Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Bonnie & Clyde (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gushes about the wealth of great cinema that he was lucky to cover at the beginning of his career as a critic. He writes, “The big events of that period were movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The French New Wave had reached America. TIME magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover. A few months later they did a piece about me in their Press section, headlined ‘Populist at the Movies.’ Pauline Kael had started at the New Yorker, and movie critics were hot. It was a honey of a job to have at that age.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life. […] Years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s, showing with sadness, humor and unforgiving detail what one society had come to.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times
A lot of people tend to think of critics, especially the higher profile examples, as self-important blowhards, but, just like with all generalizations, that’s often not the case. Roger Ebert, for example, made a point to be a populist at the cinema, a contrast to stuffy, self-important counterpoints like his colleague & good friend Gene Siskel. As much as Ebert loved to talk about himself in reporting his experiences at the cinema, he often took on an air of self-deprecation that would diffuse any claims that he was a pompous blowhard. One of his most often repeated claims to humility was his contention that his success as a writer was mostly due to the blind luck opportunity presented by becoming a film critic during one of cinema’s most exciting & creatively rewarding eras, a period known now as New Hollywood. I’d argue that Roger was an immensely talented writer who would’ve found a high-profile outlet for his work no matter when or where he was working, but it’s at least somewhat true that he benefited from happening to come into his own during the era of fresh names like Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin, De Palma, and Bogdanovich. Ebert was on the ground floor with a lot of auteurs we still consider The Greats & the rise of New Hollywood was extremely fortuitous for his career. And it was an industry upheaval that many credit starting with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde.
Looking back in a modern context, it might not be instantly recognizable why Bonnie & Clyde was such a big deal. After the oppressive censorship of the long-running Hays Code, however, the film’s unapologetic sex & violence was downright revolutionary, tapping into the youthful rebellion that would soon swell into a fever pitch in the form of race riots & hippie counterculture. An oddly loving account of the real-life bank robbers of its namesake, the film gleefully indulges in portraying beautiful people behaving badly, signaling the return of the antihero to American cinemas, something that had been largely missing since the heyday of noir. As with most New Hollywood fare, and keeping in line with its real-life source material, Bonnie & Clyde doesn’t provide a happy ending for its band of ramshackle misfits. However, it does seem to celebrate its Hollywood-beautiful characters played by in-their-prime Faye Dunaway & Warren Beatty as they goof off, shoot people in the face, go to the movies, and steal from The Man. There’s an undeniable sense of fun in the film’s violence & chaos that may be lost or dulled in this post-Tarantino world we’re living in, but was striking enough in 1967 to spark a filmmaking revolution.
One thing that certainly hasn’t faded with time is the triumphant feeling of getting one over on the evil of predatory banks. This summer’s surprise critical hit Hell or High Water alone proves that audiences are still hungry for this time of revenge-on-the-system thriller. Bonnie & Clyde is much lighter & narratively slighter than that film, however (and to its benefit, in my opinion), as the story of its characters’ demise is historically predetermined. There’s some grappled-with issues & consequences like Bonnie’s familial guilt & Clyde’s apparent asexuality, as well as a rising tension when The Barrow Gang expands its ranks (and, thus, dilutes its profits), but for the most part the story is remarkably straightforward & light on its feet. I imagine the reason the film resonated with young folks of its time was less to do with its dramatic deft & more tied to its depictions of beautiful people eating burgers, sharing Cokes, robbing banks, murdering comps, and making out in the getaway car to a frantic banjo soundtrack. You know, typical teen stuff. In retrospect, the film’s shenanigans might not play as especially radical, but in the context of its time it’s a total game-changer that shaped the course of cinema for the decades of anti-hero narratives that followed.
This most recent watch was my second viewing of Bonnie & Clyde. Not much changed for me in the revisitation, other than knowing where the story & tone were going freed me to focus a little more on the strength of its performances. Beatty & Dunaway are radiant in their lead roles and they find great counterparts in smaller roles filled by actors like Gene Hackman & Michael J. Pollard. It’s near impossible to discuss the film at this particular moment in time, however, without at least mentioning the debut performance of the recently departed, irreplaceable talent Gene Wilder. Even in his screen presence’s infancy Wilder has an incredibly intense nervousness & mania that’s just barely contained by its falsely calm surface. If you’re looking for a title to return to in mourning the one-of-a-kind actor and have already exhausted obvious titles like Willy Wonka & Young Frankenstein, there’s enough promise & energy in his bit role as a temporary hostage in Bonnie & Clyde to justify a look, however brief. Wilder’s youth is just one seed of rebellious cinema to come lurking in Bonnie & Clyde’s arsenal. The film is well deserving of its status as a New Hollywood instigator & an act of cinematic defiance. Roger Ebert was indeed lucky to start his career as a critic on such creatively fertile ground.
Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)
Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)
Next Lesson: The Graduate (1967)