In a hopeless attempt to catch up on all the podcasts in my subscription feed, I recently listened to an episode of Maltin on Movies starring film critic Leonard Maltin and his guest, daughter Jessie Maltin. In that particular episode, the Maltins discussed the differences between growing up watching movies in Leonard’s era (late 1950s and early 60s) and in Jessie’s era (she’s 28). That episode caused me to reflect on some of the films that have stuck with me through the years and decades and why. So here is the first installment of a new series I’m calling Growing Up with Movies.
Although I have memories of many, many films I saw as a kid, I can immediately think of three movies that have had a lasting effect on me, three very different movies from three very different directors, the first of which I’ll discuss today. All the movies I plan on discussing were viewed either at The Town Theater in Forest, Mississippi (no longer standing), one of the theaters in nearby Jackson, MS, or on TV from about 1967 to roughly 1980. I’ll probably have more to say about the theaters themselves as we go, but for now the focus will be on the films and how they have affected me 30 or more years later. I’m not sure how many “episodes” I’ll have in this series, but I do hope you’ll enjoy them. (All of these discussions will contain spoilers.)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Arthur Penn, director
The first thing you should probably know about my moviegoing experiences as a kid is that I lived in a small town with one movie theater. We almost never got first-run movies and sometimes had to wait months or years to see “new” films. Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967, but I’m 99.9% sure it didn’t play at The Town Theater until at least a couple of years later. Had it played in 1967, and had I seen it then, I would only have been five years old, and I know I must’ve been at least seven or eight.
Bonnie and Clyde contains at least three images I’ll never forget. The first one comes early in the film as Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) stands naked at her second floor bedroom window, looking down on Clyde (Warren Beatty) attempting to steal her mother’s car. Yet before this happens, we see close-ups of Dunaway, whom I thought at the time was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen onscreen. As a kid, I didn’t understand the boredom and restlessness Dunaway was portraying as Bonnie; I only knew that here was a gorgeous naked woman (although we see very little actual nudity) right there at the beginning of the film. Was this the first time I’d ever seen a naked or partially naked woman in a movie? Probably. Clearly this scene got my attention, but more than this, I remember Dunaway’s face, wondering if anyone in real life could ever be as beautiful as she was. I’m sure that being awestruck with Dunaway is one of the main reasons I was affected so deeply by a later scene in the film.
You should also understand that I saw a lot of movies as a kid. For years I went to the movie theater at least once a week and watched a lot of movies on TV, even before I could understand what most of them were really about. But I knew, even at this young age, that I’d never seen anything like Bonnie and Clyde. It wasn’t a horror movie or a western or a science fiction picture, all of which had certain elements that made me realize – even as a kid – that those films were make-believe. Bonnie and Clyde seemed to be a “real” movie about real people. I knew that there had been actual outlaws called Bonnie and Clyde and while I understood that the actors I watched onscreen really weren’t those people, the film had a weight, a gravity that I recognized. It looked real. It felt real.
So when Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) is killed in a shootout, it seemed like I was actually watching someone die. Just before that scene, Buck was dressed in a white muscle (“wifebeater”) shirt, trying to shield himself with a worn blue-and-white striped mattress. There was something about that shirt Hackman wore (my dad wore them, too) and that mattress – the type I recognized from the homes of poor people I’d seen when I’d go with my Uncle Billy to help deliver fruit and produce out in the country on Saturdays – something about that combination of images that resonated with me that this was a real person that had been alive and was now dead and never coming back. Add to this the image of Buck’s wife (Estelle Parson) screaming her head off, and you’ve got a scene you’ll never forget.
For all of these images – which are potent – none compare to the final death scene, which affects me strongly every time I watch the film. Even when I watch the film today as an adult, I know what’s coming, I prepare myself for it, but I can honestly say that each time I see it, it’s worse than I remember.
I have no doubt that part of that shock came from being a seven, eight or nine-year-old watching a very mature film for the first time, but that’s not what really upset me. A part of it was that – as indicated earlier – I was in love with Faye Dunaway. But that’s really not it, either.
A few minutes before this scene, Clyde had informed Bonnie that they should go straight, give up their outlaw lives and start living as law-abiding citizens. Again, remember that I was a kid. I’m sure my main concept of justice at that time was, “They know they’ve done a lot of wrong things, but they’re going to change their ways. They should be able to start over.”
What I didn’t understand was that actions have consequences, regardless of the guilty party’s level of remorse. I think I probably understood, at least on some level, that Clyde’s statement was perhaps something of a confession to God, that he was sorry for all he and Bonnie had done and things were going to be different. As a young kid, I thought that saying “I’m sorry” was probably enough for most of the things I’d screwed up. I’m sure I said it lots of times as a kid, but I didn’t realize (or remember) that sometimes the offense was still serious enough that I had to be punished anyway, regardless of my apologies.
The death scene seemed so unfair. They were going to change, everything was going to be different! Of course I didn’t know that Clyde was probably just speculating, just blowing smoke. I was too young to know that there was no way they’d live normal lives without any consequences for what they’d done. I didn’t know any of that then, and I didn’t recognize the significance of the quick-cut glances exchanged between Beatty and Dunaway, but I knew they meant something. All of this happens in the space of perhaps one second before all hell breaks loose and the bullets start flying.
My young eyes were simply in awe of the violence, the (to my mind) injustice, and also the fact that the shooting (which was also very loud) seemed to go on and on and on, far past the point in which both characters were dead. And then it ends. There’s no “Well, we had to do it,” speeches from the authorities, no “I wish it hadn’t had to end like this,” nothing. As a kid, I wanted, needed someone to explain this travesty to me, but no one did. As an adult, the scene still chills me. It reminds me of obvious lessons, such as actions have consequences, and that there’s always a price to be paid for wrongdoing, but there’s more to it than that. The death scene in particular and Bonnie and Clyde in general taught the young me that movies – at least some movies – have the power to affect us deeply and change our lives. I’d never really thought of movies in that way before, but I’ve never stopped thinking about them since. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love movies so much.