|How do you begin to describe the shockwaves this movie sent through Hollywood back in 1967? Well, fortunately, that's already been done in Peter Biskind's excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a history of the "New Hollywood" with each chapter more or less focusing on a single film for each year of the decade many now talk about as a "golden age." And for Biskind, the 70s started in '67 with this movie.
There are a couple of reasons it rattled Hollywood's cage, but mainly, director Arthur Penn summed it up best at the time: "We're in the Vietnamese War, this film cannot be immaculate and sanitized and bang-bang. It's fucking bloody."
But of course, it was more than that. Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman turn out to be pretty quotable, too: "The thing we loved about Bonnie and Clyde wasn't that they were bank robbers, because they were lousy bank robbers. The thing about them that made them so appealing and relevant, and so threatening to society, was that they were aesthetic revolutionaries."
For me, the movie is a key turning point in an ongoing dialogue between European and American moviemaking. Broadly sketched: after WWII, Europe was deluged with American product. In France, Truffaut and Godard in particular ate it up and spit it back out, shot through with all kinds of spunky new life. And they were particularly wild about the gangster genre.
Well, Benton and Newman were big Truffaut and Godard fans. They saw Breathlesstogether in 1963; Benton watched Jules and Jim12 times in two months. And they wrote Bonnie and Clydein the hopes that Truffaut would direct it.
Nothing against Truffaut, of course, but I'm glad Warren Beatty tapped Arthur Penn instead. Not only is he an enormously inventive and intuitive director -- my favorite scene: the moment, the mere split-second of silence when our two anti-heroes realize they're about to be literally blown to bits; and look at each other with that this is itlook -- but Penn simply got into the nooks and crannies of an America Truffaut wouldn't have known to look for.
One last point. The "New Hollywood" probably would have happened with or without this movie, but Bonnie and Clydecertainly jump-started it. Besides opening doors to fresh filmmakers, though, it also helped launch the career of the "NH"s most important cheerleader, Pauline Kael. She submitted a 1000-word rave to The New Republic, and when it was rejected, she went to The New Yorkerwith it (look for it in the indispensible For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies).
So the stage was set. Young talent, weened on 60s counterculture, would take their projects to LA while, from her perch in NYC, Kael would harangue the upper and middle classes looking for countercultural cred into creating a market for their work. A perfect match.
Because these filmmakers and Kael were after the same thing. It's all in Kael's stand-out line from her review of B and C: "The audience is alive to it." That, more than spectacle, more than craft, more than professionalism, was the one dominant criterion. Aesthetic revolution indeed.