Producer Warren Beatty’s ambition for an association with the nouvelle vague led him to submit the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde, by Robert Benton and David Newman, to Godard and Truffaut, each of whom in turn declined to direct. Leslie Caron, Beatty’s sexual partner at the time, had urged the project forward on the presumption that she would be Bonnie Parker to Beatty’s Clyde Barrow. Arthur Penn ended up directing the blood-splattered slapstick comedy about Depression-era bank robbers. Brilliantly edited by Dede Allen, the result leaned heavily on American landscapes whipping past automobile windows like fast, dying breaths. Following the French lead, the film kept on the move, much of its principal action playing out in cars.
Coincidentally, the best Bonnie-&-Clyde film would come from France: Manuel Pradal’s Marie Baie des Anges (1997). Sentimentalized and romanticized, Penn’s version is monotonous, tedious and shallow. Outbursts of violence, whether directed by the Barrow gang or against the gang by authorities, pump up the flatness, break up the tedium like a Texas gusher.
The acting is superficial. Mabel Cavitt is briefly heartrending, however, as Parker’s mom, and Faye Dunaway makes Bonnie’s body expressively limber.
Is there a point to this film? Yes—and the persistent theme is not wanton pursuit of excitement. Rather, it is the craving by anonymous, voiceless American souls for a sense of importance, a voice that’s “heard.”* Courting media attention (hence their crimes, staged photographs, Bonnie’s doggerel “Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”), Bonnie and Clyde want to believe they matter. It is the point of the film’s best shot: Bonnie, in a movie theater, watching Ginger Rogers and, although Dunaway elsewhere looks nothing like Rogers, looking eerily like her here as Bonnie dreams herself into the gigantic-screen Rogers and dreams Rogers into herself.
* Next stop: an astute presidential candidate’s courting of “the silent majority.”
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