Scorsese’s Search for His Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.

Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.

1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.

Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Mickey One (1965)

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three star

“I couldn’t be funny if my life depended on it . . . And it did.”

Two years before his landmark film Bonnie & Clyde effectively kicked off what’s since been dubbed the New Hollywood movement, Arthur Penn delivered something much stranger & more deliberately obscure with that film’s same star, Warren Beatty. New Hollywood’s loosely defined aesthetic has several distinguishing features: anti-hero protagonists, avoidance of tidily happy endings, counter culture rebelliousness, etc. A large part of the movement’s appeal, however, derived directly from young American directors borrowing stylistic technique from the films of the French New Wave, particularly in their approach to unconventional cinematography. The film Beatty & Penn made before Bonnie & Clyde didn’t exactly pull influence from the French New Wave the way their breakthrough hit would. Mickey One was more of a French New Wave pastiche than a direct descendant. It wholesale borrowed everything it could grab from directors like Godard & Truffaut right down to their stark black & white cinematography. Just about the only things Mickey One kept distinctly American were the accents & Warren Beatty’s face. The results were messy & less iconic than Bonnie & Clyde and far too pretentious to strike a chord with American audiences in the same way, but they are fascinating as an artifact. It’s like watching New Hollywood’s unevolved ancestor crawling out of the primordial cinematic ooze. It ain’t pretty, but you can’t look away.

In a dizzying opening credits sequence we’re introduced to Beatty’s troubled charmer protagonist as a hopeless lush. He drinks, gambles, and philanders his way through his minor celebrity as a stand-up at nightclubs owned almost exclusively by mafia types. In what feels like the credits to the world’s weirdest sitcom, we learn everything we need to know about this doofus: his world, his ego, his thirsts, his enemies. It’s chaotic surrealism, drunken delirium, abrasive jazz, kaleidoscopic noir. Much like with the opening minutes of the proto-blacksploitation piece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s easy to be convinced in Mickey One‘s intro that you’re about to watch one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of all time, only to have that same exciting energy turned around to beat your enthusiasm into mush. A young, handsome Warren Beatty lives the high life in those credits and immediately crashes once they conclude. Instead of serving as a makeshift court jester for the club-owning mobsters he amuses with corny punchlines he becomes a persecuted target for an offense no one can name. We’re never sure if Beatty’s tortured stand-up faulted on an outrageous gambling debt, slept with a mobster’s wife, or, quite possibly, never committed any crime at all. Mickey One stubbornly clouds its central conflict in an oppressive air of mystery. It’s a choice that might have worked if the film’s abrasive, jazz-driven pace & tone ever slowed down long enough to allow the audience to properly sink into its sense of existential dread, but it’s just a little too frustrating as is.

Penniless & on the run from faceless, mysterious mobsters, our broken hero finds himself greasy, homeless, as handsome as ever, and hiding under a false pseudonym. After a short period of bottom-of-the-barrel blue collar labor, the spotlight calls to him. He starts gravitating towards the types of nightclubs he used to headline, first as a heckler and then as a performer, despite the danger of breaking his anonymity. A Marcel Marceau-type billed simply as “The Artist” pops up every now & then to mime encouragement and to draw him out of laying low. As his love interest puts it, he’s hiding from he doesn’t know what for a crime he’s not sure he’s committed, but he can’t help delivering corny jokes to mildly amused audiences in the meantime. This all whips by in a blur, only ever settling down for two distinct scenes: one where his mime-muse constructs an intricate Rube Goldberg-style art instillation that reflects his greatest fear (the mob disposing of his body in an automotive junkyard) and one where he “auditions” for faceless mobster club owners, the only visible presence in the room being the menacingly divine shine of the spotlight. Mickey One’s jokes aren’t any funnier than Rupert Pupkin’s in The King of Comedy. Its tone is in a continuous, chaotic shift that never allows its audience to get lost in its world. It’s undeniably messy, embarrassingly pretentious, and has essentially zero potential for commercial value. And yet, you can never shake the feeling that it’s just a half step away from being breathtakingly brilliant.

Distribution companies weren’t sure what to do with Arthur Penn’s French New Wave pastiche in 1965 and silently dumped it in drive-ins instead of giving it a prestigious theatrical release. Fifty years later, I’m still not sure what to do with the badly damaged, mostly forgotten art film mishmash. In an abstract sense I greatly admire the way the source of its Kafkaesque paranoia is never made literal and Beatty’s pre-Clyde anti-hero is made to live out his own stand-up comedy-themed version of The Trial. I was just never given much more than that vague paranoia & some terrible one-liners to associate with the character. It was difficult to care about his anxiety & the beautiful, energetic imagery that borders it in any way outside of distant, detached fascination. There’s never any question why Mickey One isn’t the Beatty-Penn collaboration that broke through instead of Bonnie & Clyde. Its limited appeal is immediately apparent. I do find it weirdly compelling as proto-New Hollywood weirdness, though, and I could easily see my cautious fondness for it growing with a few repeat viewings. The problem is that I can also see my nitpicking annoyances with it growing as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 21: Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

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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

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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.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: The Graduate (1967)

-Brandon Ledet