- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

Robert Benton, whose movie career began officially in 1967 with the appearance of “Bonnie and Clyde,” the debut screenplay for himself and his late Esquire magazine colleague David Newman, was in town a year ago to promote a project that didn’t take the moviegoing public by storm, “Feast of Love.”

Asked if a 40th-anniversary DVD for “Bonnie and Clyde” was in the works, the esteemed writer-director pleaded ignorance. He hadn’t heard anything yet, and all such initiatives needed to come from Warren Beatty, the film’s leading man and producer, now the subject of a career retrospective at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

In the ensuing months, Mr. Beatty evidently got in gear, because a DVD edition supplemented by recollections from many of the film’s collaborators, beginning with Mr. Beatty and Mr. Benton, did appear earlier this year. It’s a gratifying enhancement to a durably vivid and influential movie.

I wouldn’t mind additional testimony from these participants, who include the other major cast members (Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard), director Arthur Penn, editor Dede Allen, art director Dean Tavoularis, script doctor Robert Towne, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle and publicist Dick Guttmann. Even Morgan Fairchild turns up. Who remembered that she was Miss Dunaway’s stand-in back then?

After a faltering start in August 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” became a phenomenal hit on the rebound. The film was decisively salvaged by critical raves, notably Pauline Kael’s evaluation of its merits, shortcomings and traditions in an essay for The New Yorker, published in October of that year.

The success of “Bonnie and Clyde” was also fueled by considerable debate about the filmmakers’ tolerance for amoral protagonists and their flair for violent imagery, which culminated in a stylized dance-of-death simulation of the police fusillade that ended the motorized crime wave sustained by bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker from 1932 to 1934. As the movie was picked up by various sectors, from the fashion industry to the anti-war movement, it morphed into an all-things-to-all-shades-of-opinion cultural chameleon and multipurpose touchstone.

Happily for the historical record, there was never any confusion about the movie’s origins and intentions. David Newman and Robert Benton recalled them in a memoir, “Lightning in a Bottle,” published right up front in the anthology “The Bonnie & Clyde Book,” which also preserves interviews, the shooting script and Miss Kael’s essay.

The writers became friends and collaborators at Esquire during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Mr. Newman was a literary editor, Mr. Benton the magazine’s art director. They evolved a distinctive humorous identity in features that observed shifts in cultural fashion. Among other things, they invented a witty annual summary of these soundings, the Dubious Achievements. Their rediscovery of Bonnie and Clyde, heartland outlaws and folk heroes in the years just before the writers were born, emerged from these preoccupations; they reimagined dubious achievers of an earlier generation for their own, which showed enormous potential for adding fresh examples.

“There was the incredible narcissism of Bonnie and Clyde,” Mr. Newman and Mr. Benton wrote. “They never got rich and … never really expected to. But they did get to be celebrities, and they loved it. … [This] predilection … seemed truer than ever in the ‘60s when our culture was creating a new set of ‘instant celebrities.’”

Originally written for Francois Truffaut, their favorite European director at the time, “Bonnie and Clyde” was also meant to mirror a quality the writers admired in “Jules & Jim,” his seriocomic love story about Parisian bohemians. They too wanted to contrive a new classic that “managed to define the present as it evoked the past.”

One aspect that seems to elude discussion in the new DVD is the sheer volume of scenes that take place inside mock-ups of automobiles. In a vintage interview, Arthur Penn usefully observed that the characters “lived inside their automobiles.”

There are at least 10 sequences in the movie that revolve around extended interplay within obviously pretend cars. The look and dramatic emphasis of these episodes merit a systematic salute. In certain respects, they don’t harmonize with exterior footage, and yet they’re dynamite set pieces. It seems fitting that the movie fades to black while the camera remains inside the death car, moments after Bonnie and Clyde meet their long-foreshadowed doom.

TITLE: “Bonnie and Clyde”

RATING: R (Graphic violence, elements of sexual candor and fleeting nudity; released in 1967, a year before the advent of the film rating system, and then submitted upon re-issue)

CREDITS: Written by David Newman and Robert Benton. Directed by Arthur Penn. Produced by Warren Beatty. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Art Direction by Dean Tavoularis. Costumes by Theadora Van Runkle. Additional Dialogue by Robert Towne, credited as “special consultant.” Editing by Dede Allen.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes, plus about 140 minutes of supplemental material

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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