23 April 2009

Crime May Not Pay But it Can Be A Blast

*Super Spoiler Alert*

Dying in a hail of bullets. In reality it would doubtless be a gruesome way to go. In films it can be positively romantic. Especially if your demise comes at the end of the film and you've had one helluva fun ride along the way.

If you haven't seen Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or The Wild Bunch (1969), avert your eyes. Better yet, click out of this window and watch whichever of these outstanding movies you missed. Thank me later.

Released within two years of one another, all three depicted robbers cum killers living and loving to the fullest until death does them part from this world. Their similarities, like their popularity, were no accident. Western culture was transforming in the late 1960's and rebellion was in. Of course none of this troika depicted rebellion but their anti establishment sensibilities were pretty clear.

Bonnie & Clyde came along first. Here were a duo whose unconventionality even tinged their love making, or the curious lack thereof. They also teamed up with three unlikely compadres. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the title characters were every bit the beautiful and charismatic leading couple audiences wanted (and then some). But their designated driver C.W. Moss, played by the ever eccentric Michael J. Pollard, took the notion of what a gangster looked and acted like and turned it upside down. Pug nosed, quirky, imps who sobbed after nearly botching a getaway were something new for a new time. Along with Gene Hackman as Clyde's brother Buck, there was the hysterical sister-in-law Blanche. A role that garnered Estelle Parsons an Oscar. While the Barrow gang's two leaders were classic gorgeous Hollywood anti heroes, the rest of the quintet seemed like people we might run into at the grocery store. Their fates were sad, yet ordinary, a sharp contrast to the blaze of glory with which Bonnie and Clyde shuffled off this mortal coil. Grand fates were reserved for the truly grand.

Like Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid immortalized a historic twosome. Both movies took great liberties with the truth of their stories in pursuit of art. Butch and Sundance, of course, were a couple of guys. But not just any guys. Goodness me, has the movies ever had a pairing of men so appealing as Paul Newman and Robert Redford? It would be hard to think of a twosome that could match them let alone one that did. While Bonnie and Clyde plied their trade during America's Great Depression, Butch and Sundance were, symbolically methinks, cavorting about at the end of an era. Specifically the closing of the American Frontier. Indeed it started closing in on them so fast they had to lam it to South America. Australia would have been next.

Both pairs of heroes were careful to do their pilfering from banks leaving poor folk to have their pittance. This was another appeal to audiences then (and now for that matter). No better way to "stick it the man" than heisting his loot and if you could spread a little love around to those in need, all the better.

Butch and Sundance did not have a motley crew. They did have Katherine Ross and there was nothing motley about her in 1969. Thus these three protagonists were very easy on the eyes. When crooks look like models rather than sewer rats they're a damn sight easier to root for. And when those beauties are shot to pieces we feel all the worse for their fate (that their real life counterparts were not nearly so undeserving is immaterial). In Bonnie & Clyde we see seemingly every damn one of those umpteen bullets penetrate their bodies. It's more balletic than brutal. More artistic than awful. In Butch Cassidy we see nary a single shot deface out heroes. They freeze in tableau as the hail of bullets are fired at them. Round after round. The scene is left to our imaginations and most of us choose just to remember them poised and posed in time. Gory details are absent. The cessation of their lives suffices to punctuate their story.

The Wild Bunch is in many ways a very different movie from the other two and may strike some as an odd choice to include here. There is a gang, not a dynamic duo. The heroes are not beautiful people, but symbolically to the story, aging gunslingers. There is no romance just a drunken romp with a few female Mexican villagers. The Wild Bunch did not have quite the same appeal to young audiences as the other two films and may not seem to be an anti authoritarian a movie to some.

Like Butch and Sundance, the gang here was doing its deeds at the end of an era and there is even more symbolism to their time and venue. It was Southern Texas and Mexico just before World War I fully introduced the modern age of killing. We get a glimpse of this as the gang employs one of those new fangled machine guns to mow down the enemy. Indeed by the time the bloodletting is done it seems the romantic Old West has bled to death too.

William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson were not exactly spring chickens when they starred as the Bunch. And of course that was part of the point. These were old men trying to hold on to their old ideas long enough for one last score. They end up taking on a corrupt and just god awful Mexican general and his army. So there you have at. A gang of outlaws decide suddenly to do the right thing. With Holden uttering one of Hollywood's greatest ever two word lines -- "let's go" (but it's the way he said it) -- they embark on a suicidal attack against the military. You don't get any more rebellious than that, folks.

As in the other two films our heroes die by gunfire -- lots of it. But in this case, though bloody and operatic, it is a bit less dramatic than the aforementioned films as they fall one at a time. Also, these heroes actually win their final battle, though of course making the ultimate sacrifice in the bargain.

In all three movies audiences found themselves not just siding with, but heartily rooting for blatant law breakers. However we had plenty of reason to cheer them. Women, children and virtually anyone “innocent” was spared. These were anti heroes and part of that heroism was that they lived life on their terms (don’t we all wish we could? Most of us can’t even tell off the boss, let alone rob the b*stard). And by God they were having one great big barrel of fun in the bargain. Some of these heroes were witty, some were good looking, some were philosophical. All shared a passionate hatred for any constraints society tried placing on them. Jail was out of the question. Hell, a 9-5 job was unthinkable.

They had to get blown away at the end though. They were paying for our sins, those misdeeds of theirs we rooted on and imagined ourselves doing. (It was left to A Clockwork Orange (1971) a few years later to go the next step and leave its criminal deviant alive and well thus leaving to us to wrestle with our consciences.) These were not the crime-doesn't-pay endings of Film Noir. Their deaths made them and their exploits legendary. Its hard to forget such endings, and with no further exploits to come, we remember their deeds all the more.

Of course whatever these films were about would have been moot were it not for the fact that they were visionary in style. The honor roll of directors: Bonnie & Clyde, Arthur Penn; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill; and The Wild Bunch Sam Penckinpah.

I could have gone in ever so slightly a different direction and included Robert Aldirch’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). It did, after all feature a bunch of cons, though led by a legit Lee Marvin and performing a noble mission during WWII against the Nazis. It had many of the same elements of three films featured in the post. Especially with Charles Bronson’s clarion call to the Sixties as its closing line, “I hate officers.” (Thanks to my friend and fellow film buff Marty for pointing out to me the significance of this line.)


John said...

Good article Richard,

Michael J. Pollard was, and is, an interesting actor who generally played quirky characters. One of his lesser known roles was in an early 1970's film called "Dirty Little Billy", where he played William Bonney (Billy the Kid) not as a smart or living by his wits outlaw but as a not very bright farm boy and filthy little punk. Certainly an alternative version unlike say Robert Taylor in “Billy the Kid”, Emilio Estevez in “Young Guns”, Kristofferson in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” or Paul Newman’s ‘rebel without a cause’ Billy in “The Left Handed Gun.” Pollard’s Billy is probably no truer than these other versions though it is a different look at the outlaw.

Skitch said...

Great article as always!

Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch are two of my favorite westerns of all time...and I don't much care for westerns.

It's amazing how many people have no idea what The Wild Bunch is. I love to have fun quoting Sykes' "Who the hell is 'they'?" rant and see the stares people offer in return.

Sooner or later, one gets used to those stares...

Keep up the excellent work!