Bonnie & Clyde: Cinematic Perfection

bonnie_and_clyde.jpg“I‘m Clyde Barrow. And this is Bonnie Parker. We rob banks.” This line comes early in Bonnie & Clyde, and though short, though obvious, it has a surprising amount to say about the film. Bonnie, impressed by Clyde’s impromptu hold-up of a general store, has agreed to accompany Clyde wherever he decides to go, and they’ve just spent the night in an abandoned farmhouse. The farm’s owner and his family have been foreclosed on, and they drive by to take a last look at the place. Clyde’s statement “we rob banks” is a direct response to the farmer’s frustration at losing his home to the bank. It’s technically untrue (they haven’t yet robbed any banks), and thus its placement becomes an attempt to tie the couple’s illegal activities to some larger purpose – a Robin Hood-type stealing from the rich (though, tellingly, without giving to the poor). That idea pops up again briefly when Clyde, mid-robbery, tells an ordinary man to keep his money, they’re only there for the bank’s money.

The line secondarily functions as part of Bonnie and Clyde’s sense of theatricality – throughout their career they constantly brag about their exploits, take breaks for photo-ops (including with law enforcement personnel), make sure everyone knows who they are, and enjoy the press they receive. The Robin Hood guise is really only part of that – it’s difficult to argue that Bonnie and Clyde truly care about anyone outside their gang and immediate family. They’re in it for fame mostly, fortune some, each other a fair amount, and very little else. Yet we’re drawn closely into their relationship and we care what happens to them, despite our knowledge that they are not good people.


That strange-yet-effective combination of emotional investment and distance is a direct inheritance from European film movements of the early 1960s, especially as exemplified by Cahiers du cinema critics/New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni. These filmmakers were interested, to one degree or another, in a) bringing genre stories and art styles together, b) bringing their insatiable love of film itself front and center through quotation and pastiche, and c) exploring sexual and social tensions from a sympathetic but uninvolved distance. Actor/producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn had attempted to bring New Wave sensibilities to an earlier film, 1965’s Mickey One, but though interesting, that film was ultimately unsuccessful at combining European emotional distance with American brashness.

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King Kong (1933)

[Chris Edwards, who writes extensively about silent films on his blog, Silent Volume, has written the following review of King Kong. To see the full programme click on the Dirty Thirties header image above.]

“You’ll have to think of a lotta new adjectives when I get back!”

That’s Carl Denham’s promise as he storms out of a business meeting and into the New York City night. He’s a movie director; the type who makes BIG pictures; always exciting, always 100% authentic, filmed on location. Adventure, folks: straight from the planet’s last corners of untouched savagery, captured by the lens, offered to you. He’s got the funding, the equipment, and a boat ready to set sale for his next shoot. All he needs now is a girl.

“STRICT-ly business,” Denham assures Ann Darrow, the indigent beauty he finds on the street that very evening. His boat leaves in hours, to where he can’t say, but Ann’s welcome to come along. She barely hesitates. “There are a lot of girls like me,” she explains, describing her place in the legions of Depression-struck unemployed, from whose ranks Denham has deigned to pick her. She has looks, but no support, and better the risks of a voyage than the life of a thief.

We know what she’s in for. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) will spend much of the next ninety minutes in the clutches of a 50-foot ape. She’ll take a terrifying trip to the top of a tower. She’ll scream twice for every single sentence of dialogue she’ll speak. This is King Kong, a film needing no introduction. Our only question, really, is what spectacle remains in the ‘special-effects wonder’ of…. 1933? Would you like to know more…?

Review: Public Enemies


“I‘m John Dillinger.” Johnny Depp matter-of-factly presents himself to would-be girlfriend Billie Frechette early on in Michael Mann’s new up close biography on the infamous American gangster. Later, he elaborates, “I rob banks. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars. And you.” And there is Public Enemies in a nutshell from a narrative stand point. In fact with its alien cinematography, township-sized supporting cast and restless continuity, this may be one of the great modern audience-unfriendly movies to come along in some time. But, therein lies its strength. Movie audiences are all too familiar with the bio-pic, the historical epic, or the period-piece. Along comes Michael Mann, a pros pro, to goose audiences with a new rebellious aesthetic, and a new way of conveying a story that may take some time getting used to. But likely in 15 (or 5) years from now, it will be looked upon as a pioneering motion picture in both tone and texture.

Lets start at the beginning. There is no beginning. Unlike the glut of superhero pictures and musical biographies out there, there is no ‘young kid has traumatic experience that shapes his life into what he is’ There is no probing into what or who or how John Dillinger became a world-class bank-robber and robin-hood figure, knocking over banks in one minute forty five seconds. Flat. No, Dillinger just is. He clearly is not much deeper than his own live-in-the-moment impulses. This very fact does not make the move lack humanity or act as a shallow look on a mythic American celebrity, but rather makes this story so contemporary. We want things and we want it now. We are enticed with expensive yet disposable toys and trinkets and privilege, even if the economy (albeit nowhere near as bad as the 1930s of Dillinger’s day) is bad. We have credit; Dillinger had a Tommy Guns and network of accomplices (including Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd ) and a skill-set for planning that went way above the capacity of the law in his day. Chicago in the summer. Florida and Cuba in the winter. Expensive sunglasses and the ability to work where-ever he wanted to. Those who say Public Enemies has no point of modern resonance, or connection to humanity in all the fractured narrative, hand-held cinematography and sea of gangsters and G-men, may want to look again. Much like the crazy impulsive, yet disciplined life he lived, the film is wild, uncertain and rigorous in form. The characters are made strangely mythic in Mann’s attempt to de-mythologize them. John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (a happily restrained Christian Bale) are not showy guys, they do what they do and let their actions and decisions speak to a wider audience. You don’t have to dig too far into these portrayals of professionals doing what they do professionally to understand that this is Michael Mann’s sandbox and he makes a mighty fine castle in the center here.

To (clumsily) stretch out a cumbersome metaphor, the princess in the castle, Dillinger’s object of affection Billie Frechette is a kept woman, pampered and imprisoned by her lover’s lifestyle. Marion Cotillard darn well steals every scene she is in. The rest of the picture may be pushing into uncharted visual and narrative territory but the love story at the center of Public Enemies is as old-school Hollywood in tone as I have seen in some time. There is restless energy, and scrappy vulnerability all conveyed in Cotillard’s glances and body language. She may not be the strongest of characters in the script (everyone is a pale second to Dillinger in that regard), but much like Marisa Tomei in her last few films, she pulls out a knock-out performance by pure act of will. And makes it seem like an effortless thing to do. There seems to be a wise acknowledgment by the director in this by giving her performance the focus of the final scene in the film. Likewise, a scene involving interrogation by the G-men thugs goes further to underline Cotillard’s unvarnished star power. The scene is violent, ugly and truly encaptivating. (As a bonus, it has the side effect of giving added dimension to Agent Melvin Purvis who is seen as rather stuffy, yet comes out as the consummate professional.)

As a history lesson, I do not think the film can be taken in on a single sitting (giving the picture an unusual connection to another recently great biopic, Steven Soderberg’s more analytical Che or Andrew Dominik’s lush The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). It is likely that a boatload of minutae in the book the screenplay was based on (Bryan Burrough’s “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34”) is merely skimmed over in the film. But the fairly lengthy runtime of 2 hours 23 minutes, I believe, was indeed necessary for tone. The lifestyle and pressures that wash effortlessly off of Dillinger’s conscience as well as the multitude of people he came in contact over his capers require such length. The film deserves its long talking hide-outs to accompany the rat-a-tat-tat bank robberies and muzzle-flash gunfight getaways. The film perfectly conveys the feeling and rush (and the joys taken from this), but it also also about the somewhat shallow emptiness that inevitably tags along. Many bodies are left in the wake of Dillinger. And many a ‘square’ government career is made though politicking on his infamy. I would have liked to see more of J. Edgar Hoover here. Was that Billy Crud-up? You could have fooled me as he is about as far from “A Golden God” or “Blue Superbeing” as possible. Hoover is a man who knows his own media power and that a ‘beaucratic dictatorship’ was the wave of the future. So, in light of J. Edgar’s posturing in political circles, it falls to Melvin Purvis and his imported Arizona professionals to do the real work. Stephen Lang plays Charles Winstead who gets a few knock-out lines on the simplest of common sense. Would Dillinger see a Shirley Temple film or the Clark Gable tough guy flick? Similar to an anonymous sharp shooters’ dramatic line of dialogue in Miami Vice about what is going to happen she shoots her target (the other half of the conversation) in the head, or Mark Ruffalo’s competent if behind-the-curve cop in Collateral, or the Alabama lawyer in The Insider (see here), Michael Mann is not afraid of giving a big “Star”-line or scene to a supporting character. Less bombast for the hero, more veracity for the film. That is the sort of smart filmmaking that is woven throughout Public Enemies as much as it is throughout Mann’s other films. The directors penchant for complex action set-pieces is also on display in fine form. Several jail-breaks, bank robberies and the like are executed with flair and a real sense of geography. The signature set-piece being a nocturnal assault by the law on the forest cabin housing John Dillinger, Baby-face Nelson and others. Done in practically zero-light, outdoors on location with only the muzzle-flashes to illuminate things, it is a doozy that is both heightened with HD grain and shaky camerawork and also startlingly immediate.

There is an undercurrent of sexy-cool in the picture even as it resists the notion of iconography. Dillinger is portrayed as a man with no long term plans, living life high on the hog, devil-be-damned. In other words a film made in and for contemporary times. In this age of the meaningless and glossy blockbuster, the uncomfortable cinematography and its ‘audience unfriendly’ structure is a major strength in Public Enemies. It provides a way of refracting crime/celebrity/road-trip/romance from Bonnie & Clyde to Badlands to Natural Born Killers) in an exciting and unique way.

42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933

Most musicals and comedies made during the 1930s were escapist fluff, meant to take audiences’ minds away from the troubles of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for a couple of hours of music and laughter. Fred and Ginger’s dancing at RKO, Bing Crosby’s singing at Paramount, MGM’s Broadway Melody series, the screwball comedies of Hawks and Leo McCarey, the slapstick stylings of the Marx Brothers – all of them sparkling and calculated to ignore the economic woes of the world outside.

But Warner Bros. as a studio was known for making less glamorous, more hard-hitting films in the 1930s, building their reputation on gangster films and “ripped from the headlines” social commentary pictures. It’s probably not surprising, then, that musicals made at Warner Bros. would have a different tone than most contemporary musicals. Sure enough, both show business classic 42nd Street and lesser-known programmer Gold Diggers of 1933 (which would spawn two sequels) take the Depression itself as a major theme and plot point.

Gold Diggers of 1933

42nd Street (1932)

42nd Street isn’t known as the granddaddy of backstage movies for nothing – it opens with word spreading around Broadway that famed director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a show, continues through auditions and rehearsals, setbacks and last-minute casting changes, and finishes with the opening night extravaganza.

(Click through for the rest of the entry. The video below is a brief bit of amusement from Gold Diggers of 1933.)

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Road to Perdition

Row Three has been a hotbed for discussion on the merits of graphic novels as source material for film projects, with a palpable tension between those who write for the site and those who comment on it. One of the films that is often brought up as an example of successful adaptation in this vein is Road to Perdition, a film that coincidentally was voted by contributing writers here as one of the best films of 2002. Keeping with tradition, I’ve not read the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins that this Sam Mendes’ film is based upon. I suspect, however, the movie is loyal to its source material considering how much it feels like a panel narrative with art direction encasing everything with a sense of drawn deliberation. Ang Lee’s Hulk came out a year later and was praised by many for its merging of panel narrative and cinematic storytelling, and while Road to Perdition does not play so literal with its conceit, the same affection for the source medium exudes from frame one of the film, and is the deserving precursor to this fetishistic graphic novel style.

On this, my second viewing of Road to Perdition, I was surprised to find how little of the film I remembered, and that in the seven years between viewings virtually all that was left of my impression of the film was the stagy visual flare with its deep shadows and muddied palette, like a bunch of storyboards one after the other, perfectly composed, enshrining the beats of what was to happen. I had a vague sense of being underwhelmed by the film, but it was only after seeing it a second time that the reasons for this reaction returned. Despite its apparent loyalty to the panel composition of its source material, a formula for brevity one would think, somehow the film has a listless quality to it that even when it is going somewhere it drags its feet doing so. The book-end device of the principle narrator of the film, the young Michael Sullivan, starts things off on this same proverbial wrong foot, as we begin with an event that happens near the end of the film and work our way toward it – a storytelling convention that has long since lost its luster. In between these unnecessary summations of what we are watching, is a fairly straightforward story of a man who lives a double life as a gangster and family man and finally makes one valiant attempt to break free of the criminal lifestyle and do right by his kin. Would you like to know more…?

Modern Times (1936)

[Chris Edwards, who writes extensively about silent films on his blog, Silent Volume, has written the following review of Modern Times. Anyone else wishing to have their marathon reviews published on Row Three may kindly send them my way for consideration. To see the full programme click on the Dirty Thirties header image above.]

Charlie Chaplin was the Tramp in almost all his films, so all his films, in some way, dealt with want. His first Depression-era movie, City Lights (1931), was a melodrama; a love story that depended on the poverty of its two leads to set up the gags. It could have been set in 1900 as easily as 1931. But his second, Modern Times (1936) does not present a poor man so much as a poor society, and the gags rely not on the Tramp’s poverty, but on the root cause of everyone else’s.

Chaplin blamed mechanization. He wasn’t a Luddite; he just felt that efficiency, if made an end unto itself, would place the machine above the worker. So it is in Modern Times. The Tramp is now A Factory Worker—the ‘nut tightener’ on a far-too-rapid assembly line, wielding a pair of wrenches on an ever-continuing row of metal plates. The plates pass him, then two other workers, then disappear into a tunnel. When his break begins, he walks away, still jerking with the same motions as before, trying to tighten anything nut-like around him, including the buttons on a woman’s blouse.

Audiences must have felt uneasy seeing the Tramp—then the most famous character in the world—so close to collapse. He would have reminded them of simpler and happier times. In fact, the whole film would have. It’s a (mostly) silent movie produced well into the sound era, and it’s loaded with references to silent comedy and action pictures. But modernity perverts it all.

The Tramp, who once found the most inventive ways to steal a snack, is now strapped into a chair before a revolving set of dinner plates and metal arms that stuff processed food down his throat. He dangles from a huge hook, like Douglas Fairbanks brandishing his sword, only now it’s an oilcan. He runs from a cop, but stops to punch his timecard. He ends up in a mental hospital.

He gets out. Only steps from the hospital, the Tramp sees a red flag fall off the back of a pickup truck. He picks up the flag and inadvertently triggers a Communist march, then a police crackdown, followed by his incarceration.

Back on the street, the Tramp collides with a young woman (Paulette Goddard), escaping a bakery with her stolen dinner. Goddard is ‘The Gamin’ (gamine, or street urchin); in this case, the eldest sister of a family of girls, without a mother when the movie begins and without a father after a food riot leaves him shot. The Gamin is swift, smart and wickedly sexy, but she’s too desperate to avoid getting caught. Would you like to know more…?

Miller’s Crossing: What’s the Rumpus?

Miller’s Crossing

The reputation of Miller’s Crossing precedes it here on Row Three where virtually everything the Coen Brothers do is canonized as quip-worthy gold. This marathon is an curious endurance test for me on the one hand as I am seeing films by directors that I am, shall we say, less enthusiastic about than most, yet for each, whether Sam Mendes, Brian DePalma, Steven Soderbergh, or the Coen Brothers, I would like nothing more than to share in the chorus of adulation. While these directors have won me over on occasion, their careers are spotty at best and not nearly as unblemished as others here attest to in their regular worship sessions.

With the exception of Intolerable Cruelty, I have seen every Coen Brothers film. Of these thirteen films, maybe five of them have I truly enjoyed. The Coens are masters of composition and visual flare, and as screenwriters they are wry and intelligent wordsmiths. I don’t question their talents in these regards so much as I question the underlying motivations they are employed towards. Far too often the matters of storytelling take a secondary importance to the primary interest in stylistic wit. Films such as Fargo, No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple are rare examples of the directors using proper restraint both in their scripts and in their visual styles to best serve the stories and themes. More often than not, the conceit of reappropriating cinematic conventions is foremost on their minds, the style determining the story. More than even Tarantino, the repurposing demagogue of modern cinema, the Coen Brothers have made their films more about film history than life as it is lived. Like Tarantino, their saving grace is that they are funny, and the pastiche rifts they employ do amount to laughs, when laughs are what is intended.

Still, that they sample legendary filmmakers and iconic films does not by association make them a part of that league of talent, and yet there seems to be a consensus that because their films take on the accoutrements of greatness they too must be great. There is a fundamental difference between stories that have something to say about the world and stories that cannot look beyond their own stylistic myopia. There is a difference between David Bowie and Vanilla Ice, though they may use the same basic sounds, the act of sampling is by and large an inferior form of art-making. Yes all art is fundamentally theft, but there needs to be something on your mind outside of the theft that justifies its creation, and with the Coen Brothers, more often than not, I don’t see anything outside of the movie conventions they wish to repurpose, I don’t see the original germ of a story that the style is in service of.

Albert Finney Miller's Crossing

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The Untouchables

This first film of the marathon sets us amidst the gang warfare of prohibition-era Chicago in what is perhaps one of the most widely seen movies on our list: Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. If you are in your thirties or older you more than likely saw The Untouchables when it came out in 1987, it was to the 80’s what Pulp Fiction was to the 90’s, a phenomenon that a wide segment of the film-going public flocked to see. An update of the classic television serial starring Robert Stack, DePalma’s sentimental depiction of hard-boiled crime fighters pits Inspector Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his Prohibition Bureau team against the iconic gangster, Al Capone (Robert DeNiro). With the help of a wizened mentor played by Sean Connery, Ness and his team of underdogs seek to take down Capone ‘the Chicago way’, invoking an all out war between factions. My first impressions of the film in 1987 were admittedly superficial and unburdened by an awareness of craft. To me it was not a DePalma film operating in emulation of previous conventions, but an exciting action caper playing out childhood hero fantasies between cops and robbers.

Al Capone

Revisiting the film many decades later, my impressions of the film have unavoidably changed and as much as I can appreciate the potboiler theatrics of it, I see it now through a different lens. This second viewing, I watched the movie on blu-ray and the heavy use of artificial lighting and rich historical detail gleam in that peculiar way that blu-ray allows and that aesthetic works perfectly with The Untouchables as it is a very flashy and at times unnatural amplification of the reality it depicts. This movie is as much about texture and colour as it is about anything else, it would seem there isn’t a decorative cornice or rain-soaked alleyway unexplored in Chicago, its all up there like a sumptuous display of excess. This rendering of the thirties is a strange hybrid that both exists in a real location, filmed onsite in Chicago, but is lit as if fabricated on a Hollywood back lot, with sharp profile lighting and splashes of colour that drain many of the cityscapes of their reality. David Mamet’s screenplay too keeps the beats and dialogue locked into a hard-boiled cadence that echoes the familiar Hollywood Gangster classics that it in part clearly emulates. The film is bloody and at times lingers on the consequences of violence in a way distinct from the play-violence of its predecessors, but it is still very much a pantomime at heart (i.e., the classic long death sequence of Connery’s Malone as he crawls along the floor). Would you like to know more…?

The Dirty Thirties Movie Marathon

John Ford. Frank Capra. Howard Hawks. Sergio Leone. The Coen Brothers.
Hal Ashby. Steven Soderbergh.
Sydney Pollack. Preston Sturges.
Robert Altman. Sam Mendes.
Charlie Chaplin. Michael Mann.
Brian DePalma.

Hungry and spent during the Dirty Thirties: this is an American story. A stetson hat, a cup of joe, the dust bowl and the stock market crash, the crooked boxer, the tommy gun gangster, everywhere poverty and screwball comedies, the prohibition, the Great Depression, the chain gangs and bluegrass twang. This era of American history is the subject of R3’s first movie marathon. From now until the end of July, contributing writers of Row Three will watch and review films that evoke the Dirty Thirties. Part of this is a lead up to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (July 1st) which will also be reviewed as part of the marathon.

Join In:

Anyone wishing to participate in the marathon can of course watch the films and comment on the posts, or if inclined contribute reviews (films related to the theme beyond our scope are fine too). What ultimately gets published will be left up to my discretion, but at the very least we will add a link to your review on this programme page, which will collect together all of the reviews, complete with star ratings. The following 22 films are considered the canon within this marathon, however, if there are films that have been missed you feel should be added, I am happy to consider additions. The films need not be watched in a particular sequence, watch what you can get when you can get it. Below you will find links to places to either rent or catch the films on television, and if anything has been missed, please alert me to the fact and I will revise. Finally, a reminder to follow us on Twitter for our random musings on the films we are watching.

The Programme

2009, Michael Mann
The Feds try to take down notorious American gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd during a booming crime wave in the 1930s.(courtesy of IMDb)

In Theaters July 1st
(Kurt Halfyard’s Review)

1993, Steven Soderbergh
A young boy struggles on his own in a run-down motel after his parents and younger brother are separated from him in 1930s Depression-era Midwest.(courtesy of IMDb)

1936, Frank Capra
Longfellow Deeds, a simple-hearted Vermont tuba player, inherits a fortune and has to contend with opportunist city slickers.(courtesy of IMDb)

Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur.
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