Where exactly does Bonnie and Clyde rank in the American pantheon? It's a bona-fide classic, to be sure. It placed on the American Film Institute's Top 100 in 1998 and again in 2007. It's also on the IMDB's Top 250 list. Upon closer inspection, however, it's far more than a perfect, polished gemstone. Rather, it's a bundle of contradictions. Everyone knows that it was a groundbreaking film of its day, the first to incorporate a new kind of violence and moral complexity into the mainstream. But screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman borrowed these elements directly from French New Wave films like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1959) and Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960). In fact, Truffaut was the first director approached for the project. Despite this, Bonnie and Clyde somehow transcends time. More than just a moldy relic of the 1960s, it has aged much better and is far more watchable today than, say, Easy Rider (1969) or even The Graduate (1967).


It also doesn't quite fit into the cult of the director. Arthur Penn made some great films in the 1970s (Night Moves, for example), but he has been on a decline that even the staunchest auteur critics find difficult to reconcile; one of his most recent theatrical efforts was Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989). Warren Beatty could be considered an auteur of sorts; his combined career as a producer/director/writer and star has showed an incredible business savvy and artistic control. But this was his first outing in the producer's chair and he was far from a big star. Likewise, just about everyone else involved was a rank amateur at the time, except for cinematographer Burnett Guffey (In a Lonely Place, From Here to Eternity), who was in his sixties at the time and must have thought the whole ramshackle production was insane. Shooting on location, the studio heads had little idea what was actually going on. A screening for Jack Warner went badly; he got up three times to pee. The film opened to a scathing New York Times review and sluggish box office. Weeks later, Pauline Kael's New Yorker review raved, the fashion world began to pick up on Faye Dunaway's spiffy period costume (with beret) and people started buying tickets. It eventually received ten Oscar nominations but only won two, for Guffey and supporting actress Estelle Parsons (see interview).

The tale by now is familiar. Bank robber Clyde (Beatty) picks up the pretty, bored blonde Bonnie (Dunaway) and they begin a crime spree. "We rob banks," is one of the great lines in movie history, as they introduce themselves to a couple of poor, out-of-work, Depression-era farmers. Bonnie wants Clyde in every way, but Clyde is more or less impotent; the movie doesn't exactly advertise this but doesn't shy away from it either. Perhaps uncomfortable with Bonnie alone, Clyde begins recruiting new members: car expert C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde's boisterous brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck's shrill wife Blanche (Parsons), whose screaming and whining would have worn thin if not for Parsons' appealingly comic delivery. At some point, the team picks up Eugene Grizzard (Gene Wilder) and Velma Davis (Evans Evans) but dumps them soon after when it's discovered that Eugene is an undertaker. Denver Pyle (later on TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard") plays the marshal who proves to be their undoing.

The plot is a series of largely disconnected events, with moments of brilliance regularly popping up. Bonnie grows more and more paranoid and despondent, and longs to visit her mother. The film brings us to a reunion picnic, but instead of happiness and warmth, it only brings more foreboding. The day has a hazy, dissipated feel, and Mabel Cavitt, who only has a few lines as Bonnie's mother, delivers one of the most powerful eulogies in film. In another scene, Clyde wakes up to find Bonnie gone. He spots her running across a field and he chases her as the camera rises into the sky and a dark cloud moves overhead, ominously covering everything. That wasn't CGI. It was luck. Indeed, I suspect that luck, and timing, is the reason Bonnie and Clyde worked so well then and continues to work. Like Casablanca (1942), it's a product of the all the right talents coming together in exactly the right place at the right time. No auteur could have made it, not Hitchcock, Kubrick, Anthony Mann, or anyone else. And it could never happen again.

A little past the film's 40th anniversary, Warner Home Video is re-issuing a brand-new 2-disc DVD (and Blu-Ray), which supplants the shoddy 1999 edition. Extras include several new talking-head documentaries; every single major player returns to be interviewed, including Beatty, Penn and Hackman. And why not? They all owe their careers to this film. Robert Towne, who "consulted" and worked on the screenplay without credit is here. (Even perpetual hottie Morgan Fairchild, who doubled for Dunaway, turns up.) There's a "Bonnie and Clyde" documentary from the History Channel, Warren Beatty's costume tests and some deleted scenes (minus dialogue tracks).