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Bonnie and Clyde: Tabloid stars

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

 

Released 50 years ago, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is the screen depiction of the exploits of the real-life American criminals, who travelled the central United States with their gang during the Great Depression, robbing people and killing when cornered or confronted. The biopic, regarded as one of the first films of the New Hollywood era to break many cinematic taboos, has acquired the status of a landmark production since its release.

The first handling of the script of this film was in the early 1960s. Very much influenced by the French New Wave writers and in a not-yet-completed state, it was first sent by its writers, David Newman and Robert Benton to director, Arthur Penn. Penn was already engaged in the production of his 1966 film, ‘The Chase’ and could not involve himself at that point. The script then went to French directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and returned. Later actor, Warren Beatty during his Paris visit learned through Truffaut of the project and on returning to Hollywood bought the rights. His meeting with Godard being unproductive, Betty then convinced the writers that an American director was necessary for the subject.

Soon offers were made to seasoned directors like George Stevens, William Wyler, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Brian G Hutton and Sydney Pollack, all of whom turned down the opportunity. Penn also turned down the director’s position before Beatty convinced him to helm the film.

When Beatty was on board as producer, his sister Shirley MacLaine was a strong possibility to play Bonnie. However, when Beatty decided to play Clyde, obviously a different actress was needed. Those considered for the role were Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, Leslie Caron, Carol Lynley and Sue Lyon, besides Cher being auditioned for the part, as also Beatty unsuccessfully requesting his ex-girlfriend, Natalie Wood to play the role. Finally, Faye Dunaway who was signed stated that she won the part “by the skin of her teeth!”

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was one of the first films to feature extensive use of squibs – small explosive charges, often mounted with bags of stage blood, that are detonated inside an actor’s clothes to simulate bullet hits. Released in an era where shootings were generally depicted as bloodless and painless, the death scene of Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first in mainstream American cinema to be depicted with graphic realism.

Beatty had originally wanted the film to be shot in black and white, but Warner Bros rejected this idea. As it stood, much of the senior management of the studio was hostile to this film project, especially Jack L Warner who considered the subject-matter an unwanted throwback to Warner Bros’ early period when gangster films were common product.

The Technicolor cinematography by Burnett Guffey, who had already won an Academy Award for his Black & White work in ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953), is outstanding, as is the meticulous art direction of Dean Tavoularis as well as set decoration by Raymond Paul. Francis E Stahl too excelled with his sound recording, providing natural dialogue by orchestrating the extraneous sounds of the flat lands, the far-off train whistles, and crickets and winds, to augment the mood of the film. The costumes, make-up and hair styles also contribute a lot in creating the aura of the 1920s and 1930s.

Music composer, Charles Strouse neatly employed source music of the period for the film. After their first killing, when the gang seeks refuge in a movie theatre, the mocking lyric of “We’re in the Money” from ‘Gold Diggers’ (1933) provides an ironic counterpoint. “Deep in the Arms of Love” sets the opening of the film, while Eddie Cantor is heard on a motel radio. In fact, Strouse skilfully reprised the sentimental sounds of clarinet, violin, and ukulele in a fine score that creates a haunting effect throughout the film. The instrumental banjo piece “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs was introduced to the worldwide audience as a result of its frequent use in the movie. Long out of print in vinyl records and cassette formats, the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ soundtrack album was finally released on CD in 2009.

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ became controversial immediately upon its original release for its supposed glorification of murderers, and for its level of graphic violence, which was unprecedented at the time. The film frames its characters as tabloid newspaper stars which first are glamorised, and then vilified. As each of their escapade is reported in the next day’s press, Bonnie, Clyde and even Clyde’s brother, Buck see how the papers sensationalise the facts and exaggerate the crimes, thus making them enjoy their celebrity status. However, as the law closes in, and the pair’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the barrage of lies told about them in the newspapers begins to wear them down.

At first, Warner Bros did not promote the film for general release, but instead gave it a limited, ‘B’ movie-type release sending it to drive-ins and lesser theatres, despite the fact the film was doing excellent sustained business in select urban theatres. When critics began raving about the film and young people began to show up at screenings, it was better promoted, given a wider release and became a huge hit. By the end of 1967, the film had grossed $23,000,000 in US theatrical rentals, becoming Warner Bros’ second highest-grossing film of all time, right behind ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964). It eventually went on to become one of the top five grossing films of 1967, having been produced at a budget of $2.5 and earning $70 million. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and claimed two wins in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography categories.

Although many believe the groundbreaking portrayal of violence in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ add to the film’s artistic merit, the film is still sometimes criticised for opening the floodgates for violence in cinema, especially influencing movies like ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969), ‘The Godfather’ (1972), ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994) and ‘The Departed’ (2006). \

 

PLOT

During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meet when Clyde tries to steal Bonnie’s mother’s (Mabel Cavitt) car. Bonnie, who is bored with her job as a waitress, is intrigued by Clyde, and decides to join him by becoming his partner in crime. They pull off some holdups, but their amateur efforts, while exciting, are not very lucrative.

The duo’s crime spree shifts into high gear once they hook up with a dim-witted gas station attendant, C W Moss (Michael J Pollard) as their getaway driver, and then with Clyde’s recently-released-from-prison older brother, Buck (Gene Hackman) as well as his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), a preacher’s daughter. The women dislike each other on first sight, and their feud only escalates from there: shrill Blanche has nothing but disdain for Bonnie, Clyde and C W, while gun-moll Bonnie sees flighty presence of Blanche as a constant danger to the gang’s future.

Bonnie and Clyde turn from pulling small-time heists to robbing banks. Their exploits also become more violent. When C W botches a bank robbery by parallel parking the getaway car, Clyde shoots the bank manager in the face after he jumps onto the slow-moving car’s running board. The gang is pursued by law enforcement, including Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), whom they capture and humiliate before setting him free. Fascinated by the legendary reputation growing around them, the gang brags about their exploits, take pictures of each other, and even forces Hamer to pose with them before he is released.

Through it all, a love relationship develops between Bonnie and Clyde that endures despite Clyde’s impotence. Later after a visit with Bonnie’s mother, a raid catches the outlaws off guard, mortally wounding Buck with a gruesome shot to his head and injuring Blanche, which leaves her blind. Bonnie, Clyde and C W barely escape with their lives. With Blanche sightless and in police custody, Hamer tricks her into revealing C W’s name, who up until now is only an “unidentified suspect”.

Hamer locates the threesome hiding at the Louisiana house of C W’s father, Ivan Moss (Dub Taylor), who thinks the couple – and an ornate tattoo – have corrupted his son. The elder Moss strikes a bargain with Hamer: in exchange for leniency for his boy, he helps set a trap for the outlaws. In May of 1934, when Bonnie and Clyde stop on the side of the road to help Mr Moss fix a flat tire, the police in the bushes open fire and riddle them with bullets. Hamer and his posse then come out of hiding, looking pensively at the couple’s lifeless bodies.

 

TRIVIA

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ has a dynamic soundtrack that gets much louder during the gunfights, especially the gunshots. However, at the British premiere of the film, the projectionist previewed the film and thought the volume changes were a mistake. He therefore made careful notes for when to physically turn the sounds up and when to turn it down, so that the volume was “corrected.”

Before deciding to play the role himself, Warren Beatty’s first choice for Clyde was musician and composer, Bob Dylan, who resembled the actual Clyde more strongly than Beatty.

Warner Bros had so little faith in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ that, in an unprecedented move, it offered the first-time producer, Warren Beatty 40 per cent of the gross instead of a minimal fee. The movie then went on to gross $70 million.

The ‘Bonnie and Clyde look’ became a fashion rage, and for years afterwards Faye Dunaway would insist on having designer for the film, Theadora Van Runkle, design her costumes.

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is heavily influenced by the French New Wave directors, mainly through its rapid shifts of tone and its choppy editing.

Many consider one of the reasons why ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was so successful was due to its anti-establishment stance. At the time, disillusionment with America’s involvement in Vietnam was gaining ground.

The film critic of ‘The New York Times’, Bosley Crowther was so appalled at the violence in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ that he began to campaign against the increasing brutality of American films.

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