Way back in the Summer of 1997, Will Smith was showing he was King of the summer Blockbuster with the first Men in Black, America was suddenly smitten with a mop-headed trio of brothers who MMMbopped their way into our hearts, and AFI did their first-ever television special: 100 Years, 100 Films. I was so excited that amid the usually brainless movie period of the summer, people were actually talking about real films. I was still in my early teens and though I had heard of most of the films they were talking about, had not seen them all. Being the list-obsessed, movie-lover that I am, I decided that it was paramount that I see all 100 films. I used to rent about 5 videos (!) at a time from Blockbuster (remember that place?) and watch them down in my basement. I was my own film education seminar.
One of the films on that list (#27) was the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, which is the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series at The Film Experience. I can remember watching it in my basement all those years ago, but I couldn't really recall it in its entirety. Sure, I remember the famous scene at the end when the two are gunned down in a rain of bullets–twitching and bloody. That was the whole reason for the success of the film. It was groundbreaking in its depiction of violence (it seemed fitting that I re-watched it yesterday on the birthday of Quinten Tarantino. A man who revolutionized cinematic violence for a new generation). But, no other images really stood out in my memory. So, I felt as if I was watching it with fresh eyes and waited to see if something else would strike a chord.
I was immediately struck by the opening credits sequence. A series of Depression Era photographs flash onto the screen with no sound other than the clicking of a camera (meant to reference the quick-fire sounds of a gun?) and the title cards of the stars' names as the text change from the color of a yellowed photograph to blood red. Those images set the tone for the film and wordlessly establish a time and place. Even before we've encountered our doomed lovers, we can already see why they would take to a life of crime. Life was hell and you had to do what you had to get by.
As those images give way to the close-up shot of Faye Dunaway's painted mouth, we are taken from the grim reality of those photos and into the glossy world of the film–a place where sex and violence commingle to create a notoriety that will elevate Bonnie and Clyde from the fate of the people in the pictures. No death of starvation and poverty for them, but to end in a blaze of glory.
And speaking of blazes, those early scenes with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty have a cracking sexuality that was making my screen steam up. They're both so young and dewy. They kept looking at each other as hungrily as the camera is them. At one point as they're getting to know each other, they share some bottles of Coke together. The way Dunaway had her lips on that bottle...it's a good thing the Hays Code was no longer utilized. I read that at some point Beatty's real-life sister, Shirley MacLaine was being considered for the part of Bonnie. That would have been awkward. It's no wonder Clyde takes to shooting and bank robbing when we learn he's unable to perform with Bonnie. All that foreplay build-up has got to find some kind of release.
So, the duo set out together as outlaws in a series of vignettes that don't entirely flow together into a cohesive storyline. They pick up a slow mechanic named CW that has one of those faces that doesn't age, mainly because he looks like an old man already even in his 20s. They are joined by Clyde's brother (Gene Hackman!) and his wife played by Estelle Parsons in an Academy Award-winning role (her?). Her performance and voice are so shrill and grating, I'm gonna have nightmares whenever I remember it. At one point Gene Wilder is taken hostage as well. It's all just a series of unfortunate events that lead up to inevitable massacre. Which, even by today's standards is pretty intense.
But, what I kept coming back to was those photographs at the beginning of the movie. The camera plays a huge part in the film and really of building the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. The camera, no longer an expensive luxury where you had to go to a studio to have your picture taken, was now apart of everyday life in the 30s. And with that came the power to make yourself a celebrity. In fact, the reason Bonnie and Clyde became the legends that they are is because of a series of photographs that the media published (recreated as a scene in the movie), in which Bonnie poses with a cigar in her mouth and a gun in her hand. The iconic image of the gun-toting moll and her lover gave off an element of danger and sex appeal. And what sells a story more?
As great as those images are though, the shots that stuck with me– and the ones I ultimately decided on– are those that recreate the grittiness in the photographs at the beginning of the opening credits. Bonnie and Clyde have been sleeping in an abandoned house that has been seized by the bank after foreclosure. The previous owners discover the two as they have shooting practice with his now-gone property. The man tells Clyde this used to be his home. Bonnie and Clyde look out at where his family is to see this:
They're such composed shots that really capture how down-trodden people were in the Depression. That image of the mother and child reminds me so much of Dorothea Lange's famous image from that era that you know the filmmakers used it as a reference. It's a fleeting, but haunting image. And with this scene we're able to see the humanity of Bonnie and Clyde. How do you root for people when they rob and kill? But the looks on the outlaws' faces after they see what their fate could be says it all–they're doing it for them. To give the put-upon something to believe in.