You can catch a double feature of BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE WILD BUNCH at the Stateside Theatre (next door to the Paramount) tonight. In case you can't make it, here are my film notes.
In the late 1960s, there was revolution in the air. Everywhere you looked, something new, radical and groundbreaking was taking place. Protests against the war in Vietnam were reaching fever peak while popular music, clothing fashions, hairstyles, books, television, art, comics and more morphed right before our eyes as new ideas, concepts and styles came into vogue. It was out with the old and in with the new on a grand scale.
Change was also taking place on the screens of movie theaters across the country. A good case can be made that was the tipping point in cinema history when “movies” became “films”. The great golden age of cinematic experimentation that flowered in the 1970s with the debuts of such influential filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and others, grew from the seeds that were planted in the late ‘60s. For starters, the studio system, long the standard model for film production and distribution, was for all intents and purposes, dead. The major studios that remained in business in the late 1960s were using their studios and sound stages to produce more and more television shows in addition to motion pictures and some studios served more as simply distributors for films that had been produced by outside, independent parties.
In addition to the way films were made and distributed, the content and subject matter of movies were undergoing a sea change. More and more adult themes were being openly explored. Sex in the cinema was no longer strictly taboo, although major changes in the way sexuality was displayed in films were still a few years off. But the depiction of cinematic violence was about to be blown away by the explicit and extreme bloodletting depicted in the two films on display here. Up to this point in film history, gory movie violence was relegated strictly to grind house and drive-in exploitation films. These two landmark works changed that paradigm forever.
The story of legendary depression era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had been used as cinematic fodder several times over the years. Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) has parallels to the duos’ story and the more in-your-face The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), was a cheap exploitation film. The best use of the Bonnie and Clyde material in a film prior to 1967 remains director Joseph Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1949), a classic film noir that featured two doomed lovers on the run and dazzlingly camerawork.
Bonnie and Clyde was a point blank blast from both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun. Warren Beatty (who also produced the film) stars as the sexually impotent Clyde, while Faye Dunaway makes an appealing Bonnie. The real-life couple was nowhere near this sexy and glamorous and although Beatty and Dunaway give good performances, it’s hard to ever buy into them completely as Depression era desperadoes. They’re just too pretty, too much “movie star” to really bring the characters to life. Secondary actors Gene Hackman, as Clyde’s brother Buck and Estelle Parsons as Buck’s wife, Blanche, bring more believability to their roles.
The film plays fast and loose with the historical facts: Michael J. Pollard’s character is a composite of several of Bonnie and Clyde’s running buddies, Beatty and Dunaway meet as adults at the beginning of the film when in reality the couple knew each other for years before turning to crime, it’s unclear what a Texas Ranger (Pyle) is doing in Missouri in the film but the real-life Frank Hamer never met Bonnie and Clyde until he helped gun them down, and the duo’s career is compressed with several major crimes and murders omitted.
But what Bonnie and Clyde gets right is the period detail. The cars, the clothes, the look of small-town Depression era America is perfectly captured. One of the most controversial elements of the film was its’ whipsawing between light and dark. Moments of shocking violence (with one brief shot echoing Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925)) are followed by scenes of light comedy and the action is punctuated by a bluegrass score that is authentic to the era. One standout scene is the visit to the Parker family. The sequence, shot in a soft-focus style, is a poetic harbinger of the grim fate that awaits Bonnie and Clyde and lets us know that their lives will not end well. And when that end comes, it is shown in what was at the time, some of the most explicit cinematic violence ever filmed.
Bonnie and Clyde received ten Academy Award nominations including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Beatty), Best Actress (Dunaway), Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), Best Supporting Actor (Pollard), Best Supporting Actress (Parsons, winner), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography (winner). Bonnie and Clyde ranks number forty-two on the American Film Institute’s list of the best one-hundred films of the last one-hundred years.
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a blood-soaked elegy for both the end of an historical era and the end of the traditional movie western. The outlaw gang known as “the wild bunch” are men who are past their prime, 19th century desperadoes on a collision course with the world of the early 20th century who find that there’s no place left in society for over-the-hill bandits and killers. As in many other westerns (and crime films), the gang decides to pull one last job and retire. Fate plays them a different hand.
William Holden is the leader of the gang which is comprised primarily of Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Ernest Borgnine. Robert Ryan is a former member of the gang who has turned bounty hunter and is stalking the bunch for the reward money. The bunch execute a spectacularly staged bank robbery in the film’s opening sequence and cross the border into Mexico where they run afoul of Mapache, a double-crossing Mexican warlord. Caught between the murderous Mapache and the rapacious bounty hunters, the bunch has nowhere left to run. When Angel, a young member of the gang, is taken prisoner by Mapache, the bunch decide to follow their rough code of honor and loyalty and free their friend while killing as many Mexican soldiers as possible.
The climactic sequence of the film, the legendary “Battle of Bloody Porch” is one of the greatest set-pieces in film history. Brilliantly and brutally staged, Peckinpah, director of photography Lucien Ballard and editor Lou Lombardo combine their talents and expertise to deliver a gun battle that is pitched on an operatic scale. It was shocking at the time and it still packs a visceral punch but it’s a fitting end for the bunch.
The Wild Bunch received two Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score. It ranks number seventy-nine on the American Film Institute’s list of one hundred best films of the last one hundred years.