Film Studies: True ballad of Bonnie and Clyde

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The Independent Culture
If ever there was a screenwriters' film, you'd say, it was Bonnie and Clyde. And the first pleasure in Russel Leven's knock-out documentary on its making is the glee with which the writers, David Newman and Robert Benton, conceived the real Texas desperadoes of 1931 careening from laughter to hurt, like French New Wave characters. The writers had written on spec, but they felt something changing in the wheels of narrative. They loved the work of Truffaut and Godard, and they nearly hooked both the Frenchmen as directors before they ended up with Warren Beatty.

Benton was from Texas, and the two writers toured the country where the real Barrow gang had done their best to rob banks and dress for the magazines. But then you notice an odd thing - Benton's own films (Places in the Heart, Nobody's Fool) are so much gentler than Bonnie and Clyde. So Newman, you suppose, was the dynamo - he's a bit of a rascal in the documentary. But Newman the writer has done nothing remotely as good as his 1967 classic.

So where did Bonnie and Clyde come from, and what was its intent - if you leave aside the urge to make a lot of money, and put something sensational on the screen? Take a look this Saturday, when BBC2 will play the movie, followed by a documentary that seems possessed by the speed and one-upmanship talk of the original film. We've had too many placid studies of how classic movies were made. Leven knows you've got to inhabit the film, share its energy and its genre. In this case, that means being insolent and then observing the effect you've had. Bonnie and Clyde is a very American film, but it has one French attitude: it takes its own pulse, and cries Wow! at its own giddy pace. Call that cute self-awareness, or paradox: the film is shot through with the lethal contrast of sex and death, bullets and laughter, blood and light, dust and glamour. That was the volatility, the blur, that Newman and Benton lusted after.

The documentary traces the writing, the flirtations with Truffaut and Godard, and the eventual falling into the laps of Warren Beatty, Warners and Arthur Penn that was as merciful as it was decisive. For those three parties were not aligned. Warners was still Jack Warner, a haven for stale confidence. Beatty and Penn were smart, daring and sensual, and they had collaborated on one of the most pretentious films ever made in America, Mickey One.

Beatty is compelling in the documentary. He seems years younger, and he talks with gusto - there's none of the ornamental hedging that has become his style in recent years. It's as if recollection restored the conviction and moment of l967. The comparison is not stressed by Leven - one critic tries to make the point - but just as Clyde throws off impotence when Bonnie celebrates him with doggerel verse in the newspapers, so this movie for Beatty was the passage of a sub-Dean pretty boy to one of the great producers of his age. It's about being recognised.

It's fascinating to feel the authority working on the one thing that was "wrong" in the Benton-Newman script. They had C W Moss (the kid driver and mechanic) as the fulcrum in a bisexual menage a trois. That seemed true to the emotional history of the real gang, and it appealed to the writers as a proof of that cliche-busting panache they wanted.

Beatty and Penn knew it was wrong - for what they wanted. It took away from the general attractiveness of the central couple. It could have compromised Beatty as actor and image. And it snapped the vital bond between outlawry and our sexual participation. In short, it gave up fantasy. Penn and Beatty were actually truer to old Hollywood than Jack Warner could have dreamt. So they puzzled it out and came upon the scheme that Clyde is afraid of sex.

That was the key to the love story. Now no one else came between two fierce animals made for each other - Bonnie and Clyde, or Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They nearly make love at the outset, but Clyde has some restraint, a lameness in his big gun. And so the audience longs for obstruction to be overcome and desires fulfilled. This happens - not just in the writing of poetry, but in the slow-motion death scene in which the bodies roll and writhe together - without ever touching.

In the documentary, you get Beatty, Penn, the writers, Dede Allen (the editor), Estelle Parsons, the composer, the designer and the costumier. You don't get Dunaway, Gene Hackman, or the secret yet important figure of Robert Towne, the writer Beatty took on location to Texas to get the script the way he wanted. (Towne was credited as "Special Consultant".) No matter, you will be thrilled to see the picture come alive; and you can marvel at the ingenuity. Could you ask for anything more? Well, maybe, just one thought - about the intimate convulsive spiralling of love and death, and the self-destructive force of the picture that also made a fortune.

There was something new in the narrative, and it's still there - urging you to throw yourself over the edge.

`Bonnie and Clyde': Saturday, BBC2, 9.50pm. `American Desperadoes: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde': Saturday, BBC2, 11.40pm.