Top Ten Films of the 60s — Number Four

#4 — Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
“We rob banks.” It’s a beautiful line of dialogue: so simple, so direct and yet so revealing. When delivered by Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, there’s a disarming pride to it, a hint of boastfulness and a charming, even sexy certainty to the words, as if they weren’t a report of criminality. Warren Beatty brings just a slight sheepishness to the words, a testing out of a shift from outlaw to folk hero when he speaks those words to a man whose been forced out of his home by one of the very institutions that he and Bonnie put in their sights. That is the thesis statement of Bonnie and Clyde. This isn’t merely a tale of a couple of bank robbers. It’s instead about self-styled stalwart soldiers, meting out karmic justice at the time of the Great Depression. In the film, they position themselves as the direct descendants of mythologized Wild West bandits, building upon their myth with each successive job and doing it in defiance of the fiscal power structure that had brought the nation to its knees. They stood together as a modern American Robin Hood, albeit with sharper outfits.

The conventional wisdom holds that Bonnie and Clyde is the opening Tommy gun volley of shots that heralded the arrival of the new American cinema that made the nineteen-seventies a decade of beautifully tarnished gold. Directed by Arthur Penn, a major designating factor of Bonnie and Clyde was its clear, rapturous influence by the French New Wave, taking a tried-and-true genre–the crime picture–and dressing it up with vibrant, innovative and often playful modern flourishes. The film is bold in its construction, somehow shaping the most stylized details–in structure, storytelling and acting–in such a way that the paradoxically deepen the emotional honesty of the work. Bonnie and Clyde is not designed to make its storytelling technique invisible. It is always heavily present, without ever being a blatant exercise. It’s grounded and fanciful all at the same time, drawing upon the star power of its two leading actors to infuse the film with glamor and the craftiness of the decidedly offbeat character actors in supporting roles to shift it out of the realm of manicured Hollywood fakery.

Perhaps more than anything else, what I’m struck by every time I rewatch it (and its probably I’ve seen this one in the theater more than any other film on the nineteen-sixties list) is how thoroughly entertaining it is. The film is spirited, funny and quietly grand. This is the true beginning of Beatty shaping his image for the screen (his first producer credit, Beatty took a very strong hand in the setting the creative direction of the film, which his involvement in a production guaranteed from there on in), and he knew that he served himself and the audience best but undercutting the easy command and ungodly handsomeness he had on screen. His Clyde is a mess and a child, in command mostly by default, impotent in the bedroom in a way that mirrors his shaky hold on the entire situation he’s gotten himself into. He’s the boss, but one who’s consistently exasperated by the band he’s assembled. Held up against the icy allure of Dunaway, and the unpredictable energies of co-stars Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons, Beatty takes on a mild but clear befuddlement of a beset hero in old silent film two-reeler. It’s just one more tendril of the unexpected that gives Bonnie and Clyde its effusive energy. They rob banks. And it’s a delight to watch them do it.

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