Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 14, 2007
Throw a rock in any direction these days and you’ll draw the blood of a movie critic marking the 40th anniversary of the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).1 To hear them tell it, Bonnie and Clyde was the movie that changed the rules, that changed Hollywood, changed the course of history, changed the world, changed us, blah-blah-blah, Bosley Crowther, blah-blah-blah, Pauline Kael, blah-blah-blah, balletic violence, blah-blah-blah, catharsis, redemption, ho-hum. The critics aren’t talking about the whole film so much as The End, when Dustbowl bank robber/lovers Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are caught in a police ambush and aerated in a fusillade of bullets that have them both doing the St. Vitus Dance for what seems like five full minutes. Over at Newsday, Gene Seymour heralds “a movie with… a pervasive and resounding impact on culture and society” while New York Times’ critic A. O. Scott recalls that Bonnie and Clyde “seemed to introduce a new kind of violence into movies… raw and immediate, yet at the same time… almost gleeful.”
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a good movie and I think Bosley Crowther was wrong (albeit more fun to read than Pauline Kael). But I was 5 or 6 when that movie came out and I didn’t see it for many years. Ditto many of the movies that followed the example set by Bonnie and Clyde’s ultra-violence: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). I saw none of these films in their first run and only heard about them in a roundabout fashion, word of mouth, from fathers and mothers and the older brothers of friends who had been of age to buy a ticket. I remember thinking these movies sounded interesting but I had all the blood I could handle at the kiddie matinee, thank you very much.
Blood? We had it in gouts. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965), a man is murdered, strung up by his feet and his body slit open like a piñata to reanimate the dry bones of Count Dracula. Later in that same film, a female vampire is pinned to a table by several bearded monks while a stake is driven between her breasts. In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), the Count is staked not once but twice – the first time with a hunk of wood that looks like what Ishmael clung to at the end of Moby Dick and the second time by being impaled on a big metal cross. The film ends with Dracula struggling to pull this thing out of his back while blood rolls out of his eyes… I think that beats Bonnie and Clyde’s “ballet of violence” all to hell. I wasn’t one of the lucky kids permitted by dint of adult inattention to see a matinee of Night of the Living Dead (1968)2 but I was there for Paramount’s Chuka (1967), a western of exquisite sadism in which everyone dies3 – Ernest Borgnine, John Mills, The Mod Squad’s dreamy Michael Cole (shot in the face) and even hero Rod Taylor. Rod Taylor! Thank God my mother was playing tennis that Saturday.
I’m sure adults weaned on a diet of Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Clambake (1967) probably were, in their own way, traumatized by the violence of Bonnie and Clyde. I suppose it was a rite of passage for them, the rounding of a corner. Things had changed. The movies weren’t safe for adults anymore… but we children knew the score, we’d seen it all by then and at half price. While their parents squinted at the violent world through trembling fingers, the kids4 were all right.
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