BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) revisited

October 25, 2013

bonnie1 Dramatizations focusing on real life people, be they famous or infamous, require a certain mindset from the viewer.  First, understand that it’s not a documentary.  What you see may be different than what you have read.  Second, expect the filmmakers to take some dramatic license in order to add interest and color to the story.  All of this is in play for the wonderful and classic Bonnie and Clyde from 1967.

To put this time period into perspective, know that the movie was released 46 years ago, and depicts a period during the Great Depression that was approximately 32 years prior to filming.  That’s correct. The film’s release date was closer in time to the Great Depression than today is to the film’s release date. It’s also important to note that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were 23 and 24, respectively, at the time of their violent deaths at the 1934 Gibsland Ambush.  Their ages and the times certainly played a role in their reckless ways and poor judgment.

bonnie 3 Sadly, there is a generation of movie-goers who have little knowledge of Warren Beatty’s place in Hollywood history … or worse, their only recollection is of his clunky political rapping in 1998’s Bulworth.  By 1967, Beatty was already a heartthrob and up-and-coming actor, but it’s his role and contract as producer of Bonnie and Clyde that set him up as a Hollywood power player (not to mention, financially set for life).  His 40% of gross pay plan has made him tens of millions over the years.  In addition to his producer duties, Beatty is at his physical peak here … a glamorous actor going all out in a career-defining role. Pictured left, is the real Bonnie and Clyde.

Faye Dunaway plays Bonnie as first, a bored youngster who comes to life due to the danger and sexual attraction she senses with Clyde.  She then transitions into a spirited woman very comfortable with the spotlight of notoriety and fully understanding how to pull the strings of her man.  Dunaway’s career is best marked by her work as Bonnie, and her roles in Chinatown and Network … though many know her best as the mother with an aversion to wire hangers.

There are three writers associated with the film: David Newman (he also wrote the Christopher Reeve Superman scripts), Robert Benton (Oscar winner for Kramer v Kramer and Places in the Heart) and Robert Towne (known best for his Oscar winning Chinatown script).  Mr. Benton was inspired by the fact that his father had attended the Texas funerals of both Bonnie and Clyde. The basic outline is based on the true stories – Joplin, Missouri; Ruston, Louisiana; Texas Ranger Frank Hamer; the numerous stolen cars; the role of Clyde’s brother and his wife; the visit to Bonnie’s mother; and even Bonnie’s poem “The Trail’s End” (aka The Story of Bonnie and Clyde).  But as expected, many liberties are taken.  Unlike in the movie, bonnie 2Frank Hamer never crossed paths with Bonnie and Clyde prior to the final ambush.  Blanche (played by Estelle Parsons) was very upset at her portrayal after seeing the movie … she claims to have not been such a lunatic.  The CW Moss character is actually an amalgam of drivers affiliated with the gang.  Also, there is no mention of the horrible accident that left Bonnie’s legs badly burned … to the point where Clyde had to carry her everywhere those last few months. Pictured left is the famous photo of Bonnie with cigar and gun.

Director Arthur Penn was an Oscar winner and also gave us such fine films as The Miracle Worker (1962), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), and Little Big Man (1970). He and Beatty had many arguments while on set, but the finished project is packed with energy, emotion and action. Beatty and Dunaway give us an engaging couple with a dark destiny.  Excellent support work is provided by Gene Hackman (as Clyde’s brother Buck), Michael J Pollard (as CW Post), Denver Pyle (as Frank Hamer), Dub Taylor (as CW’s dad), Evans Evans (the real life wife of director John Frankenheimer), Gene Wilder (in his film debut), Mabel Cavitt (as Bonnie’s mom, she was literally yanked from the group of Red Oak, Texas onlookers during filming), and Patrick Cranshaw (you might know him as Blue in Old School). It should also be noted that the violence displayed was groundbreaking at the time. The use of squibs … packets of stage blood used to enhance the gunfights … were used generously throughout.  Previously, gunshot wounds rarely had blood shown onscreen.

The film received 8 Oscar nominations with wins for Estelle Parsons (Best Supp Actress) and Burnett Guffey (Cinematographer). The Best Picture winner that year was In the Heat of the Night, and nominations also went to The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  This was one of the first 100 movies inducted into The National Film Registry, and it brought Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs into the mainstream with their “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”.  Initially released as a “B” movie playing drive-ins, things changed dramatically once critic Pauline Kael’s raving review was published in The New Yorker.

this is not the most artistic trailer, but it will give you a taste of the film’s style:

CHINATOWN (1974) revisited

May 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The latest of the monthly 1970’s film screenings hosted by Dallas Film Society and The Dallas Morning News was the classic Chinatown.   It was shocking to see 35-40% of the hands go up when host Chris Vognar asked how many had never seen the film.  I felt a combination of guilt, pride and envy since my viewings number approximately 15 or 16, not counting “pit stops” while channel surfing.  This is truly a classic film that should be seen by all lovers of movies.

This is a chance to see the work of three film greats at their absolute peak: Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski (director) and Robert Towne (writer).  I have previously discussed Nicholson’s work in the 70’s (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail,Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  He is so confident and assured and expert in his manner and delivery.  It is so much fun to watch the perfect actor in the perfect role.  Regardless of what you may think of Roman Polanski the man, he is unquestionably an excellent director (Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer).  His visual flair is on full display with cars, wardrobe, colors, and camera angles.  It is obvious he adores the source material.  Robert Towne has some terrific screenplays on his resume (The Last Detail, Shampoo), but none better than this one.  Along with Network (Paddy Chayefsky), this is one of my two favorite screenplays of all-time.  It is outstanding!

 Some people refer to this as “the Nose movie”, thanks to the scene where Polanski, in a cameo as a tough guy, teaches Nicholson a lesson about sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. What I love about the story and the movie is that we are along with Gittes (Nicholson) for the whole thing.  There are no shortcuts … no narrators … no flashbacks … we get to solve the mysteries right along with him.  Too many movies make it easy for the viewer.  I prefer to work a little.  And trust me, this one makes you work.  Is it a whodunit?  Is it a kidnapping?  Is it a political power play for control of water?  Is it just outright corruption?  The answer is YES to all of these!

 If you have seen it before, watch it again and pay attention to the absolutely perfect mood score from Jerry Goldsmith.  Check out the wardrobe – the number of suits worn by Nicholson is crazy.  The same holds true for Faye Dunaway’s dresses.  Pay attention to the multiple “eye” references right up to the final two … Dunaway in the car and John Huston shielding his “granddaughter” from the grisly scene.  You may have missed the supporting work from John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Rance Howard (Ron’s dad), Burt Young (Paulie in Rocky) and James Hong.  James Hong?  If you are a “Seinfeld” fan, you’ll recognize him from the Chinese Restaurant scene where he pages “Cartwright”.  Especially pay attention to the powerful performance of John Huston as Noah Cross.  And no matter how many times you have watched it, the “nose” scene will still make you cringe.

If you have never seen the film, I urge you to set aside some time to watch this classic.  Don’t allow yourself to be distracted.  Take it all in and then … “Forget it Jake.  It’s Chinatown.

THE LAST DETAIL (1973) revisited

March 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Last evening I attended the second film in the monthly 1970’s series being presented by the Dallas Film Society, Landmark Magnolia Theatre and Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.  This one happens to be one of my all-time favorites and one that seems to have been forgotten by many … THE LAST DETAIL.

It would be easy enough to understand how the film has drifted into oblivion and become just another one of the many fine films that were born during an incredibly prolific and ground-breaking era, if not for these factors:

1. It received 3 Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson); Best Supporting Actor (Randy Quaid); Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Towne)

2. It features what may be Jack Nicholson’s finest performance, and certainly one of his top 5.

3. The screenplay was written by the great Robert Towne from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan

4. The film was directed by the beloved (but troubled) Hal Ashby, who had a remarkable string of films that garnered a very faithful following

5. Its humor and poignancy hold up very well today as evidenced by last night’s audience response

 Admittedly, I have always viewed this as a “Guy’s movie” – one of those movies that guys love to quote and girls love to hate.  The audience last night was at least one-third female and the overall response was very strong, especially from those who had not previously seen the movie.  Sure, there was one lady who called the film “despicable”, but as Mr. Vognar pointed out, she was probably bringing her own values and morals into the story. 

To do that is to miss the point entirely.  No denying, there is an enormous amount of booze, fighting, shoplifting, prostitution and swearing.  Oh my, the amount and severity of swearing never ceases to amaze. What’s important to note, and has been stated by Mr. Towne on numerous occasions, these are lifelong military men who feel trapped and powerless most of their waking hours.  The swearing and bravado serve as their defense mechanism … their last grasp of independence. 

Though I have seen the film numerous times over the years, I was struck by two things last night.  First, Randy Quaid’s performance brings an incredible amount of humanity and sympathy to a character that demanded a certain approach.  Many actors would have over-played it, but 22 year old Quaid’s baby-face works magic in the scenes where we see the two hard-nosed sailors begin to soften their stance.  Second, Otis Young as Mulhall showed much more range than I had remembered.  He is the perfect centerpiece between Nicholson and Quaid.  As a side note, this was Gilda Radner‘s big screen debut and a couple of years before the birth of Saturday Night Live.

 A quick note on Nicholson.  This is a far different Nicholson than what we have seen recently in The Bucket List or Something’s Gotta Give.  He was coming off a star-making turn in Five Easy Pieces and was on his way to Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This is a great actor at his absolute peak.  Sure, there is the infamous “I am the bleepity-bleep Shore Patrol” outburst in the bar, but more impressive are his scenes on the trains, or at the picnic.  Great stuff.

Lastly, I’ll mention director Hal Ashby.  His string of fabulous “little” films include Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There … each quirky, but incredibly insightful, and proof of just what a fine filmmaker he was.

Next month’s screening is the political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View.  It was directed by Alan Pakula and stars Warren Beatty.  For all you youngsters, there was a time when Warren Beatty was Hollywood royalty and not just the old guy who hangs around Annette Bening.