Bonnie and Clyde

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By James Bowman

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[This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of "Crime and Punishment" at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The sixth film in the series, Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn, was screened yesterday evening, July 21, 2009. My introduction appears below.]

It’s appropriate that I should be introducing Arthur Penn’s film, Bonnie and Clyde, on the 50th anniversary of what the headline in today’s New York Times calls “The Day Obscenity Became Art.” That was perhaps a sly headline writer’s dig at Fred Kaplan, the author of the Times article, who presumably thought that D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which is what the landmark case was about, was art all along. What had changed, as Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan’s decision on July 21st, 1959 made clear, were the “community standards” by which obscenity was legally defined. It took a few more years for the results of that change to percolate down to Hollywood, but there is a good argument to be made that, when they did, among their first fruits – if that is the word I’m looking for – was Bonnie and Clyde of 1967. The sex was not remarkable by later standards, but there is little doubt that at least part of what created the excitement the movie generated at the time was the sense it gave of offering, like Lady Chatterly, a glimpse of things hitherto forbidden.

But before I talk a bit more about that, I’d first like to back up with a post-script to last week’s movie and the discussion of it. For those of you who weren’t here then, we watched Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and spent almost the whole of the discussion of it on the moral dimensions of Welles’s character, the (ostensibly) corrupt police chief, Hank Quinlan. Hank was a man whose loss of his wife to a murderer more than 40 years before had been the inspiration for a whole career full of irregular and illegal police-work designed to circumvent the rules of evidence in order to bring to justice murderers who might otherwise have escaped it. In my opening remarks, I had assumed that this behavior constituted corruption and had resulted in an undetermined number of deaths by execution of innocent people, but Leon Kass’s brilliant defense of Quinlan pointed out that the film gives us no grounds for assuming this. So far as we know – which, admittedly, is not very far – Quinlan is quite right in saying that he never framed anyone who wasn’t guilty.

Assuming this is true, then, we could well be meant to see him – as Chris DeMuth suggested – as a sort of Dirty Harry figure, a cop whose short-cuts through the wearisome and vexatious thickets of the law have only rid the world of some very bad men who might otherwise have continued their criminal careers. It would be difficult not to sympathize with such a man, both because of the social service he was performing and because of his personal grievance against murderers, in spite of the fact that he bore – as Michael Pack pointed out – the unmistakable stamp of corruption upon him. In introducing the film, I had hoped to persuade people that, for all his obvious faults, there was something about Quinlan that might almost be said to have approached tragic greatness. Leon went me one better, and I was left to a feeble protest that the man was, after all, a criminal.

This unexpected (to me) turn of the conversation left behind a whole side of the film that I had been trying to bring into focus, which was its place in American cultural history, along with that of film noir in general. I thought that Touch of Evil, released in 1958, stood somewhere in between the movies’ acknowledgment, however reluctant, of the conventional moral order that had been assumed by almost everybody up until about the time it was made and the renunciation or politicization of that moral order in the movies of the last 40 years or so, beginning with Bonnie and Clyde. But in an e-mail to me after last week’s discussion, Leon threw another monkey-wrench into the works by writing – if he will permit me to quote him – as follows:

Unlike last year’s series and, even more, the series on the hero, I have not found the first four movies to represent “a healthy and flourishing art form,” as you suggest in your note, especially if art is supposed to be tied to some higher moral purpose (a big and debatable question). Film noir is, by definition, morally unhealthy. If it is to be redeemed as part of flourishing art, it has to be defended on intellectual grounds, not moral ones and this aspect I am learning to appreciate in your choice of these movies, none of whose heroes do I give a damn about. Those movies are valuable because they explore the antinomian and even criminal possibilities that lurk in the souls of largely decent people, and if you are interested in the question of how and why people slip into evil and crime, these are useful movies to help you ponder the matter. But, morally speaking, making James Cagney attractive is already a species of decay, and the fact that he gets what he deserves does not quite correct the sympathy he evinces by his brilliant and rakish performance. By contrast, Sgt. York in no way prepared [us for] Harrison Ford’s Raiders; and It Happened One Night did not lead inevitably to Annie Hall. Am I missing something? In these crime movies, are we not in the sewer right from the beginning?

That’s a very good question, and I’d like to explain why I think we’re not, or not quite, in the sewer from the beginning. I do think it is true to say that we are pointed in the direction of Bonnie and Clyde from the beginning, and that may be almost as bad. But in the first five films in the series you could still see the outlines of the conflict that is so common in classical drama and perhaps in all drama, which is the conflict between the claims on us of community, represented by honor and duty, on the one hand and, on the other, the claims of the hungry self, in particular those of love and ambition. My point is that up until the 1950s when, as in noir film we get close to privileging the claims of the self, we still have to assume that the audience, like the film-makers, recognizes the pull in the opposite direction, even if they are tempted to reject it.

In this sense, we are no more in the sewer with The Postman Always Rings Twice or A Place in the Sun than we are with Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra. We may find the central figures in those movies lacking in the tragic grandeur of a Shakespearean hero, but their relatively humble aspirations and their personal attractiveness are meant to cost us a pang when we see them brought low, either by the might of the law or by circumstances – fate, possibly, taking the side of the moral order. What all this was meant to be leading up to was, in a way, tonight’s movie, where the strength of that pull in the direction of the community and the community’s values has suddenly vanished. Not just weakened but disappeared altogether. In Bonnie and Clyde it’s all self, and its heroes are meant to be seen as a sort of Nietzschean supermen whose right not to be bound by the laws of the community is simply assumed – perhaps on the basis of their courage, existential grit and sheer attractiveness, on the one hand, and their Marxist revolutionary consciousness on the other.

For the morality that tells us it is wrong to rob banks has now become just part of “the system” which has no moral status so far as this movie is concerned. This is implicit in the representation of our two heroes as romantic rebels against that system and folk heroes to those who, conveniently for Bonnie and Clyde, also see themselves as its victims. In th
is movie, “the laws,” as Clyde calls the police, are merely contemptible figures – as perhaps we can now agree Hank Quinlan was not – and when our heroes capture Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), the Texas Ranger who eventually leads the posse that hunts them down, Warren Beatty’s Clyde lectures him about how the poor farmers have “run off” the “laws” who were coming after him: “You should be protecting them from us, and they’re protecting us from you. That don’t make sense, do it?” In the same way, Clyde says to the farmer in one bank: “Is that your money or the bank’s?” When he replies that it is his, he tells him to keep it. Later the farmer says, “All I can say is, they did right by me – and I’m bringin’ me a mess of flowers to their funeral.”

There is a similar scene in the new Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, and most of those who have written about it seem to have taken it for granted that ordinary people during the Depression treated Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and such other famous criminals of the period as Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd as heroes. I can find little evidence for this proposition, and what there is seems pretty unpersuasive. But if you’re going to make movies about romantic gangsters, their popularity with ordinary people is probably a necessary assumption. In a movie like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, made 20 years nearer the Depression than Bonnie and Clyde and while it was still fresh in most people’s minds, banks are symbols of the community, and the bond between the generations, the older lending money to the younger. There is no distinction between the bank’s money and that of its depositors. But community, as we have already seen, is what Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, refuses to recognize as binding together either the bankers and their depositors or the criminals and their victims.

The popularity of this movie – popularity actually seems too mild a word – with the generation that, like me, came of age in the 1960s is not only a cultural marker of immense significance but also, I believe, one reason for the death of cinematic artistry as we had known it up until that time, which routinely depended on that same tension between the community and the individual that we see in Shakespeare or Sophocles. After this, making movies is all about what those wicked studio heads that butchered Touch of Evil called “showing off” with visual and technical ingenuity. What else is there for a movie to do once the moral context that was assumed during the movies’ first 60 years or so has gone, leaving nothing behind but what we now call “attitude”? Nowadays, even the showing off, much of it computer-generated, seems rather unimpressive to me. But Arthur Penn is generally classed among the artists of the silver screen, and the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde, especially, has been as influential on the movies that came after it as anything in the history of the medium. It, too, is copied yet again in the new Public Enemies that I mentioned earlier.

I think I know why. It’s because this scene also looks forward to another thing we have since grown used to as occupying the place that was once reserved for morality in the movies, and that is the idea of the “real.” Those of you who were here two years ago for our series on The American Movie Hero may remember that, in the movies of the 1940s and the 1950s, the authors often made a point of the things they were not showing us. In The Searchers, in particular, it became a part of, a token of, John Wayne’s heroic quality that he and he alone looked upon the horror of the two scenes of death and defilement by the Comanches in that picture, and that he forbade anyone else to see them. Both the audience and the other characters were kept from the knowledge of what he knew, and he took upon himself the burden of that knowledge along with the burden of avenging those murders. This added to the moral weight behind everything he does and, indeed, everything that happens in The Searchers. Bonnie and Clyde not only dumps the moral gravitas, it also tears aside the veil of mystery that, for the most part, had shrouded violent death up to then, and it does so with a sense of its own virtue in exposing us to “truth.”

But there are some kinds of truth – and the true appearance of people being torn apart by bullets is one of them – which are so sensational that they overshadow and obscure the quieter kinds of truth, and especially the truths of the intellect and the character. In other words, though true in a strictly limited and visual sense, they are untrue in a wider and, yes, a truer sense. For example, the visual bias, and the assumption that its truth is the only truth that matters, is now commonly used to impart an “anti-war” message to war-movies today, so that anyone whose knowledge of the subject is derived from the movies might wonder why on earth wars are ever fought, or have ever been fought, if they are so horrible. The answer is of course that there are moral and intellectual reasons why the horror might be worth enduring, but we never see them in the movies anymore. They have been driven out by the more exciting visuals. Even an ostensibly pro-war movie – or at least an anti-anti-war movie – like The Hurt Locker has nothing to tell us about the reason why its soldier-heroes do what they do, except that it gives them (or one of them, anyway) an adrenalin rush.

Another way to put this might be to say that the movies, like so many other things, have been dumbed down since Touch of Evil was made more than half a century ago. It’s hard to recapture now the sense of excitement so many people – and especially so many young people – felt about Bonnie and Clyde just a few years later, though Mark Harris’s book, Pictures at a Revolution, published last year, has a go at it. It’s a lot easier to tell how the attempt to recreate that excitement with ever more spectacular visual displays has been responsible for robbing the movies of their moral and, hence, of their artistic seriousness. The sort of “truth” that audiences now expect from the cinema is limited to the visual kind, if that. The moral kind, they would naturally think of as an imposition on their own moral autonomy – just as Bonnie and Clyde themselves do in this movie and so many other criminals were to do in the movies of the next 40 years and more.

Yet I hope that, after having seen the first five movies in this series, we are better placed today to spot the infantile morality of these two thieves and murderers and their latter day admirers. Now, we really are in the sewer, to use Leon Kass’s terminology, but it is only because we haven’t been there, quite, up until now that we can recognize the fact – or at least recognize it more clearly than does the critical consensus that has celebrated Bonnie and Clyde ever since Pauline Kael almost single-handedly turned it around when the film came out. One thing you may notice about the characters of Bonnie and Clyde is their sense of entitlement. Bonnie deserves to be rich and important, to be “somebody,” as Clyde tells her. “You got a right.” This is apparently meant to be as persuasive to us as it is to her. Now it may be that two such low-lifes of the 1930s would have thought like this, but it sounds to me a lot more like the mentality of my own, “Baby Boomer” generation. I think it does, too, to my fellow boomer Stephen Hunter who writes in the current number of Commentary that “the movie, entirely gratuitously, gave flesh to a supposition that underlies much of the narcissistic culture that came after and skewed the culture in unhelpful ways.” That’s putting it mildly. Maybe the best we can hope for, then, is to remind ourselves, by looking at Bonnie and Clyde in its historical context, of how that happened.

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