American film history was forever altered at about the 30-minute mark of Bonnie and Clyde.
You probably remember the scene. Bonnie, Clyde and getaway driver C.W. Moss pull up to rob a bank. As the lovers get the loot, C.W. looks around and can't believe his luck: a parking space! He parallel parks the getaway car, leaving Bonnie and Clyde to wonder where in the world he went. As the three frantically pull away they mash into the cars in front and behind. It's the funniest scene in the movie, even if it didn't happen to the real life robbers.
But the levity doesn't last long. A silver-haired bank employee hops up on the car's running board. Clyde doesn't hesitate to shoot him in the eye, through his spectacles, and director Arthur Penn doesn't flinch from the blood splatter. We see the gunshot and the impact in the same shot. Within seconds we've swerved from hilarity to sudden, shocking violence. American cinema had never seen anything like it.
It's the first of many radical tone shifts in the movie, which will have a special 50th-anniversary screening March 30 to kick off the Dallas International Film Festival. We may be inured to screen violence by now. But at the time, when Hollywood hadn't yet cast away its censorious Production Code, when movies were still largely mired in the past, it was a shock to the system. And that's just the way the filmmakers planned it.
"When we wrote Bonnie and Clyde, that was a point when American films were moribund," says Robert Benton, the Oak Cliff native who wrote the script with his Esquire magazine colleague David Newman. Benton will introduce the film at the festival's opening night, and he'll be the guest of honor at the Dallas Film Society's Art of Film fundraising dinner the night before. Faye Dunaway, who reached stardom and fashion icon status as Bonnie, will also attend the screening, and will receive the festival's Dallas Star Award.
"The films we kept seeing that were the most exciting were the Italian and French films, particularly the films of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard," Benton says. "We decided to write a French-American movie, which had a very different moral attitude than most American movies of the time."
Like many '60s cinephiles, Benton and Newman were enamored of the French New Wave. Their touchstone was Godard's 1960 gangster film, Breathless. "That film's approach to a guy who's a thug was a very different approach than you would have seen in an American film. We were influenced by not just the style of the French films, but also their moral ambiguity."
They wanted to bring the New Wave's stylish self-consciousness and eager rule-breaking to the American screen. Their dream director was Truffaut, who came close to accepting. They flirted a little with Godard, who also passed. Then Warren Beatty signed on to produce, and he brought along Penn, who had directed Beatty in the experimental gangster movie Mickey One.
And the rest is film history.
Bonnie and Clyde, shot in and around the Dallas area, is the central piece of DIFF's tribute to 1967. That was a year when the movies began lurching away from traditionalism and toward what would eventually be called the New Hollywood. The studio system was all but gone. The Vietnam War raged. Hungry young filmmakers gained increased access to the industry, and hungry young audiences wanted something different, something resembling the stylistic and thematic audacity emerging from overseas.
The time was right for a sharp edge. Bonnie and Clyde wielded a broadsword.
Other movies in DIFF's 1967 tribute include Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Camelot, Cool Hand Luke, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, David Holzman's Diary and The Jungle Book. As that list suggests, the industry hadn't abandoned schmaltz completely. It's safe to say 1967 was a transitional year, wedged somewhere between the quiet and the storm.
Film historian and critic Mark Harris literally wrote the book on 1967 Hollywood. His Pictures at a Revolution (2008) zooms in on that year's five Oscar-nominated movies, which included Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night and — wait for it — Doctor Doolittle. (In the Heat of the Night won).
Harris sums up the contenders thusly: "Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were game changers, movies that had originated far from Hollywood and had grown into critics' darlings and major popular phenomena; In the Heat of the Night, a drama about race, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a comedy about race, were middle-of-the-road hits that had, with varying degrees of success, extended a long tradition by addressing a significant social issue within the context of their chosen genres; and Doctor Doolittle was a universally dismissed children's musical that most observers felt had bought its way to the final five."
Thank you, DIFF, for not showing Doctor Doolittle.
Bonnie and Clyde ended up winning Oscars for best supporting actress (Estelle Parsons) and best cinematography (Burnett Guffey). One of the film's eight additional nominations went to Benton and Newman's original screenplay, the foremost fount of Bonnie and Clyde's radical departures.
But Penn, the director, was well attuned to the writers' desire to break new ground, especially in depicting violence. "With respect to Bonnie and Clyde and my other films...I would have to say that I think violence is a part of the American character," the director said after the movie premiered at the Montreal Film Festival.
Without the precedent of Bonne and Clyde's incendiary climax, in which the antiheroes' bodies are riddled with bullets, it's hard to imagine the balletic, no-holds-barred bloodshed of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, which arrived two years later. Without Bonnie and Clyde's blurred lines between violence and comedy it's hard to fathom Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. That moment when Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, and you don't know whether to laugh or gasp? Inconceivable without Bonnie and Clyde.
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"We made a very conscious decision to keep the audience off balance," Benton says. "We wanted them to always remember we had an empathetic response to these people. The film has those radical swings, because in the life of an outlaw you never knew what was coming next."
Some critics weren't quite ready, either. Prominent scribes, including the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, slammed the film, particularly its violence. Joe Morgenstern, then with Newsweek, ripped it as well, then, sensing he had missed the boat, saw it again and reversed field. The tide turned slowly. As Harris writes, "In early December, sixteen weeks after Bonnie and Clyde opened, the movie made the cover of Time magazine."
Bonnie and Clyde helped transform an industry and caught lightning in a bottle. The heat still lingers fifty year later.
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The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 30-April 9. The Art of Film dinner is March 29. For more information, visit dallasfilm.org.