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Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Gun Crazy (1949)
Violence in the movies: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Warren Beatty teams up with Faye Dunaway to make a memorable dynamic duo about the infamous "Bonnie and Clyde". A much less famous pair of actors bring to life a strangely reversed odd couple of crime in the late '40s film called "Gun Crazy".
A remark made by actor, Michael York during the interviews on Saturday Night at the Movies caught my attention. He talked about his views on American society and the attitude towards guns. Coming from England, he said that even after many years of living in the states, he still found the situation regarding firearms “incomprehensible” and “quite terrifying”.
Yes. True enough. What’s it like to live next door to a neighbour who routinely keeps guns around and regards it as a civil liberty to have access to the unrestricted use of dangerous firearms? It is not an uncommon Canadian point of view to regard our American neighbours to the south as “gun crazy” with all of the terrible social consequences that such insanity entails.
My real-life next door neighbour has a gun. He gets all of his permits and licenses lined up and goes hunting up North every fall. It’s an important tradition for my neighbour’s family. I can’t say that I really “get it” – it remains somewhat incomprehensible to me – but it’s just part of what my neighbours do in life.
Am I nervous about living next door to a gun? Not really in this case because I know my neighbour. He is a law-abiding, perfectly normal, well-balanced individual. But then, as long as the gun is present, there is always the possibility that it could fall into the hands of someone who was not quite so well-balanced and law-abiding – someone like Bonnie and Clyde for instance.
It is problematic. Just recently there was a case in the news where a police officer was reprimanded because she had not taken sufficient safeguards to ensure that her firearm was stored safely while she was off duty. The gun was stolen and apparently used in some kind of crime events. Things can and do go very wrong even when a generally responsible person who really does need a gun messes up.
The films “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Gun Crazy” depict what can happen when you have guns and sex and violence mixed in with a few fragile egos and the pressures of poverty. It’s a deadly mixture.
It seemed to me that “Bonnie and Clyde” was a good “A” picture and that “Gun Crazy” was a good “B” picture. I thought they were both respectable films as far as filmmaking goes as long as you remember that they were from different eras and that they fall into different ranking slots. I am not sure that using the term “enjoyable movie watching” is applicable here because who really “enjoys” watching human beings twitching in a macabre dance of death? Perhaps some sickos do, but those people are not sitting in my living room.
During the “Interviews”, a couple of different points of view were expressed about violence in the movies. Is it something that should be censored? Is there value to violence in film? Is the violence of modern filmmaking a mere reflection of society or does it serve to make the culture ever more violent? When does violence become gratuitous?
The violence portrayed in “Bonnie and Clyde” is somewhat shocking. It is also a part of the historical reality. The film may have taken certain liberties with historic facts in its rather sympathetic treatment of the Barrow gang’s adventures, but it is hard to get away from the fact that this whole episode of history was intensely violent. For this reason, it is hard to make the label of “gratuitous violence” stick.
In “Gun Crazy” there is more of an effort to explore the psychological dimensions of the evolution of violent criminal behaviour. Rather than relying on actual graphic depictions of violent acts for the effect, the impact of the reality of the violent acts is conveyed primarily through other means. While how well the effect is achieved in “Gun Crazy” might be debatable, you still clearly get the picture of an out-of-control escalation of violence.
One interesting attempt to convey this “out-of-control” feeling to the viewer is the bank robbery scene where the camera is actually riding around in the back of the car. Everything is done in a perfectly naturalistic fashion. You really are there in the back seat of the car watching in breathless suspense as the hold-up unfolds. I read somewhere that this scene was actually done on location, in one take, with no one except the principle actors being in the know that filming was taking place inside the bank. Some people on the street actually thought they were seeing a real bank robbery! (Maybe that’s taking naturalism a little too far!)
I found an interesting parallel in the scenes from both movies where there is a moment of hope of escape from the vicious cycle of violence. In “Bonnie and Clyde” it is Bonnie who dreams of “running away and starting over”. The couple engages in a moment of reverie. Bonnie’s hopes of escape are dashed when she realizes that in Clyde’s vision of the ideal future, “doing things differently” means planning bank heists with more finesse than they have been using. Bonnie realizes that there is no escape. She has hooked up with a lifelong criminal, no matter how charming and fun he can be at certain moments.
It is Bart who tries to escape in “Gun Crazy”. While on the run from their latest job holed up during a snowstorm, Bart pleads with Laurie to leave behind their life of crime. No sooner has a ray of hope of some kind of reformation emerged than that the dream turns nightmarish. Laurie rushes ahead with planning one last great hold-up in order to furnish the funds for their new life “in retirement”. Bart can’t resist her and is dragged inexorably back down into the maelstrom of destruction. Laurie makes some half-hearted attempts “at being good” during the film, but we are supposed to believe that she is the femme fatale, just plain bad through and through. While Peggy Cummins as Laurie Starr isn’t the actress that Faye Dunnaway is, she certainly is irresistibly gorgeous as the femme fatale.
No redemption is possible in either of these movies. The tempting illusion of freedom only heightens the pathos in the inevitable tragic ending. Bart’s childhood friends, the sheriff and the newspaperman, extend a hand of a non-violent surrender. Bart refuses to take the hand and condemns himself to a more immediate and dramatic end by throwing in his lot with Laurie.
In “Bonnie and Clyde” Bonnie tries to go home to her mother. At the end of the visit to the family farm, Mrs. Parker says in a semi-senile way, “You’d best keep runnin’, Clyde Barrow.” Bonnie appears to be dumbfounded. Perhaps it had never occurred to her before then that she could never go home once she started in on her crime spree. Bonnie keeps running headlong into destruction with Clyde Barrow because it seems like once she has started, there is no turning back.
Blanche finds herself in a somewhat similar predicament. Once she starts running with Buck Barrow, (although she did commence with a more honourable choice of marriage) there is no going back. Her lot has been cast. Although she sometimes tries to pass herself off as the helpless victim, Blanche is in there demanding her share of the take after a robbery. For whatever reason, she does not leave while she has the chance. And then it is too late. Still, Blanche clings to the idea of redemption. Buck is a good man because he has “paid his debt to society”, never mind the bad choices he makes in the present. Blanche cries, “If I could only do that one thing, it would be all right.” The one thing that she refers to is to go home to her Daddy. Blanche, as the daughter of a Baptist pastor, believes in the story of the Prodigal Son. Upon hearing that Blanche was a Baptist pastor’s daughter C.W. says in a strange and sad little remark, “We were Disciples of Christ.” The reference is meant to be a part of the décor, one supposes; the action takes place in the South in the 1930’s – nearly everyone went to church in those days.
Maybe C.W. and his dad were ‘Disciples of Christ’ at one point long ago, but they are so no longer. The declarative is in the past tense. There seems to be no possibility of peace, reconciliation or redemption. The hand that Blanche holds onto while blindfolded by her bandages in prison is a hand of false friendship. Blanche will be betrayed, just as surely as she unwittingly betrays C.W. Moss, just as surely as Moss Sr. purposely betrays Bonnie and Clyde in the bloody final shootout. Could it have ended any other way?
I am obligated to live at peace and in cordiality with my neighbour, no matter what I think of his hunting excursions. My neighbour is contravening no laws of the land. Meanwhile, I support legal reforms aimed at a sensible gun registration system, no matter what it costs in terms of dollars. As for the reformation of the human heart, well, that can be more difficult. Fortunately, outside of the world of film noir, miracles do happen.
- Triviography: “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Gun Crazy”
- My article on issues of violence in film: Gibson’s Gory Passion
- Starting over again: is it possible?
- So. Who's directing your life?