a critiQal film review Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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Plot: Bonnie Parker (Dunaway), a bored small town waitress, meets Clyde Barrow (Beatty), a small-time bank robber fresh out of prison, and the two soon set off on a legendary crime spree through a Depression Era Mid-West.

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Back in 1967, a film came along that brought violence to the screen in a whole new way – and still lingers as a favorite movie for a lot of people of that era. That film was Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Being as neglected in my classic film history as I am, I had never actually gotten around to watching this landmark film. So, when I saw it was available on NetFlix® for instant viewing, I decided to give it a shot.

Would this 44-year-old film still pack the same wallop in 2011 that it did back in 1967, or would the shock value have worn off?

Warren Beatty, who had already developed his “aw, shucks” charm that would win over fans for him throughout his career, is pretty good as Clyde Barrow. While Clyde has some issues he has to deal with, the way his eyes seem to light up when talking about risking his neck is obvious, and Warren Beatty plays that up perfectly. Sure, Beatty’s Barrow isn’t exactly a good guy, but he still has audiences at least sympathizing with him before the film’s even half over.

Faye Dunaway is equally charismatic as Barrow’s partner in crime, Bonnie Parker, She’s frustrated at Barrow’s lack of physical attention and enamored with his “bad boy” side. She seems a perfect pairing for Beatty’s Barrow, and they have brilliant chemistry together.

Michael J. Pollard, the hillbilly of the group, looks on like an adoring puppy, while Gene Hackman’s Buck – despite a nasal intonation viewers won’t recognize in his later films – does a solid job as Barrow’s brother, Buck. Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, does nothing but scream, although even her loud vocalizations are drowned out by the discordant sound of gunfire (more on that later).

Combining elements of the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde and other notorious bank robbers of their time, Bonnie and Clyde seems like an early version of Natural Born Killers (1994) – at least on the surface. But, while that film focuses more on the twisted love/hate relationship Mickey and Mallory have with each other and the media, Bonnie and Clyde plays the anti-heroic couple as just a couple of small town kids in love – who just happen to get a kick out of robbing banks, not killing people.

Highly romanticized in the film, the couple seems to be nothing if not nice to the common Joe. Not only do they spend a fun night with a couple whose car they steal (look for the theatrical debut of Gene Wilder as the beau), they also never rob from the patrons of the bank, only the bank itself. In the film, Bonnie and Clyde are as loved by the media (one of Bonnie’s poems is even published in the newspaper) and the everyday folk as Mickey and Mallory are later. Difference is – at least in this telling of the story – Bonnie and Clyde aren’t actually harmful to any of the normal Joes who are singing their praises.

Unfortunately, the sound is the biggest drawback to Bonnie and Clyde. With a discordant, jangly soundtrack already, viewers may already be wincing. Toss in the extra-loud gunfire that seems to drive the sound up another three notches, and viewers will quickly tire of having to keep a finger on the volume control throughout the film. Turn it down when the gunfire starts, then turn it quickly back up to catch the next sequence with the actors speaking softly once more. Apparently this was planned by producer/star Warren Beatty himself, and, it really depletes from the enjoyment of the film today. Maybe it was a good idea at the time, to emphasize the “shocking” violence. But now, in the age of the digitally remastered film, why it hasn’t been corrected is anyone’s guess.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have a certain chemistry together, and truly embody their characters. Unfortunately, the sound quality and the lull moments (which include the intimacy issues) – not to mention the incessant caterwauling from Estelle Parsons – greatly detracts from a viewer’s enjoyment of this landmark film today.

Despite it’s problems, however, Bonnie and Clyde is still somewhat engaging thanks to Beatty and Dunaway, and still deserves a look. Just remember to keep one hand on the volume.

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