Sunday, May 23, 2010

Screened: "Bonnie & Clyde" (1967)

In addition to movies from the Thirties, I am also an avid collector of movies about the Thirties - a collection housed at the Pop Culture Institute which currently consists of more than seventy titles. It interests me to see how the decade has been variously portrayed by subsequent generations as it recedes into the past; on this score, Bonnie and Clyde rates very low indeed although, to its credit, most earlier films about the Thirties get it even worse...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketArthur Penn's 1967 film is often cited as among the first American movies to bring a European sensibility to Hollywood. Whether or not that's true can be endlessly debated by cineastes, and indeed has been. In the sense that the film consists of vast swathes of silence and angst-y brow-wrinkling punctuated by sudden, furious explosions of gunfire, it is definitely unlike most other films being made in that year, to which end Penn owes a great debt to the French New Wave.

That the film also bears little or no physical resemblance to the Thirties is almost beside the point. They get the menswear right, and some of the women's clothes too. There's no questioning that the automobiles used in the film are all from that era. Otherwise, it's the 'slap a couple of Roosevelt posters on that wall and let's call it a day' school of art direction that wins the day. The hairstyles, for instance, are completely wrong.

History is an illusory thing at the best of times; once you've involved the bullshit factories of Hollywood, it's a miracle there's any accuracy at all.  I suppose it could have been worse - they might have called it Connie & Floyd! Bonnie Parker did not look like Faye Dunaway, and Clyde Barrow (though handsome in his way) was no Warren Beatty. Okay, fine, I can accept that. Clearly this film is a star vehicle, and as such it's anything goes with regards to casting. But witnesses to the actual Bonnie & Clyde are invariably unanimous in reporting that Bonnie Parker 1934 never picked up a gun; Bonnie Parker 1967 sure does. Various other discrepancies abound, which exist mainly to compress the scope of the storytelling. Their actual betrayal was by the father of a member of their gang, but that gang member isn't in the film, for instance*.

The real story of Bonnie & Clyde is interesting enough, but is used here mainly as a parable for... Well, take your pick: civil unrest, feminism, a shift in social mores. More than anything else, though, it's a comment on the late 1960s through the oft-used lens of the early 1930s. Watched on its own, the movie is fine, but watch it alongside the A&E Biography of Bonnie & Clyde for the real story and you'll never look at the movie in quite the same way again.

Only time will tell if a new version of their story - The Story of Bonnie and Clyde starring Hilary Duff and Kevin Zegers, to be written and directed by Tonya Holly - will get it any better...

*Gang members W.D. Jones and Henry Methvin were composited to create the character of C. W. Moss, portrayed in the film by Michael J. Pollard.
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