Reviews

Bonnie and Clyde

This film carries a bedrock rebelliousness and shocking ugliness that firmly resonates today.


Bonnie and Clyde

Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman
Distributor: Warner
MPAA rating: Unrated
Subtitle: Two-Disc Special Edition
First date: 1967
US DVD Release Date: 2008-03-25


It's an easy temptation to imbue any cultural artifact produced during the late '60s with the aura of a society-defining statement on the convulsions that were exploding and reshaping most every aspect of American society. Even the saddest, most routine pulp novel or rote TV drama could be seen -- if looked at through a forgiving lens -- as being a comment in some manner on the Vietnam War, race relations, the redefinition of sexual identities, or just about anything else you could slap a sociological sticker on. That way, when we revisit some of our more totemic films dimly remembered from the past, we can give them significance if the core material doesn't hold up well in the scrutiny of our (if possible) even more jaded age.

That's not the case with Bonnie and Clyde. At the time of the film's release in 1967, the US was awakening to the reality of the situation in Vietnam, and seething with civil unrest. It was a time as ugly and uncertain as any that had been seen since the early 1930s and the Great Depression, when society had also been fraying at the edges and class warfare was in the wind. A film about stylish and reckless outlaws not caring a damn about tomorrow (one that polarized opinion across the nation in a way that film just can't seem to manage anymore) serves pretty well as a clue into where the nation's head was at in 1967. In no way was it an attractive picture.

While some of the film's elements may initially seem rote today (because they've since been riffed on by everyone from Altman to Coppola to Tarantino), there remains a bedrock rebelliousness and shocking ugliness that firmly resonates today. The pair's rocketing path across the Depression-era South and Midwest, devoid of any purpose save forward motion and action, is as potent a kick as any post-beatnik dream of individual discovery. The world the characters travel through seems not to care a whit for them until they break the law, and then it won't let them go.

Guns litter the landscape. Bullets through the face. The outlaws kill not out of cool calculation or willful sadism, but out of thoughtless raging impulse. The police are a mostly faceless bunch, seemingly committed only to the upholding of a status quo of crushing poverty. Even Roosevelt's face on those faded election posters seems as distant and authoritarian as that of L.B.J. Unlike some other films of the '60s, there's no rest or peace here, no countervailing worldview presented beyond that of the crushing mainstream. This is a world where there really is no escape, yet it's a kick trying to find one.

David Newman and Robert Benton's script for Bonnie and Clyde takes the bones of the real-life couple and tries to turn it into a French New Wave take on a classic American gangster saga. The story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker -- Texas ne'er do wells who led a large and shifting interstate bank-robbing crew in a bloody media sensation of a crime spree in the early 1930s -- was originally intended for Francois Truffaut, who turned it down. At the time, Truffaut was a long way from writing the ultimate (and possibly only real) New Wave gangster film, 1960's Breathless. (Even that film's more energetic director, Jean-Luc Godard, had long since moved on to more outré and anti-genre material.) Truffaut's stiflingly slow take on Bradbury's dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451 (released in 1966) provides some clue to where he might have tried to go with Bonnie and Clyde.

So it's fortunate that Warren Beatty (who was producing Newman and Benton's script) had a good time with Penn on 1965's Mickey One, and thus brought him on board. Even though Mickey One was a chilly and abstract goof that played far too hard at imitating the avant-garde European masters, Penn brought exactly the right kind of American Pop rebel attitude to Bonnie and Clyde, providing the right kind of jazz that a Truffaut just could never have managed.

From those first shots of a naked Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway, a sultry and Bardot-esque sex kitten) languorously lounging in her bedroom, the camera grabbing and zooming at her before she sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) lurking outside her window, to the final bullet-dance ballet of death, prefaced by those still-breathtaking last-minute flash-cuts between the lovers' wide-open and gasping faces, Penn deploys a full battery of jittery New Wave tricks in the service of a classic American tragedy.

The rhythms are thrilling, but jarring. There's a wide array of juicy effects to wow over -- from Dunaway's fashionable outfits to the numerous guns-blazing shootouts and car chases set to the now-iconic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" -- but there's always something spoiling the party. The two leads seem to have all the makings of red-hot lovers, but Barrow is almost completely impotent with Parker (in the original script, he was bisexual).

A comedic jaunt with a couple whom the Barrow Gang has kidnapped on a lark turns ominous when the man (Gene Wilder in his first film role) announces he's an undertaker. A thrilling car chase ends with a Texas policeman drawling, "I ain't risking my life in Oklahoma" and turning around after crossing the state line. Time after time, the beautiful Texas landscape turns into a hail of gunfire and screaming.

Luckily for Penn and Warren, the studio system was self-destructing in the mid-'60s and willing to take some chances. Given that Warner Bros. had almost patented the gangster film during the time period that charismatic criminals like Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde had also gripped the nation's imagination, it seems appropriate that they would hand over the keys to this up-and-coming crew to refashion the genre for a new era. Over the years, the gangster film had become so stylized that the characters' essential nihilism had almost been buffed into nonexistence.

A sign, perhaps, of the status that Bonnie & Clyde holds in not just film history (as one of the opening salvos of the coming autuerist revolution) but also as a cornerstone moment in many of its leads' careers, can be seen in who showed up for the making-of documentaries. The special edition's second disk has a string of three of these, focusing first on putting the crew together, then on actually creating a film out of the real-life gangster's captivatingly strange odyssey, and lastly on its initial weak release and later rise to smash hit status. In a rare showing, all of the principals are there, from a loquacious Beatty (who as producer has plenty to say about everything) to Dunaway to director Arthur Penn and even Hackman, who revels in memories of the set's fractious bonhomie. Although the short pieces argue, of course, for the film being a classic for all time, there are welcome doses of reality here and there.

Penn refreshingly elides the violence question by saying he honestly think they didn't consider it much, while a sardonic Estlle Parson (who had done her research and knew more about the real Bonnie & Clyde than almost anyone on set) notes how little the finished film had to do with reality. There are also a couple deleted scenes, trailers, and a hackneyed History Channel documentary that's best avoided.

For all that Benton and Newman's script allowed viewers to have a vicarious thrill through Bonnie and Clyde's robberies and escapes, it didn't do much to explain away their essential callousness. Although it stands now as one of the earliest classic examples of the anti-hero in mainstream American film, Bonnie and Clyde doesn't play it easy by making the anti-heroes' pursuers be even more vicious than they (a common cop-out). These are everyday civilians and cops they're killing, no better or worse than the protagonists, who are for the most part an uncontemplative and occasionally quite stupid lot. When Clyde Barrow tries to rob a grocery store and ends up pistol-whipping a clerk who tries to stop him, he's shocked, shocked, by the attack.

In the same way that filmgoers supposedly inured to cinematic ultraviolence can still be stunned and sickened by The Wild Bunch -- say what you will, Peckinpah's savagery still has more punch than almost anything bloodletting on screens today, not always necessarily in a good way -- those returning to Bonnie and Clyde with this well-deserved special edition (the digital remastering is particularly pristine) could well be shocked by how, well, shocking it is.

The filmmakers received a lot of flak at the time for supposedly glorifying violence, even cheapening it by leavening the film with humorous interludes. But it's hard to imagine anybody but the dullest, most unreflective person watching Bonnie and Clyde and thinking that the protagonists' frantically self-mythologizing and instantly doomed criminal jaunt is anything but a sad and desperate escape from a non-criminal life that was only slightly less sad and desperate. If that's glorification, than glory isn't what it used to be.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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