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 * * * *

Warren Beatty Searches for the Truth in ‘The Parallax View’

The Parallax View movie poster

par·al·lax

–noun

  1. The apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.
  2. Astronomy. The apparent angular displacement of a celestial body due to its being observed from the surface instead of from the center of the earth (diurnal parallax or geocentric parallax) or due to its being observed from the earth instead of from the sun (annual parallax or heliocentric parallax). Compare parallactic ellipse.
  3. The difference between the view of an object as seen through the picture-taking lens of a camera and the view as seen through a separate viewfinder.
  4. An apparent change in the position of cross hairs as viewed through a telescope, when the focusing is imperfect.

American Psychological Association (APA):

parallax. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved March 04, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/parallax

I always wondered what the word parallax meant, let alone in relation to this movie. This would have come in handy during those damn SAT’s I took so many years ago. It would have brought my scores up a bit. As for what my scores were…Well, you can just figure it out on your own.

The Parallax View” is a thriller from 1974 directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beatty. I saw it as a double feature with another Pakula thriller, “Klute.” I even remember my mom asking me to record this particular movie on the family VCR back in the 1980’s. I did succeed in getting the whole movie on tape as opposed to all those car races my dad and my brother asked me to record for them from time to time. Anyway, it’s a good thing I didn’t see this movie right away when I recorded it for my mom. They probably edited it down and cut all the good parts out.

The movie starts with an assassination of an assassination of a U.S. Senator on the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. The movie then jumps ahead three years later to see the far-reaching circumstances this assassination has on those closely involved in it. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a reporter eager to get at the truth surrounding the assassination, and to find out why so many who were in the vicinity of the assassination have been dying. Many have been reported as dying from an embolism of some kind, but there are too many coincidences between all those dead which makes it impossible to believe they simply just died. Beatty’s character may not be able to prove it, but they were murdered. But by whom?

The movie opens with Frady getting a visit from a female friend who is convinced she will be murdered. She comes up with newspaper clippings of others present at the senator’s murder and how they died. But Frady dismisses her concerns as mere superstition, and that she cannot possibly be in danger. A couple of minutes later, we see her in the morgue, dead from an apparent overdose. This gets Frady up and running to finding out the truth as to why these people are being killed off. This drives his boss Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn) to a lot of anxiety and irritation as he cannot get himself to believe all that is going on. Meanwhile, Frady risks life and limb literally to discover the truth behind everything. But like everything else, the truth will have a big cost.

Turns out all roads lead to The Parallax Corporation, a business which hires highly anti-social people and trains them to be assassins, and their targets usually tend to be politicians and government figures that stand in the way of making policy or a good profit. The movie escalates the tension to a high level as Beatty’s character puts himself in the most dangerous of positions. One of the most tension filled scenes comes when he realizes one of the Parallax assassins has put a bomb on board a plane with yet another politician, and Beatty boards the plane in an effort to find a way to get everyone off the plane before it detonates.

What I have come to discover about the late Alan J. Pakula is how he brought a lot of intelligence and reality to the movies he made, and there was never anything overly exaggerated in his direction. This seemed to ground the majority of his films in a world so real to where they come across as highly subversive. There is no hyper kinetic editing here, nor is there an overpowering score or adrenaline inducing sound effects. There is only the state of the world and of what’s really happening around us instead of what we are led to believe.

This movie is now over thirty years old, and yet its themes are not out of place in today’s society. The scenario of one man against the system, or of a person getting to the truth regardless of the consequences has been done over and over again. We have had “Michael Clayton” which starred George Clooney as a fixer at a law firm who suddenly develops a crisis of conscience that forces him to go against all the corruption which has engulfed the later part of his life. It’s thrillers like “The Parallax View” which gave movies like “Michael Clayton” a reason for being.

Beatty is perfectly cast here as this downtrodden reporter who is eager to not be as selfish as he has been for most of his life. The movie does not ride on his good looks to sell itself, but on the intelligence of Beatty’s performance as well of those around him. If you can’t believe Beatty in this role, then the movie is not going to work. I’m not sure of how many people today can recognize what a great actor Beatty can be if you give him the right material.

These days, we know that our government and the corporations are up to something which goes completely against what we were originally taught to believe in. What’s scary is when “The Parallax View” was first released, nothing much was different. It just keeps going on and on, and it’s almost like we are in denial about it. The question is, can we get at the truth of the matter and prove it to everyone who bothers to listen? Furthermore, can we do it in a way which doesn’t suck us into a trap that makes us look like a bad person to the rest of the world? This movie seems to say this is not really possible, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and we can’t simply give up.

“The Parallax View” is an excellent thriller which is definitely worth a watch. Coming out of one of the truly golden ages of cinema, the 1970’s, it is an underrated work which didn’t get the same-sized audience of Pakula’s other movies like “All the President’s Men.” If you like his work as a director, you should check this out.

Just remember, the truth is out there…

* * * ½ out of * * * *