Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

Bonnie and Clyde

Hollywood studios were in a rut in the late 1950s and early 1960s, struggling to cope with the rise of television, the loss of control of movie theaters after the Paramount case, and a widening cultural chasm between modern audience tastes and studio traditions. In desperation, the studio chiefs opened up filmmaking to a wave of young actors, directors, producers and writers who re-energized American movies, making them arguably the world’s trendsetters from the late 1960s through mid-1970s. One of the pivotal movies from this fertile period in American cinema is 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.

The story opens with a bored, sexually frustrated small town girl (Faye Dunaway) meeting a charming bad boy (Warren Beatty). She questions his courage and masculinity, and he shows off by drawing a gun and committing a robbery. They flee her backwards hometown together, intoxicated by freedom, danger and each other. More daring robberies follow, and with it growing fame for Bonnie and Clyde. Soon they gather other people around them, including a slow witted ne’er do well (Michael Pollard), Clyde’s older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s prim, God-fearing wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). The law of course comes after them, spurring epic gun fights and a wild cross-country chase sparked with episodes that are surreal (the mesmerizing family reunion scene, which was shot by putting a window pane in front of the camera) and comic (the best of which features Gene Wilder, in his first movie). The story’s conclusion, which I will not spoil, is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in the history of American cinema.

The sexuality and graphic violence on display here was beyond anything Hollywood films had done since the Hays Code came into force in 1934. This is one of the first movies to use squibs and to show bullet wounds spouting blood. The impact of the violence is further amplified through use of the choppy editing style that been popularized by the French New Wave. Also, in a striking reversal of the typical gender roles of films in the 1950s, the woman is the confident sexual aggressor and the man is sexually timid and indeed non-functional (in early drafts of the script, Clyde was in a gay relationship with one of the men in his gang, but in the final version he instead is impotent). The point of view of the story was also novel and in keeping with the rebellious spirit of the times: The heroes are murderers who mow down police officers without compunction.

But it is not just the sexual and violent themes that make Bonnie and Clyde a landmark American film, it is also the movie’s meditation on fame. The criminals’ exhilaration in their notoriety, their self-conscious pursuit of increased publicity and the way they are hero-worshiped by strangers highlight the absurdity of American celebrity culture in supremely effective fashion.

As for the acting, under Arthur Penn’s direction, the entire cast explodes off the screen. Parsons won an Academy Award for her performance but any of the leads and supporting players would also have been worthy choices. Last but certainly not least, Burnett Guffey’s “flat style” camerawork — a complete inversion of his remarkable work in films I have recommended like My Name is Julia Ross, In a Lonely Place,  and The Sniper — is one of the lasting achievements in Hollywood cinematography. That Guffey could early in his career thrive in the deep focus, shadowy, stylized world of film noir yet later became a leading exponent of unadorned, naturalistic cinematography shows that he was truly one of the giants of his profession.

The backstory to this film has also become part of its legend. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were of course real-life bank robbers in Depression-Era America. The script of this film was brilliantly adapted from their exploits by David Newman and Robert Benton, with uncredited help from Robert Towne. (The latter two of these men, like so many of the people associated with the film, soon became major figures in American cinema). The writers tried unsuccessfully to recruit a French New Wave director to make the movie, but none of them were ultimately interested. Fortunately, Warren Beatty saw the potential of the story and bought production rights, eventually signing Penn as the director. As a sign of how out of touch studio executives were with 1960s audiences, the suits at Warner Brothers were so sure it would bomb that they were comfortable promising Beatty 40% of the gross receipts. They barely released and minimally promoted the picture, and were not surprised when establishment movie critics sneered at it. But it hit audiences like a thunderbolt, becoming a massive box office hit. Remarkably, some chastened film critics went so far as to publicly apologize for their dismissive reviews and to write new reviews praising the movie (except for the New York Times’ insufferable Bosley Crowther, who campaigned against the film so vigorously that his bosses finally realized that it was time to find a more discerning critic). Many years later, this initially unwanted, disregarded and disrespected film became one of the first movies selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

p.s. If any film prefigures Bonnie and Clyde in American cinema, I think it’s Joseph Lewis’ extraordinary 1950 movie Gun Crazy. If you have time for a double feature, that’s the film to pair with this one. And if you have time for a triple feature, throw in Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross to appreciate the incredible range of cinematographer Burnett Guffey.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Twilight

My name is Harry Ross, and here’s the way my life has gone: First I was a cop and then a private detective. And then…a drunk. Also, in there somewhere, a husband and a father. You’d think with all that, the world would lose its power to seduce. But you’d be wrong.

So intones Paul Newman’s character in this week’s movie recommendation, the deliberately old fashioned 1998 film noir Twilight directed and co-written by the estimable Robert Benton. The film centers on a wealthy Hollywood family comprising former movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon) and their teenage daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon).

Let me pause to note that two sentences into this recommendation and I have already mentioned 5 Academy Award winners!

The plot: After a disastrous effort to take Mel away from a stupid, sleazy paramour (Liev Schreiber), Harry was injured and moved in with the Ames family. He has long since recovered, but sticks around ostensibly because Jack has been diagnosed with cancer. But the truth is he is desperately in love with Catherine. Jack sends him on a mission to pay off someone whom Harry suspects is blackmailing the couple. He cares about both of them, even if he doesn’t completely trust them, so he returns reluctantly to private detective work. Thus begins a tortuous mystery involving murder, betrayal and long-buried secrets.

Though intentionally packed with many 1940s noir elements, the film from another point of view is a twist on the old detective stories in that the classic private investigator (e.g., in The Big Sleep) was an outside critic of his rich and powerful clients, less wealthy but with better judgment and morals. Here, Harry Ross is not much more than a pet, living on the estate of his benefactors, doing menial work and longing for Catherine’s love when he is in fact (as Mel puts it) a bit player in a movie starring other people.

The unmatched cast also includes James Garner, Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, John Spencer and M. Emmet Walsh (In a vivid part given that he doesn’t even say a word!). Directing such a seasoned and talented group must have been a pleasure for Benton, who clearly has respect for the genre. He also contributed a script with sharp dialogue as well as some well-timed funny lines. Many of the scenes recall either specific 1940s detective films or at least their general style. If that isn’t Old Hollywood enough for you, the Ames house was once the home of Dolores Del Rio and Cedric Gibbons.

Twilight (1998) - Ruthless Reviews

Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber were cast I assume in the hopes of bringing in some younger viewers, and perhaps as well for their sex scene, but they bring much more than that to the table. Both are strong performers who pass my newbie test of screen greatness: They are completely at ease in scenes with the established superstars around them.

The only thing that clanged for me in this movie was the introduction about 35 minutes in of a comic sidekick played by Giancarlo Esposito. His character just doesn’t fit the mood of the rest of the picture, and his scenes are the one part of the film where things drag a bit. Other than that, this is for me irresistible viewing and I find it mysterious that it was not a hit with audiences when it was released. I suspect it underperformed because it was aimed at an older audience in an era when said audience did not buy many movie tickets (As the Boomers age, films like this have done better box office, which is fantastic if like me you enjoy films that are aimed at someone other than teenagers and adults who think like teenagers).

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

Superman

The undeniable wonder of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman can be summed up in one word: Reverence. For decades, comic book fans were dismayed by movie and TV adaptations of the heroic stories with which they grew up. Producers and writers seemed to feel that the material couldn’t stand up on its own. Rather, it had to be made campy (Holy Evil Menace Batman!) or have asinine new characters added or adopt an ironic or juvenile tone. What Donner and Producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler understood is that the reason untold millions of people around the world love Superman is that it’s a thrilling story with an inspiring central character. In short, it didn’t need some Hollywood type to change it, it needed someone to take it seriously on its own terms and produce it with a real budget and good actors. The result is a superb movie without which many subsequent, highly entertaining comic book hero films (e.g., Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man) would be unthinkable.

The filmmakers’ respect for the source material is evident in the very first frame, during which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) as the velvet curtains of an old style theater open. The camera then glides past the Daily Planet building into outer space, where the audience is treated to a whooshing credit sequence and John Williams’ thrilling, majestic score. This sequence doesn’t typically get discussed when critics debate the best film openings, which I view as rank snobbery: It’s transcendent.

The Superman story is then lovingly told, from his origins on the doomed planet Krypton, to his escape to Earth and his Midwest Americana childhood with Ma and Pa Kent (Love these scenes: old pros Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter ease comfortably into the roles of the Kent parents and newcomer Jeff East nicely conveys what it would be like to combine adolescent awkwardness and emotional pangs with budding superpowers). Then of course, Superman moves to Metropolis to work under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, sweetly romances Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a good choice for the part) and battles the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, having and being a good time, while also being appropriately callous).

Superman Movie Review | Movie Reviews Simbasible

The most unforgettable set piece is Lois Lane’s helicopter disaster, which triggers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) first appearance. But the romantic scenes and the closing sequence during a massive, Luthor-induced earthquake, are also welcome crowd pleasers.

Though Superman is an uncynical hero who believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and has been sent to Earth from the heavens by his father to save humanity (ahem), this is far from a self-serious film. I still remember vividly the explosion of laughter in the theater when Reeve looks at a modern phone “booth” when he needs to change into costume for the first time. The rapid-fire scenes with Jackie Cooper (as Editor Perry White) and the team at the Daily Planet are also a great deal of fun, almost a bit of Front Page-style screwball comedy interspersed with the overall adventure story. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty get some laughs as Luthor’s half-witted assistants. Look fast also for an amusing cameo by Donner as a guy on the street who isn’t sure he believes a man can fly.

Geoffrey Unsworth works miracles combining special effects and live action shots on this film as well as its sequel, Superman II, which was filmed at the same time and is dedicated to his memory (For other film recommendations featuring this gifted cinematographer, see my prior film recommendations here and here). Unsworth’s contribution is one of many reasons why Superman is not just an outstanding movie adaptation of a comic book; it’s a outstanding movie, full stop.

As a closing note, Superman was unquestionably the defining film of Christopher Reeve’s career, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. He passed away in 2004, even more of an inspiration in life than he was as the Man of Steel.