If there is such a thing as an American tragedy, it must be funny.
– Pauline Kael on Bonnie and Clyde
They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people.
– Ad campaign for Bonnie and Clyde
The thirty-year anniversary of the release of Bonnie and Clyde occurred in 1997. To mark the occasion, a documentary, American Desperadoes: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde (Russell Leven 1999), was released. The original screenwriters, David Newman and Robert Benton, were extensively interviewed about the origins of the film and its progression to the screen. Also interviewed were director Arthur Penn and star-producer Warren Beatty. Nobody mentioned Robert Towne and yet it was he, not Benton or Newman (who were not allowed on the set of the film), who completely rewrote the screenplay at the behest of Beatty and Penn. It is Towne’s work on this film that created his legendary role as Hollywood’s leading script doctor.
I just wasn’t made for these times.
– The Beach Boys
1967 was the year that everything changed. As Peter Biskind puts it, two films “sent tremors through the industry” (1). One of those films was The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols from the Charles Webb novel, adapted by Buck Henry. The other was Bonnie and Clyde.
The 1960s was the era when Hollywood fell behind in every way possible: æsthetic, commercial and technological. Instead of setting trends, for the first time it was following them. As David A. Cook puts it:
Its decline resulted from the American industry’s obstinate refusal to face a single fact: that the composition of the weekly American film audience was changing as rapidly as the culture itself. Between the mid-fifties and the mid-sixties, that audience shifted from a predominantly middle-aged, modestly educated, middle- to lower-class group to a younger, better educated, more affluent, and predominantly middle-class group. The new audience in America, as all over the world, was formed by the postwar generation’s coming of age. It was smaller than the previous audience, and its values were different. (2)
Thus the demographics had changed and yet the studio output was slow to react, despite inflation, which was putting up the costs of production.
By 1962, when studio revenues had slid down to $900 million (their lowest ever), the big epics were still being ground out, most infamously Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), which gave Elizabeth Taylor her biggest payday and saw Fox Studios pause for thought (until they recouped massively two years later by taking a punt on The Sound of Music.)
The Story of Bonnie and Clyde
Someday they’ll go down together;
They’ll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief –
To the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.
The Bonnie Parker story had been told in typical exploitation style in a 1958 effort, The Bonnie Parker Story, written and produced by Stan Shpetner, and directed by William Witney, starring Dorothy Provine as the eponymous hero, joined by Jack Hogan as her lover Guy Darrow, with no mention of Clyde Barrow. The film has a number of elements that we can see both influenced and appeared in the Newman and Benton screenplay: Bonnie’s disenchantment with small-town life (she’s actually been married); her quick sexual arousal following the first hold-up, which leads to a shootout with a motorcycle cop who notices Guy’s erratic driving while in Bonnie’s embrace. She is clearly the mastermind of the colourful hold-ups dominating the film’s narrative and rescues her misbegotten ex husband (Roy Thornton), languishing in gaol, who announces:
I’d say you were Jesse James in disguise.
The husband has to compete with her paramour for her sexual favours, but that ends when he is shot down in ‘accidental’ crossfire by Guy.
The film ends with the famous ambush, which Bonnie sees from the wheel of her car but tries to brazen out in typically foolhardy fashion. The film concludes with her heavenly voice-over:
Other than the predictable final shoot-out, The Bonnie Parker Story bears no other resemblances to the later film, especially in terms of visual style, where it remains strictly in the B-movie tradition of American International Pictures, its production company. However, it is told and shot with verve, and is pleasingly lurid, with an appropriately vivacious characterisation by Dorothy Provine.
Why do you think a woman would go on a rampage like this?
Probably a man.
– The Bonnie Parker Story
Ain’t life grand?
– Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde
Warren Beatty had become a major star at the age of 23 with the release of his feature début, the poignant Splendor in the Grass, in 1960. Veteran Method director Elia Kazan coaxed a brilliant performance from both Beatty and co-star Natalie Wood, the former child actress whose close affinity to the character of Deanie (revealed in Suzanne Finstad’s painstaking 2001 biography of Hollywood’ last true studio star) made the film a painful experience for her. The screenplay was written for the screen by gay playwright William Inge, who had similarly crafted a stage role for Beatty in A Loss of Roses, which enjoyed a short-lived theatre run in late 1959. It would take Beatty a few more years to hone his screen craft and he discovered a soul-mate in Arthur Penn, who directed him in the self-conscious Nouvelle Vague-styled Mickey One (1965), a resounding box-office flop which allegedly had its origins in Penn’s recollection of his work on television’s Colgate Comedy Hour with Jerry Lewis in the early 1950s.
Lawrence Quirk claims that
Columbia Pictures reportedly went along with Beatty’s and Penn’s ‘art’ experiment because they were 1) tired of arguing against it, 2) recalled that Beatty and Penn had been box-office winners on occasion in the past, 3) the budget was less than a million dollars. (3)
After a couple of frothy modish comedies – Promise Her Anything (Arthur Hiller, 1966) and Kaleidoscope (Jack Smight, 1966) – and believing What’s New Pussycat (Cliver Donner, 1965) to have been stolen from him by his friend, the producer Charles Feldman (under the influence of then little-known Woody Allen), Beatty wanted to strike out on his own as producer to find the correct vehicle for his particular style. The script was discussed with him by François Truffaut at their second meeting in Paris; the pair had already met on the set of Mickey One, where Truffaut visited his girlfriend, actress Alexandra Stewart.
Beatty was being persuaded by Leslie Caron that he should take on an ambitious vehicle for himself. Truffaut dined with Beatty and Caron on the pretext that he would cast them together in Farenheit 451; however, when they met, it transpired that he had already cast Julie Christie and Oskar Werner.
Truffaut then suggested that Beatty read a screenplay which had been sent to him by two American writers. He had already sent it to Jean-Luc Godard, who proved incapable of putting a deal together to get it made. Truffaut himself had wanted to make the film with Paul Newman and Alexandra Stewart, but couldn’t get studio financing. However, Beatty readily agreed that it might be just the thing for him. What Truffaut allegedly had not explained was that he would never make the film with Beatty because he despised him. He was not aware that Beatty immediately set about acquiring the rights. Legend has it that Truffaut arrived at Robert Benton’s apartment and he told Beatty it wasn’t suitable for a film star. Beatty then realised, when he finally read the screenplay at Benton’s Lexington Avenue apartment, that it contained a homosexual affair between Barrow and C. W. Moss. He bought it anyway. Beatty paid Benton and Newman an initial $10,000, promising a further $75,000 for writing the screenplay, and went back to Arthur Penn.
Arthur Penn had made Mickey One with Warren the previous year. It had an extraordinary score (by Stan Getz) and a puzzling performance by the star, who adopted Penn as his latest father figure. Penn admired the young man for his eschewing of pretty-boy leading roles in favour of working with great directors. According to Ellis Amburn, what Penn didn’t realise at the time was that Beatty was studying them all in an effort to eventually replace them. The two formed a company, Tatira Productions, where they wished to develop screenplays free of the demands and interference of the studios:
Both Warren and Penn keenly felt the need to have a best friend, and for a while they were able to convince themselves they had found one in each other. Penn invited Warren to move in with him and his family in New York so they could savour every minute of their newfound intimacy. They expected to become bosom buddies who’d talk late into the night, every night, for the rest of their lives. The relationship suffered the usual setback, however, when their roles were reversed by the imperatives of Warren’s ego. Penn was his guru when they filmed Mickey One, but later, when the dynamic Penn tried to direct him in Bonnie and Clyde, Warren seized control. Penn the leader suddenly became Penn the follower. (4)
David Newman and Robert Benton
The legacy of Bonnie and Clyde has a lot to do with the fact that we didn’t model it on some classic model of how a film is made.
– David Newman in American Desperadoes
Newman and Benton were journalists at Esquire magazine in the early 1960s when they discovered a mutual love of the films coming out of Europe, especially from France. Their favourite filmmaker was François Truffaut, while his second feature, Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) – a typically witty and iconoclastic pastiche of the gangster genre, inspired by American B-movies – was their favourite of his films. It had been adapted from pulp writer David Goodis’ gangster novel, Down There, and was a pleasing amalgam of romance, guns and cabaret. Tom Milne says it is “by turns comic and pathetic […] paradoxically much more realistic than most in the way that it uses both character and environment” (5).
Pauline Kael explains the attractiveness of the New Wave filmmakers for Americans:
The young French directors discovered the poetry of crime in American life (from our movies) and showed the Americans how to put it on the screen in a new, ‘existential’ way. Melodramas and gangster movies and comedies were always more our speed than ‘prestigious’, ‘distinguished’ pictures; the French directors who grew up on American pictures found poetry in our fast action, laconic speech, plain gestures. And because they understood that you don’t express your love of life by denying the comedy or the horror of it, they brought out the poetry in our tawdry subjects. (6)
The New Wave had just hit the United States […]
– David Newman
[…] we just lived and breathed and slept movies […]
– Robert Benton
Robert Benton had grown up on stories of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in his home state of Texas, where the couple had gone on the rampage. His father even attended the couple’s funeral.
Ellis Amburn quotes Benton on the attraction of the subject matter:
Being an outlaw was a great thing to want to be […], whether I was Clyde Barrow or Abbie Hoffman […] All the stuff we wrote had to do with épater le bourgeois, shaking society up, saying to all the squares, “We don’t do that, man, we do our thing.” (7)
Newman stated in American Desperadoes:
They were inept gangsters […] They were not very good bank robbers. They were great self-promoting celebrities and that’s what attracted me and Benton to this material in the first place.
The neophyte screenwriters were always consciously trying to evoke the mythology inherent in the tale. Newman:
[…] we saw Bonnie and Clyde as kind of emblematic of the times we were living in. We began to sense that something was going on in this country and that all our values not only culturally but psychologically and mythologically and romantically, that everything was shifting in a really interesting way.
When David and I first started we were working on the screenplay we were still working at Esquire magazine and we were reading a book by John Toland about John Dillinger and there was a footnote about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and it said, Not only were they outlaws, they were outcasts […] I think what attracted us, what we tried to bring to the screenplay, was that Bonnie and Clyde were not conventional villains and not conventional heroes, they were some mixture, but we were determined to see them with some sympathy.
Of course, it was the very existence of gangsters such as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde that gave rise to the gangster genre in the first place, a genre that François Truffaut had already taken to his heart.
We really set out to write a specifically European film about an American subject.
– Robert Benton
According to John G. Cawelti: “Time reports that the initial Benton-Newman scenario was a frank imitation of Truffaut’s striking juxtapositions of comedy and tragedy.” (8)
When the pair sent their seventy-page treatment to Truffaut, he liked it enormously and invited them to meet with him. They spent two days in a hotel, where, through a translator, the filmmaker talked them through the script.
Newman said, “it was like going to film school for three years.”
In American Desperadoes, Benton elaborates on the director’s influence:
There was a structural set of lessons that we learned from him and there was also, in terms of the film itself, there’s a sequence that he dictated to us that was in the screenplay line by line the way that he dictated to us, line by line, and is in the movie the way he dictated it. He dictated where it should break, he dictated what each shot should be and there’s a series of dissolves from her [Bonnie] reading it [her poem] in the car in the rain, to Sheriff Hamer reading it, back to them reading it in the field in the newspaper. And that was Truffaut’s orchestration. We simply took his notes and incorporated them directly into the screenplay. We now had a little more information about what this particular director wanted and we wrote a film for this particular director.
However, once Truffaut got financing for Farenheit 451, he passed on the opportunity and sent the script to Godard, who terrified the producers by saying things like, “We can make it in Tokyo.” Coupled with typical studio responses (“Who would want to see a film about scum like this?”), the possibilities for production were narrowing. (Godard would go on to make Pierrot Le Fou (1965), whose story elements greatly resemble those of Bonnie and Clyde.)
Eighteen months later, Warren Beatty appeared and said: “All the French influence – all the Nouvelle Vague – is in the script. We need an American director.” (9)
According to David Thomson’s account, the first director in the running for the project was not Arthur Penn:
Penn is not certain about doing it straightaway. Other directors are in the running. One of them is Brian G. Hutton, but he is typical of Hollywood sentiment in his reactions. He is looking at the Benton-Newton [sic] script one day with a young writer Beatty knows, Robert Towne. Hutton asks, “What do you see in this?” Towne tells him, at length; he loves the original screenplay. But Hutton looks at him as if he is crazy. “Well,” he sighs, “I just don’t see it. I’m going off to do Where Eagles Dare .” Hindsight is not kind to this choice, but it shows industry wisdom at that moment. (10)
In fact, Beatty talked to ten or twelve other directors, Fred Zinnemann and George Stevens amongst them, before his and Penn’s mutual agent, Abe Lastfogel, persuaded the director to take another look at the project.
Once Tatira, Beatty and Penn’s company, had acquired the rights, the first task Newman and Benton had as screenwriters was to expunge references to homosexuality from the screenplay.
Your advertising is just dandy. Folks would never guess you don’t have a thing to sell.
– Bonnie to Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde
In an ironic contrast to his public image as playboy, Beatty would play Barrow as impotent – an audacious move which launches his sexual appeal to Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), in a film about ‘stick-ups’, while the yearning to connect with each other would become a core subtext to Bonnie and Clyde’s drama, realised in the final poignant exchange of looks between the lovers in the final moment before they are murdered.
Penn was not happy when he read the final script. He attempted to withdraw his involvement from the entire production. Ellis Amburn reminds us that, in reality, Bonnie and Clyde had enjoyed a ménage à trois with Roy Hamilton. There is some argument about the rationale behind the changes, with Newman and Benton claiming that Beatty wanted the homosexuality removed, while Beatty denies it. Newman and Benton claim that Penn was interested in the fact that Barrow had turned bisexual while in prison, but believed that this fact would alienate the audience, reasoning that his motivation could be interpreted as perversion, while the writers agreed that something sexual should be amiss in his persona – hence the impotence, a counter to the happily Freudian phallic symbolism of the gun.
Arthur Penn was so bent on creating representative folk heroes that he missed the real story, which was far more intriguing than fiction, and would have pushed the boundaries of the film subject matter even further. (11)
It was then that Beatty played his trump card: Robert Towne.
Introducing the Special Consultant
[…] we don’t take our stories straight any more.
– Pauline Kael
Towne’s script for The Long Ride Home (aka A Time for Killing, 1967), which would eventually be directed by Phil Karlson, found its way into the hands of Warren Beatty. Legend has it that the two met at the offices of their mutual psychoanalyst.
Ellis Amburn claims that Towne had helped Beatty find his feet around Hollywood
as a fledgling producer in search of financial backing, a new and unfamiliar undertaking for the actor. Although Towne had not yet done a major screenplay, he’d doctored so many scripts that he knew the ins and outs of the film industry, and was viewed as a precocious master at manipulating the system. Amusing, soft-spoken, discreet, self-assured and persuasive, he called himself a “relief pitcher who could come in for an inning, not pitch the whole game.” (12)
It’s a Dirty Job but Towne Can Do It!
I was rewriting scenes time after time. The movie was impromptu in the sense that there was rewriting going on constantly, but once Arthur was satisfied with a scene, once the rewriting was done to everybody’s satisfaction, there was no deviation whatsoever from those lines. There was less improvising in Bonnie and Clyde than in any other movie I have worked on. (13)
The specifics of the rewrite according to Towne were to do with the idea of the ménage à trois amongst Bonnie, Clyde and C. W., as proposed by Newman and Benton. One of the problems was that the studio would not go along with it; another was that the ‘permissive society’ had not quite arrived; finally, it didn’t really lead anywhere (in reel, as in real life, perhaps). And then there was Beatty, who was against it for both personal and genre reasons. As Towne put it:
If you’re going to do a movie about shifting relationships, like Truffaut’s Jules and Jim , it is tough to do a gangster movie at the same time. (14)
Towne was apparently called in when the debate had reached “an impasse”. In order to satisfy both Penn and Beatty, Towne apparently had to rewrite some scenes as many as fifty times. (15)
The Changes to the Original Script
1. Towne’s first problem was to alter the three-way relationship: that was removed, and C. W. Moss becomes a more comical character.
2. Bonnie goes to see her mother before going to the mortician in the Newman and Benton script. Towne suggested that this episode happen prior to her visit,
so that the impetus of having a good time, only to find out that the guy is a mortician, strikes Bonnie, who is the most sensitive and open of the group, and makes her say, “I wanna go see my Mama.” It scared her. Pacing like that gives the character a little drive, makes her want to do something as a result of it. (16)
When Eugene Grizzard (Gene Wilder) admits to his professional occupation and dampens the spirit of joie de vivre in the car, Bonnie caps the moment saying, “Get him out of here.” The feeling of doom is heightened and the moment underlines Bonnie’s sense of her mortality, giving her character a greater arc.
3. Clyde now concludes the scene at Bonnie’s mother’s house by saying, “We’re gonna end up living by you”, and Mrs Parker replies, “You try to live three miles from me, and you won’t live long, honey.” This tagline, added by Towne, copper-fastens the idea that Bonnie can’t go home any more and, that, in Towne’s words, “she is being thrown back on Clyde for a ride that is going one way.” (17) This is no longer the happy occasion intended in the Newman-Benton version.
4. Towne adds a later scene in a hotel room, when Bonnie remarks to Clyde that she thought they were really going someplace. She is clearly disillusioned. Clyde returns, “Well, I’m your family.” Their mutual need is intensified.
Realism was key for this version of the film. As Towne himself says:
When I was a kid, I noticed four things about movies: the characters could always find parking spaces at every hour of the day and night, they never got change in restaurants, and husbands and wives never slept in the same bed. Women went to sleep with their makeup on and woke with it unmussed. I thought to myself, I’m never going to do that. In Bonnie and Clyde – although I don’t think it was my doing – Bonnie counts out every penny of change, and C. W. gets stuck in a parking space and has a hard time making a getaway. (18)
The larger problem, for Towne, was the choice to be made as to when it was appropriate for Clyde to down his gun and have a heterosexual relationship. Yet the homosexual undertone in Clyde’s demeanour is still apparent, despite Beatty’s protestations. According to Peter Biskind’s account:
Beatty liked to play against his image, but he said, “Let me tell you one thing right now: I ain’t gonna play no fag.” He thought the audience wouldn’t accept it. “They’re going to piss all over my leg,” he said, using one of his favorite expressions.
Penn’s attitude to Newman and Benton was that they couldn’t make a French movie:
You’re making a mistake, guys, because these characters are out there far enough. They kill people and rob banks. If you want the audience to identify with them, you’re going to lose that immediately if you say this guy is homosexual. It’s going to destroy the movie. (19)
Other than those changes noted above, Towne says that there were more:
I started working with it then, always under Arthur’s guidance – he would have me rewrite something ten or fifteen times, until I felt I just couldn’t write at all. He used to scare me. I used to think, “Gee, I must really be terrible if he keeps having me rewrite like this. God, I’m really bad.” Then they asked me to come down to Texas, where I stayed all during the picture, working even in postproduction, writing wild lines for background. (20)
Newman and Benton were all but forgotten, while Towne was on the set at the North Park Motor Inn, Dallas, and Midlothian, Point Blank, Pilot Point and Ponder, Texas, available for rewrites and even changing line readings during filming. According to David Thomson, he spent time with Clyde Barrow’s nephew, who bore his uncle’s name, “and picks up anecdotes about Clyde’s skill with cars and the way ‘he could cut a corner square when he drove.’” (21)
Towne’s official account of events is that:
I was asked to do a final draft on location for Bonnie and Clyde. Robert Benton and David Newman had done the original but I did a last version, aided and abetted by Arthur and Warren. To work on critical and commercial successes like that is great, but finally there is something terribly capricious about it like shooting craps. Of course, all the really good movies like Bonnie and Clyde have a wealth of talented people behind them, but then the really bad ones do as well. In either case, you sweat and strain to make something turn out well and occasionally you succeed, but deep down you have to be aware of how capricious it all is. It may be great to shoot craps and win, but the experience isn’t qualitatively different from shooting craps and losing. You’re still shooting craps. (22)
The details and textures for which Towne were hired are emblemised in a line he wrote for the dying Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman):
This kind of detail, says Ellis Amburn, proved that Beatty was not only a formidable star-maker but “demonstrated that he could control inspired below-the-title work horses” (23).
The compass of Bonnie and Clyde orients to beauty and death, and the two are conjoined in those final, shocking images which are imprinted on the collective memory, all the preceding little deaths leading up to this final, orgasmic shoot-out:
The death scene is the climax, and it is graced and consented in by the rapid exchange of knowing close-ups as they look and see what is coming. Naming is no longer necessary. Death is greeted as something as rare as ecstasy because of the great outlawry. Being famous has been shown as the most certain way to beauty. The only way. (24)
Structurally speaking, of course, this was a writing challenge for Towne:
[…] you always knew they were going to die. I mean you knew it before you went to see the movie. And if you didn’t, you knew it very early on. So the real suspense in that film was not if they were going to die, but how, and if they were going to get something resolved between the two of them before they died. You know? And so in order to do that, I mean you had to structure their relationship going inevitably toward their particular fate which was death at the end of the road that they were travelling. (25)
Warren Beatty and Leslie Caron were the media’s own outlaw couple, with Beatty being blamed for the break-up of the actress’ marriage to theatre director Peter Hall, with whom she had two children. (It would not be the last of Beatty’s liaisons with actresses nominated for an Academy Award.) Bonnie and Clyde would rubberstamp their relationship, with Caron prepared to create a backstory involving New Orleans to validate her accented version of Bonnie Parker. It was she who persuaded Beatty to buy the script, because she said it was so much more than a genre film, it was “A new kind of movie […] a movie about fame and about movies” (26).
Suddenly, however, Beatty was no longer in favour of casting his real-life girlfriend on screen and Caron terminated their relationship. The search began for her replacement as Bonnie Parker. When Natalie Wood turned it down, fearing another nervous breakdown, Beatty then thought about Carol Lynley and Tuesday Weld; Weld was probably the closer of the two to the role when she became pregnant. Then Faye Dunaway got the part, to the manner born: the Floridian daughter of a dirt farmer and his high school drop-out wife, she had fled the South to see her name in lights. Dunaway:
Never have I felt so close to a character as I felt to Bonnie […] She was a yearning, edgy, ambitious southern girl who wanted to get out of wherever she was […] She was heading nowhere […] The end was death. (27)
Apparently, after she gave a reading, Penn said in her hearing, “Either she does it or I don’t do it.” (28) Months later Dunaway got her coveted star billing. She recalls in her memoirs:
That’s because he’s [Warren] got a lot of class. Warren was smart enough to know that this movie would make me a star, and he may as well beat the town to the punch. (29)
Gene Hackman had appeared in a single scene in Lilith (Robert Rossen, 1964) with Beatty some years before; his performance so impressed Beatty that he insisted on Hackman’s inclusion in the cast. Michael J. Pollard had similarly featured in A Loss of Roses with Beatty on stage.
Both United Artists and Columbia turned down the project, swiftly followed by Warners. However, Beatty returned to Warners and, according to legend, went so far as to kiss Jack Warner’s feet, begging for the finance. (Legendary insider Joe Hyams claims he was there and saw it happen.) Beatty got $2 million from the studio, with a 40% cut of the gross profits – which would ultimately yield him $30 million. (30)
On 10 August 1966, he went on a recce for locations which led him to Dallas, Texas, just three years after the murder of John F. Kennedy.
According to co-star Faye Dunaway:
With this film […] Warren really became the first in a new wave of producer/director/actor power combinations […] That was the only way the studio could get the project, and Warren was a big star, so they agreed. I once asked Warren if he was the first actor/producer, momentarily forgetting those early people like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, who were indeed actor/producers. “No, I wasn’t the first one, but I was the best one.” That’s Warren for you. Snappy, very capable. (31)
Beatty supervised every conceivable aspect of the production. The dailies were printed in black and white to save on costs, which were increasingly being borne by Beatty, which led to his having a disproportionately large share of the eventual rentals. David Thomson talked to Robert Towne about the situation:
Warren was truly a great producer. I remember a scene we had, it’s just before the final deaths, and Bonnie supposed to get some fruit and be eating it with Clyde in the car as they drive towards the ambush. Well, we wanted a peach that would squirt and squish on the big screen.
The day before shooting, Warren asked the property master if it was going to be all right with the peach.
“I don’t have them,” the guy said, and Warren’s face went white.
“They’re not in season,” the guy said. “I got apples.”
“Somewhere in the world they’re in season,” said Warren. “In South America or North Pakistan. I want peaches tomorrow.”
Well, in the end we couldn’t wait for peaches. We got a pear and we injected it with water with a syringe. But I never forgot Warren’s response and the feeling that it was a detail that was going to be on the screen a long time. And Bonnie and Clyde were peaches, not apples. Warren said, “It’s hard to argue, but you’ve got to keep doing it.” (32)
When Beatty ran the edited film for Jack Warner, the studio chief announced that the film was so bad it wouldn’t get a release. Beatty got down on his knees and begged. He was told he could have the print for $2 million. The studio thought Beatty’s confident reaction indicated that he had secured the money elsewhere and believed another studio must want it. So they fell for his ruse, but released it in second-string theatres in August 1967, to a slew of bad reviews in what was then the slowest period for audiences, summertime.
A Complex Text:
Bonnie and Clyde could be said to belong to a subset of the gangster genre, the ‘love on the run’ cycle which numbers some classic examples: You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937), They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948) and Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). It had also been predated by The Bonnie Parker Story (1958). The outlaw genre was obviously reconfigured from the earlier Western examples; Billy the Kid or Jesse James had proven popular stories in that genre, while the gangster genre itself boasted any number of examples, taking their lead from real-life criminals such as Al Capone and John Dillinger.
Pauline Kael teases out the differences between Bonnie and Clyde and the earlier examples by pointing out that the audience’s worldview had changed from the 1930s or ’40s, when real hardship made the average moviegoer essentially sympathetic to people involved in a life of crime:
In 1937, the movie-makers knew that the audience wanted to believe in the innocence of Joan and Eddie, because these two were lovers, and innocent lovers hunted down like animals made a tragic love story. In 1967, the movie-makers know that the audience wants to believe – maybe even prefers to believe – that Bonnie and Clyde were guilty of crimes, all right, but that they were innocent in general; that is naïve and ignorant compared with us. The distancing of the sixties version shows the gangsters in an already legendary period, and part of what makes a legend for Americans is viewing anything that happened in the past as much simpler than what we are involved in now […] in Bonnie and Clyde that audience is in the movie, transformed into the poor people, the Depression people, of legend – with faces and poses out of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1937, the audience felt sympathy for the fugitives because they weren’t allowed to lead normal lives; in 1967, the ‘normality’ of the Barrow gang and their individual aspirations toward respectability are the craziest things about them – not just because they’re killers but because thirties ‘normality’ is in itself funny to us. The writers and the director of Bonnie and Clyde play upon our attitudes toward the American past by making the hats and guns and holdups look as dated as two-reel comedy; emphasizing the absurdity with banjo music, they make the period seem even farther away than it is. The Depression reminiscences are not used for purposes of social consciousness; hard times are not the reason for the Barrows’ crimes, just the excuse. ‘We’ didn’t make Clyde a killer; the movie deliberately avoids easy sympathy by picking up Clyde when he is already a cheap crook. (33)
The film had a somewhat confusing effect on its audience, something that Kael analyses correctly as
the absence of sadism – it is the violence without sadism – that throws the audience off balance at Bonnie and Clyde. The brutality that comes out of this innocence is far more shocking than the calculated brutality of mean killers. […] There’s something new working for the Bonnie-and-Clyde legend now: our nostalgia for the thirties – the unpredictable, contrary affection of the prosperous for poverty, or at least for the artefacts, the tokens, of poverty, for Pop culture seen in the dreariest rural settings, where it truly seems to belong […] Our comic-melancholic affection for thirties Pop has become sixties Pop, and those who made Bonnie and Clyde are smart enough to use it that way. Being knowing is not an artist’s highest gift, but it can make a hell of a lot of difference in a movie. In the American experience, the miseries of the Depression are funny in the way that the Army is funny to draftees – a shared catastrophe, a levelling, forming part of our common background. […] There is a kind of American poetry in a stickup gang seen chasing across the bedraggled backdrop of the Depression (as true in its way as Nabokov’s vision of Humbert Humbert and Lolita in the cross-country world of motels) – as if crime were the only activity in a country stupefied by poverty. (34)
Mythology (If you can’t join ‘em, Beatty ‘em)
It certainly changed my approach to making movies because since that time I’ve always felt that if I really want to do something in a movie, I’ll get it done.
– Warren Beatty in American Desperadoes
Bonnie and Clyde made the shrewd Beatty a rich man at just thirty years of age. The Warners deal gave him a rising share of the gross on a film that nobody believed would make a dime, and yet made a mint after Beatty made personal appearances to herald its arrival at various venues and word of mouth made it number three at the American box office. It made a star of Faye Dunaway, who got the role only because Beatty’s former lover and co-star, Natalie Wood, couldn’t be persuaded to reach out of the studio system, despite her apparent desire for credibility following a string of box-office flops. Bonnie and Clyde could be said to have arisen, at least in Beatty’s case, from a willingness to explore the least pleasant areas of his psyche, and that might have been a side of Beatty’s character all too familiar to the frail Wood.
He wanted to be the source of pictures.
– David Thomson on Beatty
Beatty’s (unauthorised) biographer, Ellis Amburn, claims that Beatty’s friendship with Roman Polanski was symptomatic of both men’s innate narcissism and misogyny, which nurtured the kinds of films they made and may have contributed to the air of lawlessness that characterised the late 1960s:
Contempt for women, coupled with an obsession for their bodies, fed into and was an essential part of Beatty’s and Polanski’s film aesthetic. From early in their relationship, the two conducted long, weighty dialogues about cinema, and these continued for years, culminating in two of the signature movies of the decade, Rosemary’s Baby and Bonnie and Clyde. Though the films were still in the future, their genesis was in talks Beatty and Polanski had about breaking through the barriers of modern filmmaking and frankly exploring sex and violence. The conversations took place mostly in London, and shaped both of them as auteurs. The explosive synergy of their friendship, and the brilliant but amoral movies that sprang from it, contributed heavily to the atmosphere in which Charles Manson and his gang thrive and ended up murdering Polanski’s wife. (35)
Mythology (Good Company)
Newman and Benton would write one more film together, which Benton would direct, before a parting of the ways. Bad Company (1972) is a fascinating, if underrated film in its own right: however, it becomes pertinent to this study when compared with Bonnie and Clyde, which might be said to be its fraternal twin in cinematic terms. A Western tale about a young man escaping the draft in the Civil War, who is taken up by vagabonds on his journey westwards, it is light and airy in its telling, as though the idea of the mythical West were somehow elasticised and freed, before it snaps back in a freeze-frame of potential violence at the story’s close. Of course, there are a number of myths being deconstructed: the West itself, which is portrayed as vicious, cold and deprived, as well as the parallel myth of Vietnam – the draft-dodging Horatio Alger-like innocent abroad, who finally succumbs to violence, was indeed an empathetic character in 1971. Newman and Benton had already consciously embraced the idea of myth, and its deconstruction, as an important storytelling source for Bonnie and Clyde and were clearly continuing in this vein in Bad Company, where the heroic West is an uncomfortable lie.
One might surmise from the film’s rich, seductive visual and storytelling style that not only was the screenwriting duo paying homage to their own work in Bonnie and Clyde, but that they were exploring the genre in a gamier, female-free fashion, with a final nod to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) shoot-out of a couple of years previously. The film also owes a debt to Gore Vidal’s The Left-Handed Gun (1957), which was subsequently directed for cinema by Arthur Penn, boasting an inbuilt, revisionist commentary: Barry Brown’s diary of his experiences in Bad Company offers a counterpoint to events, in much the same way that the journalist’s file reporting does in The Left-Handed Gun – a technique which was used to great critical acclaim in Unforgiven (1992), written by David Webb Peoples (but with no acknowledging of his inspiration). The final shot in Bad Company, when Brown and Bridges face the camera with their guns in a hold-up, is a conscious echoing of what is deemed cinema’s first Western, The Great Train Robbery (1903). (Its iconicity is again paid tribute in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1992) and in the self-consciously mythical Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993).) The shock value inherent in this shot – a self-perpetuating metaphor for myth – puts Bad Company in a wholly different light to the film’s earlier, pastoral quality, which is echoed throughout in the beautifully lit photographic compositions and the humorous use of music.
It might be said that, while it is in no way as powerful as the gruesome, emotive finale of Bonnie and Clyde, it is, on its own terms, a shocking metaphor and provides a historically ‘true’ explanation for the reasons behind the violent underpinnings of the Wild West, refuting the good-natured clowning that goes before, bringing to the film a kind of earthly realism for an audience hitherto pleasantly entertained by the fun and games of some good ol’ boys. It is also an acknowledgement by the writers of the serious consequences of outlaw revolutionary beliefs, as was latterly discovered following the activities of Students for a Democratic Society and their offshoot, the Weathermen. The shooting dead of students at Kent State had been the extremely thin end of the wedge as an overwrought governmental response to any kind of expression of political dissent.
Bonnie and Clyde opened at the Forum and Murray Hill Theatres, New York, on 13 August 1967 to an outpouring of criticism. Such was the impact of the Time and Newsweek reviews that Warner Bros withdrew the film from release. When Beatty ultimately persuaded Warners to re-release it, with an ad campaign using a copy provided by Beatty himself, Time and Newsweek both recanted their original reviews and lauded the film as the harbinger of a New Cinema.
Joe Morgenstern wrote in Newsweek:
I am sorry to say I consider [Newsweek’s] review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate. […] I am sorrier to say I wrote it. (36)
The turnaround in the film’s critical fortunes coincided with its release to great fanfare and acclaim in the United Kingdom. Bosley Crowther was fired from The New York Times following his negative review: he was obviously out of step with the zeitgeist.
At the forefront of the plaudits for the film was Pauline Kael’s review for The New Yorker:
Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate [John Frankenheimer, 1962]. The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours – not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies – go too far for some tastes – and Bonnie and Clyde divides audiences, as The Manchurian Candidate did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard.
Bosley Crowther’s review for Time magazine was scathing and deserves to be reprinted in full:
A raw and unmitigated campaign of sheer press-agentry has been trying to put across the notion that Warner Brothers’ Bonnie and Clyde is a faithful representation of the desperado careers of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a notorious team of bank robbers and killers who roamed Texas and Oklahoma in the post-Depression years.
It is nothing of the sort. It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie [George Roy Hill, 1967]. And it puts forth Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the leading roles, and Michael J. Pollard as their sidekick, a simpering, nose-picking rube, as though they were striving mightily to be the Beverly Hillbillies of next year.
It has Mr Beatty clowning broadly as the killer who fondles various types of guns with as much nonchalance and dispassion as he airily twirls a big cigar, and it has Miss Dunaway squirming grossly as his thrill-seeking, sex-starved moll. It is loaded with farcical hold-ups, screaming chases in stolen getaway cars that have the antique appearance and speeded-up movement of the clumsy vehicles of the Keystone Cops, and indications of the impotence of Barrow, until Bonnie writes a poem about him to extol his prowess, that are as ludicrous as they are crude.
Such ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperadoes were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren’t reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort.
Arthur Penn, the aggressive director, has evidently gone out of his way to splash the comedy holdups with smears of vivid blood as astonished people are machine-gunned. And he has staged the terminal scene of the ambuscading and killing of Barrow and Bonnie by a posse of policemen with as much noise and gore as is in the climax of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre [Roger Corman, 1967].
This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr Penn and Mr Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap, which opened yesterday at the Forum and the Murray Hill.
This is the film that opened the Montreal International Festival! (37)
Similarly Page Cook’s account for Films in Review 18, No. 8, October 1967:
Bonnie and Clyde is so incompetently written, acted, directed and produced it would not be worth noticing were a claque not attempting to promote the idea that its sociopathology is art. […] there is evil in the tone of the writing, acting and direction of this film, the calculated effect of which is to incite in the young the delusion that armed robbery and murder are mere ‘happenings.’ (38)
Richard Schickel tried to explain both sides for readers of Life on 13 October 1967:
Everyone concerned keeps the violence which attended their activities casual, mindless, childlike. This has disconcerted many observers, but I think it is aesthetically correct, for it carries none of the sado-sexual overtones common in today’s representations of violence […]
The parallel between the middle 1930s and the middle 1960s is never too far from the minds of the movie’s creators. By stressing the ordinariness of the landscape and society that nurtured these thrill seekers, by making them comical rubes instead of glamorous jet-setters, the film’s makers manage to hit us more stingingly where we live than others who have tried to signal the same familiar message.
Why, then, the vague feeling of dissatisfaction which the film leaves? Partly it is the thumping emphasis on period costume, décor and music. It is all awfully cute and surely enhances the movie’s appeal as idle entertainment. But it dulls its cutting edge; what might have been a savage purging satire on an American watershed, an important starting point for much of what we now call ‘modern,’ often degenerates into an arch attempt to get us to giggle along with the gang […]
The trouble arises in the title roles, essayed by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. An A for effort – they seem honestly to be trying to give us that combination of basic moronism and class ignorance that created the vicious vacuity of the real Bonnie and Clyde. But, alas, they remain movie stars. Try as they will, they seem at all times to be just kidding, folks […]
In the last analysis, the film fails […] because those who carried the greatest weight of responsibility for it lacked the will and the nerve to follow their instincts and their intentions the final few steps of the way to fulfilment. What might have been a breakthrough for the American screen falls back in confusion at the final barriers to self-realization. (39)
In his review for Ramparts magazine in May 1968, Peter Collier correctly identified the film’s harking back to a different kind of hero, the frontiersman, when he pointed out the similar resurfacing of an ambiguous hero, Davy Crockett, in the 1950s, and the outlaw figures such as Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, who represent the idealised Wild West:
[…] many others like them are the stuff on which America’s wet dreams about its own moral fiber are based. And all of them return periodically in the mass media as guardians’ of the notion – probably more American than Maoist – that morality begins down the barrel of a gun, even though the finger on the trigger may be idealistically reluctant.
Collier points out that Bonnie and Clyde differ, however:
Mainly because nobody bothered to force them into the mold of inarticulate protectors of some kind of necessary order – the usual role for the resurrected Western hero […] Bonnie and Clyde have been dealt a greasy deck of cards and are playing the best game they can. But they deny the law without affirming a higher one. Their celluloid lives make no real criticism of the status quo that supposedly oppresses them. It is a myth of pop nihilism; it is Andy Warhol’s serial put-ons packaged in a dramatic context with all of Hollywood’s savvy behind it […] It is all there – but as window-dressing for fantasia. It is not Dorothea Lange, not even close, and it does no justice at all to the suffering she chronicled. History enters Bonnie and Clyde as a flippant background to make the already gorgeous characters also sympathetic, to provide a seemingly real milieu as a frame for their attempts to escape the mediocrity of a shattered world. The setting is used in much the same way that the world of advertising uses backgrounds: to create more or less subliminal presumptions in favor of what they’re trying to sell. […] the Bonnie and Clyde of the movie didn’t pay enough in terms of suffering to become tragic. (40)
Judith Crist commented favourably in her review for Vogue, which was otherwise quick to pick up the film’s influence on fashion:
With Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn firmly establish themselves as one of the most excitingly creative teams in American moviemaking […] where the fact ends and the fiction begins is no longer decipherable or very relevant to the brief history of the couple who posthumously won folk-hero status. What is relevant is that they were drifters, nobodies, yearning to be any kind of somebodies, rebels with no cause beyond the moment’s rebellion […] It is in retrospect that the pathos of this pair, so much a product of their time and so potentially to be paralleled in ours, is evident – and this evidence provides the particular distinction of what might well have been just another gangster movie, another glorification of violence and rebellion, another bit of lip-service to morality […] Warren Beatty, so often merely a promising performer, fulfils himself as Clyde, revealing every inward weakness and outward ferocity of the man for whom weapons and the driver’s wheel provide potency […] Naturalism – in characters and background – is the mark of this film in its technical perfections. Saturated in time and place, we are left with the universality of the theme and its particular contemporary relevance. And this is the triumph of Bonnie and Clyde. (41)
David Thomson in his unauthorised and semi-fictional biography of Warren Beatty highlights the film’s appeal:
This is the crucial American movie about love and death, lit up by fresh-air faces that have been burning underground for years, too much in the dark to admit, yes, we’re in love with death, let’s fuck death. But Bonnie and Clyde surpasses its early, easy claim that violence is aphrodisiac (Bonnie stroking Clyde’s casually offered, groin-crossing gun) and reaches the far more dangerous idea that death brings glory and identity. (42)
But why was the film ultimately such a success? The late David Newman thought he knew: “Every single person in that film desperately needed it to happen.” (43)
It grossed $23 million and was Warner Brother’s second biggest box-office hit to date, following My Fair Lady (George Cukor). When Time recanted, its Bonnie and Clyde cover was adorned with the banner: “The New Cinema – Violence… Sex… Art”
There may have been a handful of writers, but David Thomson is in no doubt as to who is the true author of Bonnie and Clyde:
What makes the movie so lastingly fascinating is the glimpse we get of a great seducer setting himself the hardest task, of withholding his most celebrated force and asking us to see that reputation, the mystery of being known, is what most compels him. It is the producer’s film, the imprint of his views about the world and himself. (44)
Thomson also traces the origins of Towne’s unusual credit on the film:
Towne will be credited on Bonnie and Clyde, in the head credits, as ‘Special Consultant’. It is a unique credit, and perhaps the best public rumor anyone in Hollywood has ever had. Benton and Newman get the screenplay credit. But it is Towne who writes some scenes fifty times for Penn, and for Warren. It is Towne who is on location and who sometimes even corrects a line reading. On a good and successful movie there is enough credit for everyone, but there is a battle for it, too. The idea was Benton and Newman’s. Much of the detailed craft is Towne’s. All three prosper from the film in terms of work, if not money. But it is Beatty who brings them together, and who keeps them all a little uneasy. (45)
Thomson continues on Towne’s perceived influence in the film’s complex weave:
[…] when Clyde first meets Bonnie he tells her to make a small alteration in her hair, dropping a cutesy curl for free fall. It does improve her, and it shows us Clyde as a producer of history. Maybe the scene comes from Towne seeing Beatty stroll among actresses adjusting hairstyles here and there, like a sultan becoming a genius. A film is full of details, and Beatty has learned in his movies so far that sometimes people are too tired or too casual or too bad to chase down all the details. (46)
Towne explained his involvement when speaking at the American Film Institute, on 22 January 1975:
It was a long process. I was on the film from about three weeks before we started shooting all the way through the shooting of the film. […] I don’t know what would have happened if it had been arbitrated, you know, if it had gone to the [Writers] Guild. At this point I couldn’t begin to say. It depends upon – I don’t remember specifically. The rules are that 33 per cent of it has to be changed, and I really can’t say what the final result would’ve been because it’s such a long time and I can’t remember everything that was done. But there was a certain feeling of guilt on everybody’s part because Benton and Newman were asked not to come down while the shooting was going on. And I think that Warren really – everybody felt a little bad about that. And I didn’t really think that much about it. And probably none of it would’ve ever been examined so closely if the film had not enjoyed the success that it had. But once it had, it kind of created a funny little problem for everybody in that way […] I thought it was a terrific script when I first read it, but it was kind of unformed. It was long. I thought it was enormously talented […] Remember the scene with the undertaker and Velma? You know? It’s a terrific scene which was really right from the original script. That was probably the one scene that was never touched at all. (47)
You told my story. You told my whole story, right there. One time I told you I’d make you somebody. That’s what you done for me.
– Clyde to Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde is a defining film of its era, a watershed for American cinema and film genre in the same way that Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock) had been seven years before. Christopher Wicking contextualises its effect thus:
It took John Boorman with Point Blank and Arthur Penn with Bonnie and Clyde to show that the intellectualisation of the thriller – filtered through the French new wave – had come full circle; the genre now reaches a new pinnacle. (48)
What Wicking is locating is the precise point at which American cinema began to question its origins, following a similar period in French cinema, which rediscovered its own powers by interpreting American culture and delivering it back to its original audience, gutted and reconstituted in quite startlingly different form.
David Thomson continues:
Bonnie and Clyde was the pivot of those changes […] The ‘French’ script for Bonnie and Clyde, its jittery mix of 30s folklore and 60s mood, Penn’s rapture and the chic bearing of the cast made a box-office coup. It promoted fashions, it challenged our feelings about violence, it launched Faye Dunaway, impressed one of the English champions of the auteur theory, Robin Wood. It also profited Warner Brothers, convinced Warren Beatty to be more than an actor and augured a new phase of movies that dealt in the experience (i.e. the thwarted fantasies) of the predominantly young audience. Two years later, the youth boom was cemented by the huge success of Easy Rider [Dennis Hopper]. (49)
Albert Johnson summed up the effects of the film for cinema in Film Quarterly 21, No. 2, Winter 1967-8:
The criticisms levelled against the film are chiefly based upon the writers’ constant utilization of laughter and farcical situations throughout this gore-laden story. However, it is this device that most distinguishes Bonnie and Clyde from all other gangster films and leaves one with a confirmed awareness that the director and the writers have deliberately created a unique pseudo-documentary style by which spectators could be entertained and astonished at the same time. It is the romantic imagination in this work that makes it such a distinguished American film. (50)
It is this element, the romantic imagination, that raises the film above the bar set by those films Chris Wicking has similarly elevated to the pivotal position of change in American cinema: the devastating final gunshots that kill hopeful youth in Bonnie and Clyde is nothing less than the death rattle of machine-gun fire into the coffin of old Hollywood.
Some people may be stimulated by violence but some people are also turned on by music. The important question is whether the work itself is good or bad art. I suppose violence can seem isolated and arbitrary, but even so, you can’t ‘censor’ bad art.
– Arthur Penn
Not least of the film’s resounding effects was its effect on censorship, since, as Douglas Jarvis points out, it “contained more blood and violence than had been seen before in a major movie” (51). Its clear insinuations of oral sex went unchallenged, however, and it is amongst the groundbreaking films of the era that is thought to have forced the introduction of the X-Rating by the MPAA in 1968, when the Production Code was finally lifted after almost four decades of repressive legislation for filmmakers. The film’s conspicuous evocation of the sensuality of violence was one of the principal reasons for its problematic reception on first release – and its influence on films during the next ten years or so would forever reflect its mixture of comedy and tragedy, sex and death, a pallet of complex and ambiguous emotional tones that would force American cinema to finally grow up.
Bonnie and Clyde was in the Film Daily Critics’ Top Ten Pictures of 1967 and the screenplay was awarded a New York Film Critics’ award. Estelle Parson was named Best Supporting Actress and Burnett Guffey was awarded Best Cinematography at that year’s Academy Awards. (It had received nine nominations, including Best Actor for Beatty, Best Actress for Dunaway, Best Director for Penn, Best Picture and Screenplay.) It was a kind of reluctant acceptance by the industry that had just had the rug pulled from underneath it.
The Outlaw Cycle
Bonnie and Clyde sparked a phenomenon more specific than the abstract atmosphere of chaos that pervaded the end of the 1960s: the outlaw film. This was a subset of the gangster film but had at its origin a more rural locale, and usually that of the Southwest, or more radically the South. It is populated by hillbillies, moonshiners, good ol’ country boys all. Amongst the group of films that fall into this category are:
The family that slays together, stays together.
– Bloody Mama
Bloody Mama (1970) was Roger Corman’s entry into the genre. An upfront portrayal of true public enemies, this film doesn’t make any attempt to prettify its protagonists or make them in any way sympathetic. Shelley Winters’ haglike persona would dog her later years as a performer, as she essays a blowsy woman whose start in life is coloured by the incestuous rape perpetrated by her brothers. (Her father’s motto is, “Blood is thicker than water.”) The film’s viciousness is almost Jacobean in its scale, and it remains a minor triumph of the genre.
The following year, Robert Aldrich entered the fray with The Grissom Gang (1971), a take on James Hadley Chase’s popular novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. While the film lacks the charm of Bonnie and Clyde, it similarly portrays the rural simplicity, if not total ignorance, of its unfortunate characters, as they embark on the foolhardy kidnapping of an heiress. Aldrich’s penchant for turning genre material inside out is exemplified in the way that the two leading characters ultimately reveal their sad vulnerability, a narrative trope exploited in the earlier film.
Some day I’d like to see some of this country we’re travelling through.
– They Live by Night
Easy Rider (1969) took the idea to its peak, with a pair of outlaws biking West to East, in opposition to the traditional idea of America’s founding narrative: their quest ends in conflagration, with the film itself burning up on screen. It was an image that reconfigured the idea of cinema.
Thieves Like Us (1973) was Robert Altman’s latest revisionist reading of the American genre. His remake of the earlier story with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall (it had been originally adapted from the Edward Anderson novel by Nicholas Ray) is a touching evocation of a trio of gangsters overly influenced by the 1930s media. It remains one of Altman’s finest films, never once delving into the bitter and cynical irony which can mar his films.
Badlands (1973) was Terrence Malick’s directing début. Like Towne, Malick was a script doctor, with a schooling in philosophy (albeit his work on Heidegger is a standard text on many university courses). The extraordinary breadth of vision lifted this couple on the run saga above the others. Set in the 1950s, with ready references to pop culture and a hilariously ironic voiceover borrowed from girls magazines, it made stars of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, and its music score is a byword for film composition.
The cycle would further spawn another group of 1970s films that would boast the same locales but, unlike Bonnie and Clyde, have sadism as a central narrative tenet: Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975) was probably the most notorious entry into this particular group of films, which had particular success in the drive-ins of the Southwest.
As David Thomson points out, Arthur Penn never quite capitalised on the success of his iconoclastic success:
[…] he didn’t cash in. He made movies more dismayed by Americana, stranger and more off-hand than the 1970s wanted. Night Moves (1975) and The Missouri Breaks (1976) have been condemned for obscurity and opportunism, respectively.
Thomson adds, presciently (writing in 1981), “They may well survive better than some films that were big hits in the 1970s.” (52) At time of writing, the latter film has just been re-released to critical rapture, while Night Moves is latterly appreciated as a key neo-noir.
Beatty meanwhile, would go on to carve an even more lucrative career as actor, producer, director and co-writer of a half-dozen or so films. He very rarely ventured to be directed by anyone he could not control and would often involve Robert Towne as script doctor on those screenplays that needed polishing during production. Towne ,meanwhile, would gather scriptwriting projects based on his by now legendary status, which would be copper-fastened a few years later on a memorable evening at the Academy Awards.
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ’N’ Drugs ’N’ Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 15.
- David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co, 2nd edition, 1990), p. 874.
- Lawrence Quirk, The Films of Warren Beatty (London: Citadel Press, 1990), p. 108.
- Ellis Amburn, The Sexiest Man Alive: A Biography of Warren Beatty (New York: Harper, 2002), p. 76.
- Tom Milne (Ed.), Time Out Film Guide (London: Penguin, 2nd edition, 1991), p. 682.
- Pauline Kael, Raising Kane and Other Essays (London: Marion Boyars, 1996), p. 114.
- Amburn, p. 87.
- John G. Cawelti, “Bonnie and Clyde: Tradition and Transformation”, in John G. Cawelti (Ed.), Focus on Bonnie and Clyde (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), p. 2.
- Quoted in American Desperadoes.
- David Thomson, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: Life and a Story (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 250.
- Amburn, p. 99.
- Amburn, p. 89.
- Towne, in John Brady, The Craft of the Screenwriter (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), p. 395.
- Amburn, p. 89.
- Towne, in Brady, p. 396.
- Towne in an interview with Peter Biskind, p. 33.
- Biskind, p. 32. Towne said, “It all centered around a ménage a trois between Bonnie, Clyde and C. W. in which Clyde was not just impotent. He was sort of a homosexual which involved him with C. W. or W. D. as he was originally called. Which was fine, it was kind of funny. But, at the time, I think there were two considerations. One was that I don’t know that Warners would’ve made it that way. The other is that in a funny way it got static. It got to be like a series of vaudeville routines – now they’re in bed with so and so, now they’re in bed with so and so. And it would be pretty hard to resolve in any serious way those relationships unless you wanted to do a whole movie about that. I mean, Jules and Jim takes a whole movie to resolve relationships between three people, and it would’ve been very difficult to do it. So, in a strange way, although those scenes were very amusing, they were very static and they didn’t go anywhere ultimately. And what was kind of valuable to do was to try and resolve the relationship between two people in the course of the film which, in the context of a film that had much action in it, that much going on, was quite a formidable task all by itself, just to resolve their relationship, take it from one point to another […] that’s when I think Arthur and Warren judged the script to really be in trouble because it was left kind of – it was vitiated and they didn’t know quite how to supply it and they were a little worried about it at the time. And that was when I was asked to come in on the thing.” Speaking at the American Film Institute, 22 January 1975. Transcript at the Louis B. Mayer Library, p. 23.
- Towne, in Brady, p. 397.
- Thomson, p. 254.
- Robert Towne, “A Screenwriter on Screenwriting”, in David Pirie (Ed.), Anatomy of the Movies: Inside the Film Industry: The Money: The Power: The People: The Craft: The Movies (London: Windward, 1981), pp. 150-1.
- Amburn, p. 97.
- David Thomson, p. 273.
- Speaking at the American Film Institute, 22 January 1975. Transcript at the Louis B. Mayer Library, pp. 23-4.
- David Thomson, p. 251.
- Amburn, p. 97.
- Amburn, p. 94.
- Faye Dunaway quoted in Amburn, pp. 94-5.
- Amburn, pp. 89-90.
- Quoted in Amburn, p. 90.
- Towne quoted in Thomson, p. 254.
- Kael, pp. 111-2.
- Kael, pp. 112-3.
- Amburn, p. 59.
- Joe Morgenstern in Newsweek as quoted in Amburn, p. 103.
- From The New York Times, 14 August 1967, reprinted in John G. Cawelti (Ed.).
- Reprinted in John G. Cawelti (Ed.), pp. 22-3.
- Reprinted in John G. Cawelti (Ed.), pp. 23-4.
- Reprinted in John G. Cawelti (Ed.), pp. 28-9.
- As quoted in Lawrence Quirk, p. 138.
- Thomson, p. 267.
- Quoted in American Desperadoes.
- Thomson, p. 271. Towne commented to Peter Rainer: “I would write during the day while they were shooting, so I could rarely get onto the set. I would meet with Arthur for dinner after I had seen the dailies […] and we’d talk over the work that I had done and he would make suggestions and point out alternative directions. He kept having me rewrite myself. I revered Arthur. We had a great working relationship, probably the best I’ve ever had. It was a real learning experience. I also got tagged as a rewrite man subsequently, the guy who could come in and fix up a script. I suppose I’d rather have a reputation for fixing things than messing things up. I do love to take apart scripts. I’ve learned that I have a certain facility for looking at a script and saying what didn’t make it work and what could make it work and then doing it. It doesn’t make you an artist, it’s a skill.” Peter Rainer, “Chinatown’s Robert Towne”, Mademoiselle, November 1974, p. 166.
- Thomson, p. 251.
- Thomson, p. 253.
- AFI transcript in the Louis B. Mayer Library, pp. 22, 24.
- Christopher Wicking, “Thrillers”, in Pirie (Ed.), p. 230.
- David Thomson, “Directors”, in Pirie (Ed.): p. 124.
- Reprinted in John G. Cawelti (Ed.), p. 32.
- Douglas Jarvis, Hollywood 1960s (London: Admiral Books, 1986), p. 77.
- Thomson, p. 124.