For a 1960s movie that’s become weighed down with legendary status as being controversial and groundbreaking, Bonnie and Clyde is still surprisingly fun to watch and, by its end, both shocking and moving. This mythmaker about real-life Depression-era bank robbers Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) managed to become both a metaphor for ’60s counterculture rebelliousness and a flash point for a national discussion on violence. Pretty amazing for a movie that was a commercial bomb in its initial release.
The film remains one wild, artful ride. Beatty and Dunaway are entrancing as the young hoodlums, while Gene Hackman (as Clyde’s hotheaded brother Buck) and Estelle Parsons (an Oscar winner as Buck’s screechy wife, Blanche) give unguarded, go-for-broke performances that charge a movie designed to explode like a bomb in the audience’s face. Holding it all together was director Arthur Penn, who took a first-time script by Manhattan magazine laborers Robert Benton and David Newman and transformed it into a raucous saga that blended humor, action, sexual tension, and a bloody final comeuppance that baffled and/or repelled its studio (Warner Bros.), the public, and most critics.
The violence in Bonnie and Clyde was something new in American cinema for the way Penn handled its shifting tones. Comic or romantic scenes might be followed by a bank robbery resulting in blood-spattered realism. The jaunty bluegrass theme music of Flatt & Scruggs’ ”Foggy Mountain Breakdown” suggested a romp, yet lured us into a climax then unequaled in big commercial movies for its graphic display of bullet-riddled carnage. Seen today, the film’s final showdown with the law is tame compared with the gore in, say, the Saw or Hostel franchises. But unlike with those films, you really become involved with these characters — and in Beatty’s and Dunaway’s case, their movie-star personas — and thus can still be startled and moved by their inglorious destruction on screen.
There are numerous extras on this two-disc DVD release, including a drab History Channel documentary about the real outlaws, and about seven minutes of a godlike-handsome Beatty posing for wardrobe fittings. There’s no commentary, and so the best bonus is the hour-plus ”Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde,” which managed to get fresh interviews with all the important participants. I never get tired of hearing stories about Beatty as a producer-manipulator (and he tells a few himself) — he’s a man who raised the quality of indecision and perfectionism to a wily art. For once, when someone spouts a highfalutin phrase like ”ballet of death,” as Benton does here, he ain’t just whistlin’ bluegrass — this is an elegant doozy that resonates even now. A