Saturday, November 26, 2011

Film #67: Xia Nu (1971)

Title for us English-Types: The Dignified Lady, a.k.a. A Touch of Zen

Director: King Hu

Initial Release Country: Taiwan

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Chinese scholar helps a young woman deal with corrupt government officials who pursue her. Many people brandish swords and jump really high.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis. Spoilers included.)

In a small village in Ming Dynasty China, a young man named Ku lives a humble life. He is an artist and a scholar who ekes out a living doing portraits and scribing. The only seeming worry is his mother, who constantly badgers him about his bachelorhood and apparent lack of ambition for more prominent work within the government.

Within a short span, several strangers appear in the town: Doctor Lu, the blind fortune-teller Shih, a government official named Ouyang, and the young woman Ying. The very private and rarely-seen Ying actually moves into the supposedly haunted fort next to Ku's ramshackle home, which is part of a larger dilapidated and disused castle.

Over the next several days, it becomes clear to Ku that each of the newcomers is hiding something beneath their simple public personas. After a few moments of mystery and suspense, Ku learns that Ying, whose real name is Yang, is the daughter of a former magistrate who was going to inform the emperor of massive corruption. The primary figure involved in the corruption is someone known as “Eunuch Wei”, who intercepted Yang's father and had him tortured to death. Yang flees with two trusted generals – Shih and Lu – until they find refuge in the monastery of fighting Buddhist monks and remain there for two years.

Back in the present, Ku and Yang share an evening in each other's arms. Shortly after, Ku helps Yang and her two general protectors to lure Eunuch Wei's forces into a trap. Using local superstition and his own mechanical contrivances, Ku entices hundreds of Wei's forces, led by corrupt local officials, into the “haunted” fort and methodically lays waste to them with various traps. His plan is executed brilliantly, but he finds that Yang has fled the morning after their night-time victory.

Yang, Ku, and the generals trek through the jungle. You can bet that bodies and blades will be soaring through the air, shortly.

Ku, over several months, tracks Yang back to the monastery where she previously was sheltered. Before he can ascend the monastery mountain and find her, though, a monk brings down a newborn child – the result of his single night with Yang. With the child is a note from Yang asking that she not be disturbed, for she seeks permanent solitude in the monastery. Ku, dejected, begins to take the child home.

Ku and his infant son do not get far when he is accosted by a small band of soldiers, headed by Hsu Hsen-Chen, the brutal and powerful leader of Eunuch Wei's forces. Before Hsu can take Ku, however, Yang and the monastery's master, Abbot Hui, intercede. The immensely powerful yet impassive Hui uses his remarkable martial skills to eventually subdue and dispatch the considerable might of Hsu, though not before receiving a mortal wound at his hands.

In the end, the wounded but living Ku and Yang look on as Abbot Hui struggles to ascend a nearby rock formation. Hui sits in a lotus pose and becomes one with Buddha.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this one viewing, before any research on the movie.)

This movie is as good as I can imagine a kung-fu movie getting, which tells me that kung-fu movies just are not my thing.

A Touch of Zen has a ton going for it, which is good since it clocks in at over three full hours. There are plenty of compelling things that will enthrall a viewer, as they did me. The movie blends several strong components with a style that, though familiar, takes on a different feel due to the unique setting. However, after a certain point, the genre elements of the movie became rather dull.

The movie is divided into two parts, as most 180-plus-minute movies are, and the division is not just temporal. The very style of the movie changes drastically between the first and second parts. When dwelling on the first part of the movie, I can't help but think of the previous movie that I reviewed for this blog, Once Upon a Time In the West. Like that and other Leone films, A Touch of Zen begins with very deliberate, quiet pacing. It allows the viewer to passively drink in the scenery, the characters, and everything about the setting. I found this enjoyable since the director, King Hu (yes, that was his name – your sophomoric joke here), had a real eye for camera placement. I don't know if he was a student of Sergio Leone's films, but the parallels are hard to miss. Plenty of wide-angle shots cut with close-ups, featuring the vibrant faces and varying landscapes catch the eye throughout the film.

Many of these earlier scenes in the village create a great feel for the little place, not unlike Sergio Leone's Westerns.

Another great strength of the first half of the film is revelations about the various mysterious characters. It takes well over an hour to get the whole story of Uoyang, Ying and the generals, but until you do, the intrigue makes for great theater. I also found it great that a lot of the suspicions and enigmas are, initially, merely hinted at through looks and gestures rather than superfluous dialogue.

Hu definitely took a slow-burn approach to this, and I loved the way that it inched its way into the movie. It starts with a small attack between two people. To this point, there has been nothing outlandish in the film. Suddenly, in the midst of a fight, two fellows are deflecting daggers with their bare hands and leaping ten to twenty feet in the air off of tree branches. These initial dashes of the supernatural work well within the movie early on, and they lend an entertaining sense of adventure.

However, the second part of the film defines the phrase “too much of a good thing” to me. Whereas the first 90 minutes mostly comprise still moments punctuated by gradually-extended action sequences, the second half of the film is almost all action, with very few quieter moments. It's pretty neat to see a few people flying around like trapezists and dueling with swords for a bit, but after an hour, I found it tedious. I can certainly appreciate the acrobatic, choreographic, cinematic, and editing skill that all of these scenes took, but come on. Once the point is made that the characters are possessed of these Buddha-granted fighting powers of extraordinary magnitude, it morphs into pure stylization. And I can only handle so much style when there's no substance being added.

Abbot Hui, whose Enlightenment will kick your ass off.

A saving grace did come at the end for me. While roughly 45 minutes of the final hour of the film consists of extended fighting sequences, the finale is one of very interesting imagery. Abbot Hui, who was brilliantly played by the quietly imposing Roy Chiao, sitting in the lotus pose with the setting sun forming a halo behind him puts a wonderfully ambiguous and iconic stamp on the tale. Perhaps the implication is clearer to viewers more familiar with Buddhism, but a novitiate Westerner like myself is left to marvel and ponder exactly what this all means, especially in light of the fact the never-seen arch enemy, Eunuch Wei, is never conquered.

Despite this satisfying and metaphysical moment of closure, it takes a long time to get there. It also highlights one of the things that I wanted to see more of – the monks. Perhaps restraint was the best course here for the filmmakers, as too much of these orange-robed warriors as salt might have spoiled the broth. Still, I felt that there were plenty of questions left unanswered about this key component to the story. What is their philosophy, that it leads them to train themselves into nigh-unbeatable unarmed combatants? How do they do it? What is the synthesis between the pacifist Buddhist mindset and the ability to throw trained soldiers around like rag dolls? The lack of exploration of these questions left me wanting.

The only other thing that bothered me is something that the filmmakers possibly had no control over. Maybe due to a shoddy DVD transfer, some of the night scenes are impossibly dark. Typified most by the long midnight ambush of Ku and Yang's followers on Eunuch Wei's forces near the end of Part 1, there are times when the viewer can barely tell what's happening on screen. It's only emphasized by how well the rest of the movie is shot, with its masterfully composed sets and framing. The night sequences often blur into random shadows rushing around amidst the screams. The impenetrable murk did little to enhance these moments. Again, though, this may just be an age and DVD quality issue.

The ultimate question for me with any of these movies is, “Why did the fellows who did the TIME list put it on with the other 99 shows?” Whereas it is totally obvious with many of the movies on the list, with A Touch of Zen, I can only speculate. My guess is that it was probably one of the first films to have the high-flying, effects-enhanced martial arts action sequences that have become renowned the world over, thanks to films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Beyond this, it combines pathos with a polished, epic feel that many action films aspire to, but rarely achieve.

Would I watch it again? No. Not in its entirety, at least. Oddly, I would watch the slow first hour for its gradual and soothing pacing. More though, I would watch the final ten minutes again, as the final scenes offer some food for philosophical thought. You can keep the 90-plus minutes of over-the-top sword fights.

Take 2: Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the movie.)

When it comes to this movie, there's really not a wealth of material to dog through on the Internet. Within what I did find, there was nothing surprising. Critics, both past and present, hailed A Touch of Zen as an excellent film, in terms of technique (It won the 1975 Cannes Film Festival Technical Grand Prize, and was nominated for the Palm d'Or.). No shocker there, as the visuals still hold up exceptionally well, even here in 2011.

The theme of Buddhism comes up quite a lot. Apparently, King Hu was lauded for his blending of the philosophy with the flash and style of the fighting sequences.

The only other common thread running through any materials I found was how A Touch of Zen has continued to be emulated. Virtually every site I found mentions either Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers, or both. All you have to do is watch a ten-minute clip of the 1971 original movie to see exactly why.

Would I recommend it? Only to people who know they like kung-fu movies, as A Touch of Zen is to kung-fu movies what the Godfather is to mafia flicks. It set standards that have and will persist through the decades. If, like me, the genre is not your thing, I highly doubt you'll be willing to hand over the three hours it takes to watch. Maybe just youtube the final ten minutes or so.

That's a wrap. 67 shows down. 38 to go.

Coming Soon: The Godfather (1972):

Yes!! I'm as excited about this one as I was about Casablanca. I don't care what kind of film snob you might be, you lose credibility if you don't enjoy this classic. I haven't watched it in several years, so I'm due. Come on back and see how I put my admiration to words.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Film #66: C'era una volta il West (1968)

Title for us English-Speaking Types: Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Mysterious drifter meets beautiful widow in the Wild West. Tangles with a wild outlaw, a bad dude in black, and railroads. Stares at everything.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

An unnamed man (Charles Bronson) with a penchant for playing a harmonica arrives in a developing part of the West during the expansion in the 19th century. He has come looking for revenge against man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Frank is a cold-blooded assassin hired by a railroad magnate, Morton, to help his railroad reach the west coast. Standing in their way is Jill, a former prostitute who has recently married the enterprising Brett McBain, a landowner who has been murdered, along with his three children, by Frank and his gang of thugs. McBain had, years before, foreseen that the railroad would need to come through the area, so he bought land and planned to build an entire town around it – a town he would name Sweetwater. Now, only his widow Jill is left to see his dream come to fruition, if she avoids Morton and Frank's attempts to get rid of her.

Mixed up in all of this is the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Cheyenne is on the run from the law, but has a certain dignity and code that ingratiate him to both Harmonica and Jill. Cheyenne has been framed by Frank for the murder of the McBains, so he also has motivation to find this cunning killer. It takes a while for Harmonica, Jill, and Cheyenne to uncover McBain's plans for Sweetwater. Once they do, they realize their aims are in line with each other. After some close calls and a few twists, Morton is killed by Cheyenne's men, and Harmonica gets his showdown with Frank. Harmonica shoots Frank in a stand-off and only then reveals that he is the younger brother of one of Frank's many victims over his bloody years. He has waited patiently for decades to confront Frank and put an end to his murdering life.

Harmonica gets his cold revenge.

With Frank dead, Harmonica heads away from Sweetwater, the construction of which is now in full-swing. Brett McBain had bought all of the wood and supplies needed to construct the train station and the town around it. With Morton and his goons out of the way, Jill and her dozens of hired men are free to build up her dead husband's ultimate wish.

An exceptionally detailed, full plot summary can be found here, at imdb's website.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

I now see why the creators of the TIME list put this one on there. It's not only a standout western, but simply a great movie, regardless of genre. My quick-shot summary above gives you no idea of just how great.

I had watched this once before and wondered why, with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly already on the list, the fellows at TIME had put another Leone western on it. After all, aren't his westerns all similarly unique in carrying those Leone trademarks? Yes and no.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is brilliant, no doubt. (You can read me gush about it in this post that I did several weeks ago). And while there are glimmers of some deeper commentary about U.S. history and violence in the movie, it is ultimately an epic adventure story. Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes hop from locale to locale, trying to out-duel and outsmart each other in ways that keep the watcher engaged in a very accessible way. Once Upon A Time in the West, despite some excellent action sequences, is another breed.

With this film, Leone slowed things down considerably. One only needs to watch the first ten minutes to see it. In that former film, you start with an extended close-up and a few slow minutes of build-up before you get Tuco Ramirez gunning down three bounty hunters and crashing through a barber shop window. In Once Upon A Time, it's nearly ten minutes of almost no action. We watch three of Frank's men walk into a train station and patiently wait for Harmonica as the opening credits intermittently pop up. Missing also is the early introduction of a rousing Ennio Morricone soundtrack, which one doesn't hear until nearly ten minutes in. I imagine that many modern viewers would lose patience with such pacing, but it's perfect for conveying the eerie and misleading stillness of the terrain and the characters.

It takes nearly ten tension-building, dialogue-free minutes to get to the first piece of fast action. Harmonica (in the distance) is about to show these 3 hombres what happens when you mess with the quiet guy in a Leone Western.

It is with this same slow and gradual pacing that the entire story of the film is told over two hours and forty-five minutes. I can't help but think that many modern viewers would not have the wherewithal for it. For those who do, though, there are payoffs galore. The sweeping long shots of the wide open southwestern terrain are incredible, surpassing even the earlier works of Leone himself. I was reminded of another director's observation that Leone, like many other Italian artists raised on steady diets of classical painting techniques, had an innate knack for frame composition. Time and again in this movie, you can simply drink in the landscape and marvel at how the characters and their story fit into it.

Of course, the movie isn't telling the tale of southwestern U.S. geography. Its lifeblood is in the narrative and the characters. Like his other spaghetti westerns (a slight misnomer, since some scenes were filmed in Utah and Arizona), Leone's characters are not exactly the most well-rounded you will ever come across. Still, they are intriguing, and they have just enough facets to make them compelling. Sure, Harmonica is pretty much the same “man with no name” that Eastwood played in the “Dollars” trilogy; and sure, Cheyenne is a slight twist on Tuco Ramirez from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. All the same, they're entertaining. The most novel addition is Jill – easily the strongest and most prominent female character in any of Leone's movies.

The biggest eye-opener in terms of characters is Frank. Not so much because of the character (not too dissimilar from Angel Eyes in The Good) , but because of who played the role. Having established and all-American swell guy Henry Fonda gunning down children, kidnapping women, and generally exuding evil is hypnotic. With those piercing eyes and almost kindly voice, it borders on terrifying to see him do his butcher's work with such icy satisfaction. Fonda was so good at the role that it almost seems a loss that he didn't get pegged for more dastardly roles earlier in his career.

Fonda's gaze is as dead as the pale corpses he leaves in his wake. Tom Joad, this ain't.

Fonda is clearly the standout, but a few other performances shouldn't go overlooked. Charles Bronson is, well, Charles Bronson. He's still. He's quiet. He has a mean glare. That was enough for this role, just like every other role he every had. Claudia Cardinale is solid as the world-weary ex-prostitute, Jill. She was smoking hot, no doubt, but also has a sultry wisdom that fit the part to a tee. Easily the best of the other main players, though, is Jason Robards as Cheyenne. Most markedly in his scenes with Cardinale, Robards is outstanding as the scuzzy yet compassionate, larcenous yet honorable criminal. I don't think I'll put him up there with Tuco in my esteem, but he's pretty close.

On top of the great visuals, pacing, and solid characters and acting, is the underlying theme of western expansion. This is what puts this movie over the top. While Leone made a few feints at social commentary and figurative imagery in his previous film, he really goes for it in Once Upon a Time, and I feel that he does it right. The West was “won” by the sweat, blood, and pain of who-knows-how-many people, and the idealism and greed of wealthy magnates who didn't much care who got ground up along the way. This movie can be seen as a forefather of more modern film takes on the subject like There Will Be Blood. Fortunately, Leone never bashes you over the head with symbolism. Probably the best moment of restraint is when the decrepit rail magnate Morton is dying, face-down near a tiny puddle. We could have been treated to a clumsy interposition of the Pacific Ocean right then, but we aren't. We simply see the image play out, along with Frank, and take in just how a grand scheme can end so pathetically.

The rail magnate Morton gazes at a picture of his dream, the Pacific. The closest he gets is the shallow pool of dusty desert water, where he dies.

If there's anything to nitpick, one is that Leone often pushes verisimilitude to the back so that clever film style can be front and center. Some scenes are easy to dismiss as a bit silly and unrealistic, such as when Frank's thugs silently take over the auction for the Sweetwater property. A touch goofy it may be, but even scenes like this are simply chances for Leone to use visual rather than dialectic storytelling. And, as anyone who has seen and knows his films can attest, he was brilliant at this. I've always been a fan of being forced to actually watch the movie, and not just rely on exposition. I can see why some viewers might poo-poo these sequences as parlor tricks of sorts, but I'm always amused and impressed by them.

My only other minor gripe is that the Ennio Morricone soundtrack in Once Upon a Time is not quite as strong as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. It's certainly as quirky and unique, but I actually found the integrated harmonica wail mostly annoying. Luckily, Cheyenne's theme song had a playful bounce to it, which accompanied the character's more amiable nature nicely.

Jason Robards has the look and psychology of the cynically humorous thief, Cheyenne, down pat.

Any who enjoy westerns or simply well-crafted movies that make full use of the techniques particular to the medium should give this one a serious shot. As I suggested in my review of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a good primer is working through Leone's three films with Clint Eastwood, starting with the 90-minute A Fistful of Dollars. The production isn't nearly as sharp (it was probably made with about $45), but the director's skill is easy to see. If you enjoy that, work your way through the rest, and cap it off with Once Upon a Time in the West, probably the most enduring of them all.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little more research on the film.)

After some digging, I am reminded why many movie lovers can be forgiven if they have never seen or even heard of this movie. Here in the U.S., it was a total flop.

Thanks to Paramount's meddling and editing, the original had 20 minutes cut out of it, which never helps narrative cohesion. More than this, though, was a seeming lack of preparation on the parts of the viewers. Both Paramount and American audiences were hoping for another skewed, high-paced action flick like the previous "Dollars" trilogy. They weren't ready for such a slow, deliberately paced movie. Even Roger Ebert, who was often ahead of the critical curve with his viewing eye, was lukewarm in his original review in 1969. In contrast, French and Italian audiences loved it. So much so that the movie would run in some places for up to four years following the initial release. In the U.S., it barely lasted a few months.

It wasn't until the mid-80s that the studio restored the original version, and the few American cinephiles who had always revered it could share their vindication. With the intercession of decades, you see the movie pop up all over “best movie” lists.

On the DVD I watched, the most recent special release, there are some excellent short documentaries, featuring past and modern interviews with some of the cast and crew, as well as several prominent modern film directors. They all marvel at how Leone concocted an ultimate summation of the greatest American westerns in Once Upon a Time. The list of films from which he drew is almost an encyclopedia of the genre's greatest works – High Noon, Shane, the Monument Valley films of John Ford, and around a dozen others. Leone not only blended the strongest elements of them all, but he added his own style and cynicism to the themes and characters. One modern commentator called it a massive homage to, and final dirge for, the film Western.

Taking a play right out of the John Ford play book, Leone shot several scenes in the exact same spots of Monument Valley. This shot, along with dozens of others, capture the expansiveness of the whole region.

A note of more specific interest was learning how the music for the film fit into the process. Contrary to almost all other films, the music score was composed first, and the scenes shot to match. The four primary pieces of music, each specific to the four main characters, are introduced separately in turn, and then blended by the end of the movie. The effect is truly remarkable, and a testament to Leone's vision.

Actors loved working with Sergio Leone. This only came as a surprise to me in light of the fact that he was such a visual perfectionist. Another renowned perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick, was notoriously difficult for actors to work with, because of his demands and inflexibility. Leone, on the other hand, gave his actors plenty of latitude to do as they saw fit. Integrating such freedom from performers with his own crystal clear vision is something that boggles my mind.

A final note on Leone's film genius. As I'd heard mentioned when researching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, apparently Leone never did any story boarding of any kind. Unlike nearly all other highly visual directors, who physically map out their scenes so that the sequencing is correct, Leone had a pure, completely finished tale worked out in his head by the time filming began. I'm reminded of the scene in Milos Foreman's Amadeus when Salieri marvels at seeing Mozart's uncorrected, flawless first drafts of his symphonic and operatic scores. Whether this was true of Mozart or not, it was very true in Leone's case. The fruits of such a sharp imagination can be seen in all of his works.

So again, I highly recommend seeing this movie for those with the time and who know what they're in for. Be patient, soak up the beauty of it, and know that you are watching a film Western classic the likes of which can only be imitated, but never replicated.

If the film artistry isn't enough of a draw for you, maybe this shot will entice you. It also explains why Claudia Cardinale as Jill had jaws dropping across oceans.

That's a wrap. 66 shows down. 39 to go.

Coming Soon: A Touch of Zen (1971)

I'm totally in the dark about this movie. Never heard of it, and only know that it looks like a sword-swinging kung-fu extravaganza. It'll also be the first Chinese movie that I review for this project.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Film #65: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director: Arthur Penn

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Restless Texas redneck lovers go on a bank-robbing spree during the Great Depression. “Laws”, emotional highs and lows dog their heels.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

Rural Texas, 1931. The 21-year old Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is agitated by her dead-end life as a waitress living with her mother in a small town. She spies a handsome, dapper young man outside of her house, casing her mother's car, seemingly to rob it. After running out to stop him, the two strike up a conversation during which the man, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), readily admits that he has recently been released from prison for an attempted robbery. Bonnie is skeptical to the point of egging Clyde into robbing a nearby grocery store. When Clyde does just that, Bonnie, rather than flee the armed robber, readily hops into a stolen car with him and drives out of town.

When the pair stop just outside of town, Bonnie is so overcome with excitement that she throws herself at Clyde. Surprisingly, Clyde roughly rebuffs her, claiming that he “ain't no loverboy”. Despite this odd reaction to the beautiful and willing Bonnie's advances, the two see that they have a unique connection with each other. Both are seeking to make names for themselves by breaking away from societies' rules. Clyde plans to rob his way to fortune and fame, and Bonnie is all too happy to join him.

The pair of fugitives size up the next member of their little gang.

The two make a failed attempt to rob a bank that has recently gone out of business, but they soon start to find more success. After picking up a strange and disenfranchised young gas station attendant, C.W. Moss, as their getaway driver, they manage a successful bank robbery. However, Clyde shoots and kills a man during their semi-bungled escape.

Once in a safe hotel room, Clyde offers Bonnie a chance for escape. Realizing that he will now be wanted for murder, he urges Bonnie to return home and avoid any potential capital punishment. Bonnie refuses to leave Clyde, thus reaffirming their bond to one another. The two attempt to consummate their love, but Clyde's impotence prevents it yet again.

The trio of fugitives soon meets up with Clyde's older brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), a fellow ex-con, and Buck's wife, the reserved and rather dim-witted Blanche. The fun-loving and simpler Buck readily joins his younger brother's crime spree, Blanche in tow. Clyde welcomes the company of his brother, but Bonnie soon becomes highly agitated at Buck and Blanche's utter lack of sophistication. While Bonnie has some spark of creativity, even writing poetry, Buck, Blanche and C.W. seem to find the game of checkers the height of mental gymnastics. The tensions begin early and grow steadily.

The gang of 5 continue robbing banks throughout Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other nearby states, hopping borders in order to avoid capture. They avoid some early attempts at capture as they perfect their thievery. They efficiently loot multiple banks, but never take any money from the more humble farmers and locals. Their legend and fame grows rapidly, as newspapers regularly report the deeds, as well as falsely attributing several robberies to the gang.

The gang grows more confident and skilled in their robberies.

Eventually, the law begins to close in. After C.W. Allows himself to be seen in a little town, the police raid the gang's hotel room. After a furious and bloody shootout, the gang escapes, but not without serious injuries. Buck sustains a horrible head wound, Blanche suffers eye damage, and Clyde is shot in the arm. After camping outside to recover slightly, the gang is once again tracked down and attacked. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. Manage to get away, though Bonnie is also wounded in the arm. Buck and Blanche are not so lucky. Buck is shot again and soon dies. Blanche, now completely blind, is taken away by the police.

The injured Bonnie and Clyde are driven to safety by C.W., receiving a little support along the way from impoverished Dust Bowlers who are awestruck by the celebrity thieves. C.W. takes the pair to his father's tiny farm, and the man seems to welcome them. This ostensible kindness is merely a front, though. As Bonnie and Clyde recuperate, C.W.'s father privately berates his son for a fool and eventually informs the Texas Rangers about the two fugitives.

In a simple set-up while Bonnie and Clyde return from buying groceries in town, C.W.'s father pretends at having car trouble. The pair pull over to assist, but do not sense the trap. Before either Bonnie or Clyde can react, let alone surrender, a score of Rangers and lawmen open fire upon them from behind the nearby bushes, riddling the couple and their car with dozens of bullets. The mutilated corpses of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow fall limp onto the ground, ending their renowned spree.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research on the movie.)

Really good movie that holds up exceptionally well.

Bonnie and Clyde may not seem so special to modern, first-time viewer, but with a little awareness of the context, it's not hard to see why it is considered so very influential. Based on my film-watching experience, it created a unique blend of tried-and-true standard film-making conventions with a dash of the novel, leading to entire shifts in the way that crime stories have been told in film.

The story itself is intriguing enough, being based in reality. I personally don't know much about the real Bonnie and Clyde, but I'm eager to do the research for the Part 2. I have to assume that the screenwriters took certain liberties with the dialogue, and even some of the action. What little I do know, however, tells me that the singular personalities and passion of the titular pair of thieves is not a mere fantasy. The bizarre quirks of the two – Bonnie's predilections towards intellectualism and Clyde's sexual impotence, to name the most obvious – give the story a very compelling eccentricity that is lacking in most crime films.

Of course, such unique characters can only be given life by solid acting, and Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty do phenomenally well. While Beatty's Texas accent is a bit inconsistent at times (maybe I can say that only because it's my home state), this is a minor gripe. In all other things, the two actors nail the charm, passion, foolishness, pretentiousness, and rebelliousness that make for intriguing and rounded characters. Being able to pull off such a range of traits can't be easy, but Dunaway and Beatty do just that.

The supporting cast is also quite solid. A young Gene Hackman stands out wonderfully as the loud-mouthed yokel, Buck, and his wife is played to pitch-perfect annoyance by Estelle Parsons. It doesn't take long to see why the more reflective Bonnie takes an instant dislike to the shrieking, mulish Blanche. Even the minor roles by Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder (!) make great accents to the film.

The performances and story are certainly strong, but no stronger than quite a few other good crime movies. What sets this one above the rest, I feel, is the direction. Bonnie and Clyde is one of those rare films that wastes nary a second. Every scene, every word, every glance between characters means something and adds to the tale. From the opening shots of a bored Bonnie Parker, pining away in her room, to the final shots of hers and Clyde's lifeless bodies on the ground, this movie is about as tight as they come. There are certainly quiet moments, as well, but even they invite the viewer to pay close attention, as body language and eye movements are telling stories that words aren't. One needs only see a few of Bonnie's eye rolls to see my point.

The quarters get tighter, and Bonnie's patience with her goober gang-mates runs thinner.

Even beyond all of this is the overall story arc and the tone. Bonnie and Clyde might have been the first movie to tell the tale of two criminals in a way that endears them to the audience, and then shoves their bloodied corpses right in your face. The first half of the movie is far heavier on comedy, a lot of which holds up really well, 45 years later. It feels like you're on a fun little escapade with a few young renegades. However, there are allusions of what is to come. After one bank robbery, a farmer whose money Clyde purposefully did not steal, says to a reporter, “That Clyde Barrow done alright by me. I'll be bringin' the Missus to their funeral.” This and other signs remind the viewer of just how this will all end.

Once the “laws”, as Clyde and Buck call them, begin to close in, the humor begins to fade and deadly seriousness takes over. There's a sequence in the film when, at Bonnie's behest, they go out to see her mother and family in a remote rock quarry. The scenes are shot in a washed-out, sepia tone that lends a hazy heaviness to this part of the story. This is totally appropriate, as Bonnie mother senses her daughter's imminent demise and detaches herself with a final, matter-of-fact goodbye.

When the end finally comes, director Arthur Penn puts his ultimate stamp on violent film-making. With a death scene that would be emulated within a scant few years in films such as The Godfather and others, Bonnie and Clyde are mowed down in quick, brutal fashion. In such scenes in earlier films, I can't recall them ever being so shockingly realistic. The likable duo are machine-gunned to death with a scant few seconds. There is no slow-motion or music score to add any semblance of romance or glory to it. There are no death throes or final words from either of the two lovers. One moment they are smiling and alive; the next they are simply no more.

This single frame gives a good sense of just how brutal the finale is. It's lightning-quick and ultimate.

It is the elements in this final scene that set a standard for film violence that many directors misunderstand and misuse today. Someone like Michael Bay seems to think that the violence itself is the artistry and the draw of such things. However, he glamorizes and ultimately anesthetizes people to it through cinematic slight-of-hand. David Cronenberg, on the other hand, follows the Arthur Penn model, in his way. If you watch the death scenes in his recent films A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, you see that these scenes, while few in number, are brutally graphic and shockingly quick. I heard him explain in an interview that this is because he wants the audience to know that violence is not to be polished up for easier consumption, even in a tale of fiction. I think Arthur Penn had this figured out long before his imitators.

Bonnie and Clyde is a revolutionary film, though probably not so obviously a one as other films. It wasn't until I watched it, slept on it, and thought about it for a day that I realize this. I would recommend it virtually anyone who is not completely turned off by rather graphic violence, as the latter half of the film features plenty of it. This aside, it has something for nearly any attentive film-watcher.

Take 2; Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after further research on the film.)

There's almost no end of material that one can lose oneself into when it comes to the Bonnie and Clyde film. Let's start with the real history:

Volumes have been written, so in the interest of time, I went to that oh-so-reliable reference source, wikipedia (hey, I'm running a blog for fun here, not writing a dissertation!). It becomes quite clear that Arthur Penn's movie, as is usually the case with movies, plays extremely fast and loose with the facts. Sure, some of the locales and people's names are correct, and even a few of the general actions are true to fact. Still, a large portion of the true story was molded, shaved, and fashioned into something very different. And this, of course, was the only way that it would work.

The reality of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is, of course, far less sexy and far more tragic than a Hollywood movie can convey. While true that the two were renegades and had no small affection for each other, the film conveniently leaves out just how many civilians they murdered. Or about Barrow's very troubled younger days, being raped in prison at age 16, essentially channeling his rage to become the personification of the philosophy “Get rich or die trying.” If you read a brief description of Bonnie and Clyde's exploits throughout the Dust Bowl, you become less sympathetic than you probably would be for Beatty's and Dunaway's more affable duo.

The real deal Bonnie and Clyde, goofing around with a shotgun. Unlike the film, in which the duo are unarmed when killed, the originals were loaded for bear and had already taken the lives of multiple civilians and lawmen, alike.

Of course, Arthur Penn's film makes no claims at being a documentary, and so we can view it in a very different way.

Apparently, the going was very rough for the production of the film. A few very talented people were interested, but Warren Beatty landed the production rights. After the film was made, the studio and test audiences apparently hated it, so much so that the studio was planning to only release it in Texas drive-ins. The story goes that Beatty literally begged the studio, on hands and knees, to give it a real chance. They did, to initially lukewarm and even poor reviews. When it was released, the original TIME reviewer called it “sheer, tasteless aimlessness”.

After several months hovering in obscurity, people eventually came around. Once again, Roger Ebert, having only been at the professional film critic gig for less than 6 months, was ahead of the curve. In this more modern 1998 review, he outlines the story of the film with far more detail. He also points out some of the more interesting tones and themes in it, some of which I mentioned in my own “Take 1” above.

In short, the novelty of the movie has resonated right through the succeeding decades, into out very own. For those of us who have grown up with Thelma & Louis or Natural Born Killers as part of the mainstream movie landscape, Bonnie and Clyde may seem rather tame. One only has to realize, however, that this movie was the granddaddy of them. As with Citizen Kane, in inspiring so many imitators in terms of techniques and styles, it's almost hard to see Bonnie and Clyde for just how embedded its innovations are in so many movies that have followed.

I suppose what brought some of it home to me was reading about how many of the early 1967 audiences were shocked, bordering on disgusted. Bonnie and Clyde was seen by many as more violent and sexual than any movie had a right to be.

And you know what? The kids loved it.

Even now, in 2011, some of the scenes have a somewhat uncomfortable promiscuity to them, but maybe that's just that 1960's, grainy look that the film has. Whatever the characters are doing, it always seems to be more illicit when it was filmed in the 1960s and 1970s. Whatever the case, younger viewers were right on board with the maverick tones of sex and violence flying right in the face of the moral majority.

All of this just scratches the surface of the myth-versus-reality angle, the story of the film angle, and any of a number of others. All I really need to do is reiterate that, if you haven't seen this movie, you really should give it a shot. If you do, and you really watch what's being said and done, it's easy to see it for the a truly revolutionary work.

That's a wrap! 65 shows down. 40 to go.

Coming Soon: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

As much as I love Sergio Leone and his movies, I was surprised that they put a second Western of his on the list, already giving The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a slot. Whatever the reason, I certainly don't mind setting aside about three hours to watch more long shots, extended close-ups, and bizzaro sound effects, as scuzzy buckaroos try to out-shoot and out-stare each other.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.