To celebrate Warren Beatty’s 75th birthday later this week, today’s episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience takes as its subject Arthur Penn’s iconic and infamous Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that I expect we’ve all seen, and if you haven’t, it’s really kind of important that you address that fact right away; it is one of the key films in the establishment of modern (post-1968) cinema.
Speaking personally, I’ve always found the film a touch overrated; its most exciting radicalism was really just copied over from various European movements of the 1960s – most famously the French New Wave – and as far as Penn/Beatty collaborations go, I prefer the jazzy neo-noir of 1965’s Mickey One. That said, Bonnie and Clyde is obviously and even objectively a great and hugely important work of filmmaking, and one of the most visually audacious mainstream American films in its generation, so it’s pretty ideal for a project like this one.
Everybody already knows that the film takes most of its cues from the Nouvelle Vague, but part of what makes the film so damn important is how it synthesises all of the visual ideas of ’60s pop culture, so when I spooled up the film to look for a shot, I decided to focus on looking for a shot that demonstrates some of those other visual ideals; in particular, I recalled from my last viewing (which was at least six or seven years ago) that the film boasted a number of shots that recalled Roy Lichtenstein’s famous paintings that mixed fine art with the hyper-melodrama of the comic book frame, and I wanted to hunt down one of those.
My memory was correct; what I didn’t realise is how quickly I’d come across one, because my pick for Best Shot is all of three shots into the movie once the opening credits end:
All we’ve seen so far is Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker stomping around a bedroom being either angry, or frustrated, or bored; as this shot begins, she’s lying on the bed, pounding at the bed frame. After a moment of this, she spins on her stomach, and strikes a pose that couldn’t be more From The Pages of a comic book if it tried:
I’m not certain there’s any way to make this shot “about” the whole movie, except insofar as Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey spend the whole film quoting this same pop vocabulary; and I might also add that the way in which Dunaway is flattened into a compositional element in this shot, rendered as a prop rather than an actress, fits in with the subtle way that the film consistently reduces the hero-villains at the center to effectively inhuman objects – the movie is frequently slagged for romanticising murderers, but the visuals throughout tell a different tale, in which these “romantic” figures are really just cardboard, even if they’re being portrayed by two of the most glamorous stars of the era. I mean, look at Dunaway in those stills: Guffey has lit her to be as frankly unlovely as she’s likely to get, and the actress’s performance in this scene, all wrinkled brows and sullen pouts, hardly exudes “glamor”.
From here, the shot ends with a zoom in to Dunaway’s eyes, partially because it was ’67 and zooms were a thing people did, and partially, I suspect, so we know that the Lichtenstein/Pop Art/Comic Book thing wasn’t an accident, but a deliberate gesture in making the film into a treatise on the pop culture of the ’30s and ’60s alike.