being "I was home...what happened...what the hell happened?". It was directed by old school vet Robert Wise and wasn't exactly upbeat about the future. Later in the year, The Dirty Dozen dominated the box office, an even more cynical film coming out of a series of such from its director Robert Aldrich. Genre films had long been trending in this direction, with westerns and war movies at the leading edge of a more cynical attitude towards heroism.

Monte Hellman, for example, had released Ride the Whirlwind the year before, and it was easily as outside the norms as Bonnie and Clyde. Stanley Donen, of Singin' in the Rain fame directed Two for the Road in '67, a sort of post-modern take on the Hollywood romance. Both Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More briefly reached number one at the box office before Bonnie and Clyde and a huge number of films from around the world were pushing the aesthetics of movies in new directions that Hollywood felt it had to respond to in order to keep the youth market. Foreign films and revivals being a growing interest on college campuses at the time. At the same time Bonnie and Clyde was being made, there were other movies of roughly the same contemporary attitude being tried out in Hollywood, some catching on a bit, others not, and "mod" British films had already made some impact on US screens so it wasn't just foreign language films Hollywood was looking at in sussing out the changes.

It is true as well that changes to the studio system and the aging of long time stalwarts in production and cast were creating a need to change even beyond audience pressures, and so too radical new rules towards censorship caused dramatic shifts in what could be said, and inevitably I suppose, what must be said on screen to gain audience attention, especially from the young.

There really isn't anything "groundbreaking" about Bonnie and Clyde in anything close to a literal sense. Even the story itself isn't so far from Gun Crazy to merit claims of revolutionary attitude there and gangster films, while out of favor at the time, had been at least as cynical and often more brutal in their perspectives and resolutions decades before this. They were toned down some in what they could show during the Hayes Code era, but in subtext, there were always films pushing the limits of sexual and cultural mores.

What Bonnie and Clyde did provide was a his and hers nihilism, something that was and still remains more elusive that one might think. It's really Dunaway as Bonnie that made the movie stand out from the other contemporary post-modernish films of the time. That isn't to say the movie doesn't have other good things to offer. It chooses its influences well, is well crafted all around, with Penn already having made steps in this direction with his earlier films and the cast seeming new and exciting, even as Beatty wasn't exactly an unknown at the time (and was likely looking at the success of actors like McQueen in wanting the role). It's success is due then in large part to its own qualities as it all works together well and has a more completely embodied contemporary point of view thanks to its attention to Bonnie and its supporting cast. That isn't a groundbreaking change, its just good filmmaking which is uncommon enough I suppose to make it seem more radical than it is.

One other thing that I think really drives the narrative around this movie is the cult of Pauline Kael. Her review of the film is one of her signature pieces and a lot of contemporary criticism is still being carried along in the wake of her fame as a critic. This isn't the place to go into all of that, so I'll just say that's a mixed blessing at best and leave it there.

The question of Bonnie and Clyde's influence is an interesting one, even the article lauding it for such gives it a window of 8 years for the heart of it. I'd say the main aesthetic it is a part of made it to the eighties before largely eroding, but much of the attitude it carried as "hip" is still with us, and that too is at best a mixed blessing.

Is it the oldest film people today can watch without it seeming like an old film? I don't know, that is a good question. Hard to frame a response around given what one takes as being representative of a current audience, but as an answer it may not be way off base, which is something worth thinking about some more.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:08 PM on August 13, 2017 [15 favorites]

If I recall, the majority of the buzz (at least with the general film-going audience) had mostly to do with the graphic violence of the final scene, especially Dunaway's Bonnie getting ripped-up by the hail of bullets.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:24 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I watched it recently for the first time (I'd seen bits here and there, but never actually sat down through the whole thing before).

It's a pretty striking piece of art, but I'd also say that it definitely feels like an old movie in the here and now. I also think I would have felt that way 20+ years ago when my friends & I were steeping ourselves in 90s first run movies and any halfway interesting thing we could find on the VHS rental rack at Larry's Mini Mart. If I think about the other stuff I associate with its tone and style, it does seem like it was one of the early entries, but man does it seem of a particular moment in the definite past.
posted by brennen at 3:49 PM on August 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Like Thorzdad, I recently watched it for the first time and two things struck me:

1) Somehow Gene Hackman was already old in 1967?, and

2) The film itself is quite different from its reputation as a sexy romance. (See the title of the ScreenPrism video above.) A major conflict in the film is how Barrow is uninterested, even repulsed by, sex. On screen he's played as a tortured asexual in an era that didn't have that term; in real life there was speculation that he was traumatized after being sexually assaulted in prison.

I have to be careful: I'm definitely not saying that asexual can't be in romances. But it is striking that the idea of the film as the sexy story of two outlaws isn't supported at all by the film itself.
posted by Ian A.T. at 5:04 PM on August 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Somehow Gene Hackman was already old in 1967?

Like Patrick Stewart, he made a deal with the devil for eternal youth late middle age.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:12 PM on August 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

Saw it when it came out (for Thorzdad's reason, because of the violence) but I was only 14. Watched it again about ten years ago and got a lot more out of it. To put the film into the context of the times remember that a hit top-40 song about them (not from the soundtrack) was in the charts when the movie was in the theaters, and the film inspired some 1930s nostalgia - see the January 12, 1968 photospread in LIFE magazine.
posted by Rash at 6:38 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also recently watched it! I adored it. It did feel old in its pacing and the way it was shot. I thought the dynamic between the title characters was very atypical for the time, and with a few dialog edits, could make for a fascinating film in 2017... if we lived in one of the less dark timelines. One where Hollywood didn't crush everything interesting about anything.

My favorite part about it was how humanized these awful people were. I deeply cared about this band of murderers and didn't want to see them die, even if I knew they would (okay, maybe I saw the last scene a long time ago).
posted by lownote at 8:06 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, Ebert's review mentions snipers during the Newark riots. I had no idea that was a part of it. Its interesting the things you learn when you talk to people who lived through history. Up until now I thought it was just rock throwing and tanks, but apparently in the 60s, black liberation included actual snipers.

His review in general is an interesting read if you're inclined to compare it to today.
posted by lownote at 8:29 PM on August 13, 2017

I just saw a documentary about the NJ riots. Man I wish I could find the link. The upshot is that more than likely there were no snipers, but there was a lot of chaos including a fear of snipers, and 'return' fire that killed innocent people.
posted by eye of newt at 9:32 PM on August 13, 2017

It's really Dunaway as Bonnie that made the movie stand out...

She obviously was effective, but then again all five of the major characters were nominated for acting Oscars. Speaking of the Oscars, we spent much time back then 50 years ago discussing whether Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate deserved to be 'Best Picture,' and in the end it was neither – both lost to the more conventional Hollywood look at a black Northern detective investigating a murder in a racist Southern town, In the Heat of the Night.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:51 PM on August 13, 2017

A major conflict in the film is how Barrow is uninterested, even repulsed by, sex.

Watch it again. He's interested, but impotent.

They were originally going to make him gay but Beatty was talked out of it.

There really isn't anything "groundbreaking" about Bonnie and Clyde in anything close to a literal sense.

I think the editing is pretty groundbreaking. Is it also not the first Hollywood film (or Studio film at least) to have a gun go off and a person be hit by its bullet without a cut? It also told the Hays Code to go fuck itself in no uncertain terms.

And Sand Pebbles, Dirty Dozen, Two for the Road, and Ride the Whirlwind? Meh. They're all pretty forgettable and none altered film history one iota. SP, DD, and 2 for the road are not really even good movies. You could make an argument for the Hellman flick, but it never got out of the drive-ins.

Anyone interested in this period of Hollywood history, and 1967 in particular, should read Mark Harris' terrific Pictures at a Revolution.
posted by dobbs at 9:57 PM on August 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Anyone who enjoys this type of film by Arthur Penn, I highly recommend Night Moves (1975) and the flawed but still interesting The Chase (1966)
posted by JauntyFedora at 12:48 AM on August 14, 2017

It isn't so much about how good Bonnie and Clyde is, or isn't, but that there were so many different forces swirling around movie making at the time that its fame has less to do with it breaking new ground on its own and is more about it being the Hollywood movie where everything finally congealed into a hit, making it seem more innovative than it was in most terms.

Blow Up had already pretty much killed off the production code the year before when MGM released it without receiving MPAA approval. The importance of the code had been waning considerably since the early sixties, with The Pawnbroker gaining an exemption to it and many films, Psycho for just one notable example, had already pushed it far beyond its old boundaries for over half a decade by that point.

While the mainstream US audiences may not have been entirely aware of some of the changes happening, the filmmaking world and some critics certainly were. Experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith were gaining serious notice on the fringes of the filmmaking scene and European "art" films were regularly gaining even more widespread notice among those interested in films more seriously than general audiences. The filmmaking technique in Bonnie and Clyde owes much of its seeming originality to those sources which had already been developing a newer, more creative film language than what most Hollywood films were using at the time. Though even there, some directors had been pushing the envelope for a while, just in movies that didn't register as being as inventive as they were, or where they weren't making the same sort of broader statement as Penn was in purposefully adapting to a more European art film style.

The mention of The Dirty Dozen and other genre films wasn't meant as a comparison of merit, though many of those films do have that as well, but to suggest the tone and attitude of Bonnie and Clyde was also already becoming increasingly felt in even mainstream movies. Cynicism, exploration of sexual taboos, distrust of authority and so on were themes hard to miss in a lot of movies leading up to Bonnie and Clyde. I mean Lolita had been made a few years earlier just to name one example.

What worked so well for Penn's film, is first, looking back to the gangster films of the thirties where there was much of the same feeling of anti-authoritarianism and ambivalence in movies with gangster protagonists. It was a genre which hadn't been used as much in the years before Bonnie and Clyde, so there was both a freshness to it, which made it stand out and gain more focused attention than a western or war movie could, and by making Bonnie the equal of Clyde in their exploits it added an additional jolt of notice since women's roles generally did not share the same set of darker attitudes towards civil society as men's roles could in genre works.

A cynical war movie or darker themes western, by that point, didn't stand out since they had been moving in that direction for over a decade. The Dirty Dozen and many other movies shared similar attitudes or even exceeded Bonnie and Clyde in their anti-everythingness, but the genre shifts over time made it difficult for audiences to see that as clearly since it was just part of the package. Bonnie and Clyde provided much clearer perspective on its attitude by being out of step with the popular genres and in also adopting techniques that weren't associated with a popular hit as yet. It stood out, not question, but more as a culmination of many already existent trends coming together for a mass audience than as something that developed new ideas or techniques on its own.

Its place in Hollywood history as being the avatar of a "new" Hollywood, along with The Graduate, Easy Rider and others, isn't misplaced as its popularity certainly deserves notice for bringing those ideas to mass audiences in an obvious way. I am fairly certain that if Bonnie and Clyde hadn't been made, another movie would have eventually delivered much the same shock of change as there was some inevitability about the need for such at the time, but made it was and there is no reason to take its status as exemplar of change away from the movie as an accomplishment.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:11 AM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Ride in the Whirlwind, along with its partner film The Shooting, created an entirely new genre of Western, the Acid Western. It's sort of a cult thing, so didn't have the cultural impact that Bonnie and Clyde did, but "meh" and "forgettable"? That's a matter of taste, I suppose.

Bad taste.
posted by maxsparber at 5:14 AM on August 14, 2017

Seconding Pictures at a Revolution.
Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night (and Doctor Doolittle??) - the changes in the way movies were made.
The winding-down of the studio system and the start of modern Hollywood.

After reading it I was disappointed that Netflix didn't have any of them. (At least at the time)
posted by MtDewd at 8:22 AM on August 14, 2017

Watch it again. He's interested, but impotent.

I don't know that watching it again would help, cause I don't think there's textual evidence of his impotence. I know that's what the screenwriters settled on, but I don't think it's explicitly referenced in the movie itself. (Otherwise there wouldn't be so much discussion around his sexuality.)

Usually in matters like this I'm firmly on the side of authorial intent, but in this case it just feels perfunctory to say "he's impotent, case closed."
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:29 AM on August 14, 2017

To put it in perspective, Buster Keaton made his movie debut in 1917 and I'd assume that moviegoers during the summer of love would have considered the fifty year old The Butcher Boy an old movie.

To put things further in perspective, the author of the 1967 NYTimes review ("scathing reviews" link in the post) was Bosley Crowther, born in 1905, so he probably watched The Butcher Boy when he was 12 and did not see it as particularly old. Within a year after his scathing review of Bonnie and Clyde, as the film garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, Crowther retired. Speculation was that his take on the film (which he repeated in several other pieces and in responses to letters to the editor) convinced the Times brass that he was not in touch with current cinema.
posted by beagle at 11:38 AM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Doctor Doolittle was the first film that I saw in the theater. I liked it quite a bit when I was three, haven't seen it since.
posted by octothorpe at 12:05 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know that watching it again would help, cause I don't think there's textual evidence of his impotence. I know that's what the screenwriters settled on, but I don't think it's explicitly referenced in the movie itself.

No one uses the word impotent in the film, but I think they clearly show he's interested in her physically, yet each time they attempt anything it goes sideways and it's always on him, so I think it's there because what else would be the implication?

He also tells her at the beginning that he "ain't a stud service" and then later, when he can't perform, she calls sex with him "peculiar" and he says "Well, at least I ain't a liar." Again, that seems like an obvious implication to me.
posted by dobbs at 1:00 PM on August 14, 2017

Clyde isn't impotent, he's got sexual hang-ups (as they said at the time). If it was just erectile dysfunction, he wouldn't freak out and get all touch-me-not with his hands. He gets over his hang-ups with a healthy dose of newspaper doggerel fame.

The driving scenes resemble less of an action movie getaway than an interminable family vacation road trip. Buck keeps telling the same jokes, Blanche is whiny, and Bonnie's in an absolute teenage sulk the whole way.

Nobody has mentioned that this is Gene Wilder's first movie! He's only in two scenes, but he's absolutely hilarious in the second one, in exactly that Gene Wilder sloth-like way.

Quentin Tarantino got a lot from this movie.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:34 AM on August 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Anyone interested in this period of Hollywood history, and 1967 in particular, should read Mark Harris' terrific Pictures at a Revolution.

Thanks for the recommendation, I'm about halfway through that book now. Just had my mind blown when I read that Arthur Penn was the photographer Irving Penn's little brother.
posted by octothorpe at 12:59 PM on September 5, 2017

And yet he is of no relationship to Penn Jillette, despite having directed Penn and Teller Get Killed.
posted by maxsparber at 1:25 PM on September 5, 2017

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