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Bonnie and Clyde

(Arthur Penn, USA, 1967): Of those movies that suggested an undeniable countercultural infiltration of the moviegoing mainstream by 1967, Bonnie and Clyde is the one that still stands as vital, beautiful and dangerous. Watching it, you can still feel the period’s undercurrents surging, and its combustible alchemy of sex, violence and speed remains immediately intoxicating. By comparison, both The Graduate and Cool Hand Luke function as time-encapsulated artefacts — fascinating but locked away in an abstract moment — and Point Blank seems less of the zeitgeist than in some kind of premonitory rush to jump it: to get to the ’70s where its delusional paranoia really belongs.

But Arthur Penn’s movie, which plays out in a sunny dustbowl America populated by astonishingly convincing Walker Evans non-professionals and rolls on effervescent bubbles of cold soda pop and bluegrass, somehow manages to utterly sideswipe nostalgia and sentiment — though not, but a long shot, romance — by speeding through its proceedings at a hairpin clip. Less motivated by its lovers-on-the-lam’s collision course with squib-spurting roadside doom than the sheer hot thrill of running like hell, it turns momentum itself into a kind of existential statement of dropping out as glorious release, until of course it’s not any more. These kids did, after all, steal some cars, rob some banks, kill some people, have some fun and shack up unmarried. So they must be stopped at any cost, and let’s not even mention how beautifully they stick out from this hayseed-populated landscape — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, too pretty to even fuck each other — like refugees from the very glamour magazines that adorn the racks of the stores where they pause for supplies before raising another cloud of dust.

What this movie gets, and what made it so potent and dangerous if you felt those same undercurrents, is the allure of that escape: never stopping, never pausing to self-reflect, never asking where you’re going or what you’ll do when you get there. From the moment they meet over a moist Coke bottle and hard gun barrel, they’re primed for action: meaningless but somehow self-fulfilling, and vindicating purely for its own sake. Note that there’s really no revolutionary design here besides the one that adheres retrospectively as it occurs to Clyde — not the fastest bullet in the revolver — they’re doing this for the poor; the romance is an almost entirely made-in-Hollywood sexless facade; and these people are possibly the most inept team of slapstick cornpone desperadoes since the James-Younger gang got it into its collective fool head to pull that job in Springfield. Their incompetence is also an expression of their innocence, and their innocence is a necessary condition for their galvanizing generational martyrdom (re-configured and rather dubiously class-reversed a couple of years later for the roadside the infinitely less vital or dangerous Easy Rider); and their generational martyrdom was all the movie really needed to sell the idea that there was some kind of war going on between the old guys in straw hats and suspenders and these hopelessly gorgeous young people who really just want to have fun.

Considering that Bob Dylan was originally considered for the Clyde role and that Shirley MacLaine came close to playing Bonnie — an idea that positively rattles the imagination considering her brother Warren Beatty ultimately became the star — and that Jean-Luc Godard nearly got to make it, it’s astounding that Bonnie and Clyde now seems as iconographically fixed and perfect as it does, that you wouldn’t dare to change a hair on its tousled head or even suggest it might be better if only it hadn’t romanticized the life of these homely, two-bit dustbowl sociopaths the way it does. Because that’s exactly what it does do and precisely why it sizzled then and still does: it’s a road movie western with deliberate old-Hollywood referents in They Live by Night and Gun Crazy — but shot with the kinetic frenzy of the New Wave — and its about what happens to two impossibly beautiful young movie stars when they get loose and crazy in the American heartland. Bonnie and Clyde aren’t heading anywhere in particular: they’re running away from something, and all the movie had to do was hint at the violence, intolerance, bigotry and older generation hostility in the background to make that bid for freedom entirely reasonable and irresistibly attractive. Their only revolt was against getting old and becoming like the people who were jealous of them and wanted them dead. Talk about incendiary, at least as pop culture propaganda. If that wasn’t 1967 in a nutshell, it’s as close as Hollywood movies ever got. (Warner Home Video)