Reading a few of the reviews of the version of Bonnie and Clyde that just aired simultaneously on Lifetime, The History Channel and A&E can be demoralizing if you’ve seen (on a real movie screen, please) the original 1967 film by Arthur Penn.
 
Coverage of the new miniseries, directed by Bruce Beresford, gets into questions of realism, the sets and the pretty costumes.
 
Mike Hale in The New York Times is perceptive enough to call Beresford’s work inoffensive and middle-of-the-road. But Hale also misses the point of the 1967 film when he praises it for convincingly rendering “the texture of rural Texas” and for the “bravura” performances by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
 
The issue for Arthur Penn’s film, written by Robert Benton, David Newman and an uncredited Robert Towne, isn't realism. It’s fiction. It’s a dream, and like an important dream it hits you in both your gut and your psyche. It digs into you, and its meaning never stops growing.
 
An easy example comes in the character of Buck Barrow’s wife Blanche. In the new production, Blanche (Sarah Hyland) is a pretty rival to Bonnie; she doesn’t like hearing Bonnie in the throes of love-making, and that’s pretty much it. In 1967, Blanche (Estelle Parsons won an Oscar) is not a beauty; she’s a preacher’s daughter caught up in a life that doesn’t suit her and she’s an annoying mass of shrieks and panics and jealousies. Near the end, Blanche sits in a jail hospital, her head entirely bandaged. In her literally blind, naïve resentment she gives up the name of the fifth member of the gang, and the scene echoes the movie’s pattern that jokes, like Blanche, will turn deadly dangerous. 
 
The new version establishes a psychological realism that doesn’t matter. Young Clyde and his brother working in a Texas cotton field show that life was tough and that Buck turned Clyde to crime. Clyde is also psychic; he senses when trouble (the law) is coming. These details smooth out the story – we “know” (or think we know) why Clyde robs banks and shoots people, and his nose for trouble alerts the audience to upcoming shoot-outs. No jolts to discomfit the audience.
 
That kind of niceness is what the 1967 "Bonnie and Clyde" blew out of the water. Unexpected, unexplained eruptions of violence into a pretty world are the point, and can’t be explained by well-composed images of Texas cotton fields or pretty dresses.
 
The Texas of the 1967 "Bonnie and Clyde" is a heightened, simultaneously gorgeous, lurid and threatening landscape filmed by Barnett Guffey ("The Informer", "In a Lonely Place", "Birdman of Alcatraz").
 
At first, Guffey’s Texas looks like a playground for two of the most beautiful actors in the world. Pretty soon it becomes the terrifying southern Midwest of The Great Depression and ugly crimes.
 
The 1967 "Bonnie and Clyde" was and still is a frightening, even dangerous movie about American society. Penn’s film waps the audience back and forth between fun and murder, providing a powerful commentary on the contrast between the apparent comforts of home and the utter horror being visited upon the people of Vietnam as well as American soldiers.
 
In a famous comic sequence, one sweet evening. two lovers get into a comic jam with the Barrow gang. It’s great fun, except by that point in the movie, the audience knows that scenes pretty and playful have a way of turning bloody.
 
Bosley Crowther, then the august and often pretentious critic of The Times didn’t get it. He wrote, “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'.”
 
Arthur Penn told me that when that review came out, his heart sank. He was sure the film would be both a commercial and a critical failure. But that day, attendance was terrific, and when Crowther railed against the movie in his Sunday feature, attendance spiked, until Penn said he and his gang were hoping that Crowther would hate the film every day.
 
It was a generational thing. I don’t think many young people bought the weak Robin Hood connection the film makes for Barrow and Parker. Young people, more than their parents, understood viscerally the rebellion in the film – against the Vietnam War in particular, but also the repressions and hypocrisies of American society in general.
 
The 1967 film opens on Dunaway as Bonnie, apparently naked, pacing around her bedroom, so full of frustrated sexual energy that she’s almost popping out of her own skin. She looks out to see Clyde (Beatty) about to steal her mother’s car. She pulls on a flimsy dress, runs down the stairway, all sex and anticipation, and after some smart verbal foreplay, Clyde, on a dare, robs a store, fires his gun on the quiet, perfect (not realistic!) Texas village street – and off they go.  
 
A lot of mostly young people instantly understood that Bonnie and Clyde articulated for them the critical mass of rebellion, sex, violence and (yes!) politics that was at the core of their lives.
 
The recent critics are right – the new film is mostly interested in recreating the period (albeit as it never really existed) in pretty colors and costumes, and details of Clyde’s early life, which the 1967 crew knew were irrelevant to the crux of their story.
 
The real, but unintended, achievement of the new piece is to embody how timid and pointless American cinema can be. According to the ads, you can even join a fantasy Barrow gang on Facebook. Gee.
 

"Bonnie and Clyde" (2013)
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Joe Batteer and John Rice
Starring Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch 
 
"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by Robert Benton, David Newman and Robert Towne (uncredited)
Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty