No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Bonnie and Clyde

I went into “Bonnie and Clyde” with the same mind set I had when I sat down to watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I figured the passing of time dilute the immense power it possessed upon its initial release. Plus, already knowing the basic story, I felt I was more than prepared for the movie’s most controversial elements to where I did not think I would come out of it particularly disturbed.

But in the end, none of that mattered. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still is an extremely unsettling horror film, but “Bonnie and Clyde” isn’t far off in the shocking department. It’s a brilliant character piece which follows the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as they make their way across America robbing banks, and of the people they pick up on their journey. It was also one of the first films to come out of the New Hollywood era in how it portrayed sex and violence in a much more visceral fashion. More than 40 years later, it still packs a powerful wallop, and nothing has taken away from its accomplishments.

Yes, this is another one of those movies “based on a true story,” a major pet peeve of mine as this term typically signals another real-life story undone by clichés and Hollywood formulaic conventions. This term, however, is not seen in the opening credits which is a major plus. Instead, we are presented with snapshots of the title characters which, while from a time long since past, feel very vivid. By introducing these two infamous people in this fashion, we are already drawn into their reality without questioning it much. I wish more movies today would try this tactic more often as it has me believing I am about to watch something out of the ordinary.

“Bonnie and Clyde” jumps right into the action as we come upon Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) listlessly resting in bed and clearly bored with her life as a waitress. When she suddenly spots the mischievous Clyde (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car, she is immediately smitten and jumps right out of the house to join him. While in town, Clyde tells her he robs banks, and she questions just how serious he is. Clyde ends up proving it to her by robbing a store across the street, and he proudly shows off the loot he absconded with. From there, these two are on the run and crazy in love with one another.

What is shown onscreen likely doesn’t resemble complete historical accuracy, but Arthur Penn’s true aim was to present a more romanticized version of these two individuals who were as passionate as they were dangerous. The story takes place in the middle of the Great Depression when families lost much of what they owned, and criminals were treated like celebrities. This becomes apparent when Bonnie and Clyde hide out at an abandoned farmhouse when its owner comes by for one last look. It turns out the bank took his farm from him heartlessly, and the two bank robbers no longer see him as a threat but as someone who was thoughtlessly wronged. When they tell him they rob banks, the farmer sees them like they are coming to the rescue of folks like him. Now does any of this remind you of anything we are going through in this day and age?

But don’t mistake the romanticism of “Bonnie and Clyde” as being the same as glamorizing the criminal lifestyle. While Beatty and Dunaway look fabulous in their costumes, which quickly became fashion statements of the time, the violence shown here is harsh in its senseless brutality. The movie marked the first time a character got shot at and killed all in the same frame, and even today it is still shocking to watch.

This brings me to another big accomplishment of this classic film; the screenplay makes us empathize with these characters. Brilliantly written by David Newman and Robert Benton, with Robert Towne on board as a special consultant), the screenplay sucks us completely into the lives of these criminals to where we don’t get much of a perspective outside it. Now in real life we have the common sense not to be around these people, but the appeal of being so close to those who are considered famous is more enticing than we ever care to admit. Bonnie and Clyde are criminals, but we are seduced by their desire to lead a life that unrestrained by legal boundaries and filled with a strong desire to feel alive. Seriously, this devilish desire exists in all of us as everyone has a dark side.

With Beatty, I have long since gotten so used to seeing him as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. But watching him as Clyde wiped this image away from my consciousness for two hours, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and charismatic actor he was and still is. He must have had the time of his life playing this gleefully law-breaking criminal because it shows in his face throughout. Beatty inhabits Clyde with a wild abandon, fully accepting of the path this character has taken in life with little to no remorse.

Watching Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it’s easy to see why this movie turned her into such a big star. Now I don’t just mean her first scene where she stands naked in front of her bedroom window as she stares seductively down at Beatty. What struck me was how she brought a fantastically crazed energy to Bonnie as she fearlessly takes this character through a throng of deeply felt emotions. Whether she is in sheer ecstasy or utter frustration over her circumstances, she fully inhabits Bonnie to where it’s impossible to catch her acting.

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked one first movie roles for the great Gene Hackman who plays Clyde’s never-do-well brother, Buck. It’s immensely entertaining to watch him imbue Buck with such a combustible lifeforce, and it makes me miss his work on the big screen all the more. Seriously, he deserves a better cinematic swan song than “Welcome to Mooseport.”

I remember Michael Pollard from “Tango & Cash” in which he lent Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell his state-of-the-art van which they, unsurprisingly, destroy. As getaway driver C.W. Moss, I can’t help but wonder if he got typecast as a car expert or mechanic on the basis of his performance here. Whatever the case, I loved how he got all sucked into the fame this bank robbing duo were obsessed with, and the look of fear and confusion on his face when things go horribly wrong reflects our own. Like him, we slowly realize just how deep into the muck we have gotten ourselves into.

Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, Blanche, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Regardless, I have to say though I was with Bonnie in wanting to shut Blanche the hell up because she was constantly yelling throughout the whole film, and I can only take so much of that. Still, you have to admire just how far Parsons went with her character. If Blanche and Buck ever had a son, it would have looked and sounded a lot like Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson from “Aliens.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked the film debut of Gene Wilder, and he gives the movie some of its funniest moments as Eugene Grizzard. When the gang steals his car, Eugene promises his girlfriend he will tear them apart. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and watching Wilder’s expressions throughout reminds us of what a brilliant comedian and actor he was.

Arthur Penn was not just looking to make an average gangster movie, nor was he showing violence for the sake of it. Even back in the 1960’s, there were already several movies like this one, and he had to find a way to make it stand out from the pack. By giving us the combustible elements of sex and violence, he made “Bonnie and Clyde” a true classic for the ages. There are never really and good or bad guys to root for or against here, and by its viciously bloody conclusion, we are emotionally drained at all we have witnessed. Whether or not you feel justice was served, you still can’t escape the feeling of loss presented here.

This movie certainly has had a huge influence on many other movies I deeply admire like Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” or even Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” The combination of sex and violence remains a potent one in some of the best films ever made, and I would like to think “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first one to make this clear to audiences.

I apologize for taking way too long to sit down and watch this one, but in retrospect, it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Grindhouse Film Festival Pays Tribute to Russ Meyer and Tura Satana

Faster Pussycat Kill Kill movie poster

Back in May of 2011, the Grindhouse Film Festival paid tribute to director Russ Meyer and the late actress Tura Satana, both of whom are best known for having worked together on the exploitation classic “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.” This film screened at New Beverly Cinema along with “The Doll Squad” which Tura co-starred in, and in attendance were two actresses from the 1965 cult film: Haji and Susan Bernard. Both said if Satana were still with us, she would have been very pleased by the large turnout.

Satana starred as Varla, the leader of a trio of thrill-seeking go-go dancers. Her contribution to the 1965 movie was she added karate scenes and even choreographed them with the stunt director. Satana died in February of 2011 from heart failure, and Haji burst into tears confessing just how much she misses her and her pot roast. Bernard said Satana had a very big heart. She was 72 when she passed away, but we came out of this screening feeling like she left us way too soon.

In talking about Meyer, both ladies described him as a “good hearted man” who always visited his mother on Christmas Day. They described his editing and photography on his movies as being consistently top notch, and he always worked with the same five men crew which became a “tight knit” family. Bernard also remarked how he had a natural instinct about actors in what they could do without direction. It got to where he went up to the cast and said, “Here’s your scripts, do your thing.”

Bernard recalled her big driving scene where she got into the truck and of how she told Russ she had never drove a stick shift before. To this, Meyer replied, “You’ll figure it out.”

Both actresses made it very clear Meyer always took care of the girls and made sure they were well rested and that he ensured they did not have sex during filming as he always wanted them to look horny onscreen. Working with Meyer also made them both understand what he stood for: freedom of expression, anti-prejudice, equal rights for everyone and, along with the late Hugh Hefner anti-censorship.

Haji further remarked if you went into Meyer’s movies a complete wimp, you came out a toughened and changed person. He had the cast sleeping in tents out in the desert with scorpions, snakes and tarantulas threatening them when they least expected it. After doing one film with Meyer, Haji said she came out if it “rugged,” but they remained very good friends all the way up to his death.

“Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” is considered the cinematic origin of girl power and female empowerment. Unlike the endless number of films which came afterwards, it had no cursing and no nudity. Haji even said you could take your kids to see it. Whether or not taking kids to this movie is a good idea, there is no doubt of how much influence it has had on movies and popular culture. This cult classic still draws quite the crowd for good reason: women have the upper hand against those against them, and they are never ever weak. When you think about it, this was not always the case with movies back in the 1960’s.

The Movie Trailers Which Played Before ‘Django Unchained’ at New Beverly Cinema

DjangoUnchained_poster2

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally back in 2012.

I was lucky enough to check out Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, the same movie theater he bought and kept from going out of business. It was being shown in 35mm instead of a digital print at other theaters because Tarantino is still a big fan of film, and the New Beverly is known for showing movies in 35mm because that’s exactly what the owners and patrons like best.

One of the real treats of seeing “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema is instead of getting coming attractions for 2013 movies, we instead get to watch movie trailers from the past. These ones were especially campy and represent the kind of movies Hollywood no longer makes, and I wondered if the trailers being shown before “Django Unchained” inspired this particular Tarantino film in some way. Many of the prints of movies and trailers shown at the New Beverly tend to come from Tarantino’s own personal collection, so even if they didn’t inspire this movie of his, then they must have been ones he loves watching over and over.

Let’s take a look.

The Arena 1974 movie poster

“The Arena”

This exploitation film from 1974, one which clearly was inspired by “Spartacus,” stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov as female gladiators who have been enslaved in Rome and are forced to fight for their freedom. The trailer proved to be hilarious as the acting is over the top, and the narrator embellishes the more explicit elements of this movie by saying how the Romans “enslaved the most sensuous women to titillate the perverted pleasures of the Roman public” and how the main characters are “beautiful unchained women” whose bodies are “shaped into superb fighting equipment.” There’s also a bit of nudity and blood on display, the kinds of things you almost never see in a movie trailer today unless it is a red band trailer being shown for restricted audiences only.

Still, it’s great to see Grier here whom Tarantino cast in his movie “Jackie Brown,” and it is said she and Markov did all their own fights and stunts in “The Arena.” We should all known by now that Grier is as tough as the characters she has played in dozens of movies, and seeing her take on the Romans makes this one worth a look.

Boot Hill movie poster

“Boot Hill”

The trailer for this 1969 Italian Spaghetti Western runs four minutes long, much longer than the average movie trailer we see in theaters today. It stars Terence Hill as Cat Stevens, but the trailer’s narrator refers to him as “the man with no name.” It also stars football great Woody Strode as Thomas, a man who is quick with a gun and out for revenge over the death of his son. Together, these two help the inhabitants of a gold mining community which is being oppressed by a criminal organization.

This is another trailer which has a male narrator emphasizing the movie’s violence, and it’s fun to hear him say how “Boot Hill” is a town “where death comes quick,” “where death comes hard,” and where “death comes in two colors.” Seeing Hill and Strode walk into town all serious and without a smile on their faces brings to mind how Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz roll into town in “Django Unchained.”

“Boot Hill” was actually the last film in a trilogy of movies directed by Giuseppe Colizzi, and it was preceded by “God Forgives… I Don’t!” and “Aces High.”

Mandingo movie poster

“Mandingo”

This 1975 film was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kyle Onstott, and it stars James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Lillian Hayman, former boxer Ken Norton and pro-wrestler Earl Maynard. It takes place in the 1840’s where a plantation owner trains one of his slaves to be a bare-knuckle fighter, and there are some brutal scenes of bare-knuckle fighting to be found in “Django Unchained.” It makes me wonder if Tarantino based the character of Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) on the ones played by Mason or King in “Mandingo.”

The narrator of this trailer describes “Mandingo” as being “the first true motion picture epic of the Old South,” but it’s a little hard to believe this as certain scenes appear to be very overwrought. The audience couldn’t help but laugh at the actress who told her lover “don’t kiss me yet, unless it’s just a cousin kiss” because the kiss which followed seems to be anything but a cousin kiss.

The movie version of “Mandingo” received a severe bashing from film critics like Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Richard Schickel, all of whom gave it their lowest rating. Tarantino, however, said it represents one of only two instances in the last few decades where “a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie” (the other being Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”).

Tick Tick Tick movie poster

“…tick…tick…tick…”

Ralph Nelson’s 1970 movie stars another football great, Jim Brown, as Jimmy Price, a black police officer who has just been elected sheriff of a racially divided town in the American South. The fact he beat out the former Sheriff, a white man named John Little (George Kennedy), does not sit well with some of the townspeople. As the movie’s title and the endless ticking in the trailer indicates, the racial tensions will continue to rise until they boil over into a possibly fatal conflict.

…tick…tick…tick…” has long since become a cult classic for its cutting-edge portrayal of racial tensions and its tense narrative, and of all the trailers shown before “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, this was the one the audience laughed at the least, if at all. It looks like it still holds up to this day regardless of the passing of time, and the way the white characters treat Jimmy doesn’t seem much different from the way Django is treated in “Django Unchained.” It’s especially cool to see Brown as a Sheriff because he has always had the appearance of someone who can clean up a town single-handedly.

Take a Hard Ride movie poster

“Take a Hard Ride”

This Western from 1975 also stars Jim Brown as Pike, a rugged trail boss and former criminal who promises Bob Morgan (Dana Andrews) he will successfully transport $86,000 across the border to a ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Pike is forced to team up with a dishonest gambler named Tyree (Fred Williamson) for this mission, and they are soon being pursued by the ruthless bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef) and the corrupt sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan).

The trailer for “Take a Hard Ride” made it look like a movie I really want to check out. Like “Django Unchained,” it is a mix up of the Blaxploitation and western genres and features one of the best casts a movie like this could ever hope to have. Brown and Williamson have always proven to be ultimate bad asses in whatever movies they appear in, and I love how the trailer’s narrator describes Cleef’s character as being “as sly as a rattlesnake and twice as deadly.” It was also great watching the scene where the cowboys and their horses crash down a hill because now I know where the filmmakers of “Young Guns II” got the idea for a similar scene.

After watching all these trailers and “Django Unchained,” it becomes clearer to see where Tarantino took his cues from as a writer and director. It also shows how brilliant he is at taking all the elements and turning them into a movie which is uniquely his own and not just an uninspired homage that pales in comparison to the films it inspired. “Django Unchained” proved to be a lot of fun, and the trailers which preceded it are for movies which look to be just as entertaining.

‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ Anniversary Screening at New Beverly Cinema

Judgment at Nuremberg movie poster

Stanley Kramer’s classic movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” got a very special screening at New Beverly Cinema on October 1, 2012. At the time, the movie was celebrating its 51st anniversary, and introducing it was Stanley’s widow, Karen Kramer. She took the time to talk not just about “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but also of her husband’s other work and the impact his films have had overall.

Karen was actually at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood the night before where they were showing another of her husband Stanley’s best-known works, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

“That film was all about greed,” Karen said. “And of course, globally we thought that was bad in 1963 when that film was made. But of course, globally now it’s become a national pastime.”

“Judgment at Nuremberg” is a different film, Karen said, and one which audiences of all kinds owe it to themselves to see again and again. Like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” this movie is as important to watch today as it was when it first came out.

“I don’t think any of us thought that genocide would ever exist again after World War II,” Karen said. “We knew all the facts and we knew all the heinous crimes that had been committed, but genocide unfortunately is running rampant again. So, this film is unfortunately very relevant (to today’s world events).”

Stanley had made “Judgment at Nuremberg” 14 years after World War II ended, and back then no studio wanted to make it and he had a very difficult time raising the money for its production. But Karen said Stanley thought it was very interesting to explore what happened with the judicial system during that time. The movie was inspired by the trail of four German Judges at Nuremberg who were tried for crimes perpetrated by the Nazi party. The question, however, becomes one of whether or not these particular Judges were fully aware of what Adolf Hitler was doing to the Jews.

“This (trial) is the one he chose because the judicial system was supposed to represent globally men of honor, men with education, men who were supposed to be fair to humanity, and these men of the Third Reich sanctioned all those heinous crimes,” Karen said. “But then I wonder about this and I think, yes of course they’re guilty but then you think about their position which was also explored in this film; if you were a member of a judicial system of the Third Reich, what would happen if you said no, I’m not going to participate? Would you lose your life, your reputation, your financial security? I suppose there was pressure put upon these men, but it doesn’t make it right.”

Karen was correct in saying Stanley explored this subject very well in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and Stanley himself got a Best Director nomination. It took home two Oscars, one for Maximilian Schell who won for Best Supporting Actor as defense attorney Hans Rolfe, and the other for Best Adapted Screenplay written by Abby Mann. Stanley made over thirty movies which were mostly socially conscious films, and they garnered over eighty Oscar nominations. Karen remarked how Stanley himself never got an Oscar, but that he did receive the Irving Thalberg Award which is the most important award anyone can get from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Karen went on to tell a story about Montgomery Cliff who gives an astonishing performance as Rudolph Peterson and of how he had trouble remembering his lines on the day his scene was shot.

“Stanley and Spencer Tracy (who played Chief Judge Dan Haywood) got together and they said look, I think we can handle this but a little bit differently,” said Karen. “So, Spencer went over to Montgomery and said look, I know you can’t remember the lines but you know what this scene is about. I’ll sit very close to the camera and just look into my eyes and just play from the heart, which of course he did.”

Karen also talked about Judy Garland whose performance as Irene Wallner garnered her an Oscar nomination. Clift did his performance on the stand first and then Garland did hers, and Clift came to watch Garland perform.

“I think he wanted to make sure she wasn’t better than he was, but that’s how actors were then,” Karen said. “So, he’s watching this and he’s crouching down in a corner someplace watching her perform, and he’s crying and she’s crying. He’s just undone and the minute she finished of course everyone applauded her, and he just went over to Stanley and he says, ‘you know Stanley, she played it all wrong!'”

Karen said “Judgment at Nuremberg” is one of her late husband’s better films and that he used film constantly as a tool or weapon to fight against discrimination, bigotry and man’s inhumanity. She also made it clear how Stanley didn’t make a movie unless it had something to say.

“He didn’t think of himself as a message filmmaker which is what interested him, and he took risks,” Karen said. “His life was threatened often, and when we made ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ our lives were threatened because interracial marriage was against the law in sixteen states when he made that movie. He was always questioning things like in ‘High Noon;’ he would question standing up even if you’re alone to do the right thing even if people don’t support you. He often risked his financial security and his reputation to tell his stories.”

A big thank you to Karen Kramer for taking the time to talk about her late husband Stanley Kramer and this movie of his which continues to stand the test of time. “Judgment at Nuremberg” is as riveting to watch today as it was when it first came out a half a century ago. Don’t let the black and white photography turn you off of seeing this classic film because the issues it ponders are the same ones we are forced to deal with today.

George Lazenby Reflects on Playing 007 in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

On Her Majestys Secret Service movie poster

After all these years, George Lazenby is still the only actor to play James Bond in just one movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” While nowhere as respected as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, Lazenby still has his share of fans who gave him a standing ovation when he appeared at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The evening’s moderator, Stephen Rubin, proclaimed Lazenby was a “terrific James Bond,” and if he had to do just one Bond movie, he picked the right one to star in.

After five movies, Connery quit playing Bond as he had grown tired of what he described as “impossibly long schedules.” Lazenby was not the first choice to replace Connery as he had no acting experience other than doing commercials, and Lazenby claimed he got considered for Bond when the late Cubby Broccoli spotted him at a haberdashery getting a Connery-like haircut.

Directing this 007 adventure was Peter Hunt who apparently got the job as a Christmas present from the Broccoli family. Lazenby described him as tough and that he got his way most of the time. He also admitted lying to Hunt about being an actor, and when Lazenby later told him he wasn’t, Hunt went crazy and fell down on the floor laughing. Once he composed himself, he told Lazenby, “Stick to your story. I’ll make you the next James Bond!”

The two of them, however, had a falling out on the first day of shooting, and Lazenby said Hunt didn’t speak to him again for nine months. According to Rubin, Hunt’s challenge in getting a performance out of Lazenby was to “piss him off.” Rubin also remarked how tough the last scene must have been for Lazenby as it’s the most emotional in the Bond franchise, and Lazenby said he did one take with tears and that Diana Rigg, who plays Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” bit him to get the desired emotion in another which he said wasn’t needed.

One thing’s for certain, Lazenby’s work in the action sequences was nothing short of excellent. On top of holding several black belts in martial arts, he credited a lot of his toughness from living in Australia where you “smack your mate.” Sounding almost Russell Crowe-ish about his birthplace, Lazenby said he could take care of himself once he got the first hit in, and back then he was too stupid to be afraid.

Regarding his fellow cast mates, Lazenby said Rigg thought he was a “complete idiot,” and she got pissed at him after he beat her in a game of chess. She also didn’t want him mucking around with other girls during filming, a promise Lazenby admitted he was unable to keep. He was discovered having a tryst with a receptionist, and when asked if she was memorable, Lazenby replied, “She was!”

Telly Savalas played Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Lazenby described him as a “great guy who loved to gamble.” When Lazenby got a raise from $100 to $1,000 a week during shooting, Savalas saw his money and asked, “Hey, do you play poker?” Lazenby also said Savalas used to bet everything he had including his house.

Even if Lazenby is still considered the worst actor ever to portray James Bond, it certainly didn’t seem to be the case considering the standing ovation he got upon entering the Egyptian Theatre. He gave us a 007 at his most relaxed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this makes his interpretation of the role the most unique in the long-running franchise.