In the Heat of the Night (Directed by Norman Jewison)
The Nominees: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Bonnie and Clyde (Directed by Arthur Penn)
My Nominee: La Samourai (Jean Pierre-Melville)
At the very moment that violence was breaking out in American cities over Vietnam and Civil Rights, the academy voters selected as their 1967 Best Picture winner a film that tried to address the problem of the country's race relations. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, established the tense racial division by packaging it as a standard police thriller. The film proved very little in terms of social progress, but it was an acting tour-de-force for both Rod Steiger as a Mississippi sheriff and Sidney Poitier as a Chicago detective who is reluctantly enlisted to help him solve the murder of a local businessman.
It was a good film but not a significant one. My choice, on the other hand, is one of the few films of the 1960s that is credited with changing the direction of American film. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was a fast-moving, romanticized biopic about the legendary duo that robbed and killed their way across the Southwest in the early days of the depression. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before, employing shocking bits of violence and two heroes who are gun-happy criminals.
Bonnie and Clyde is a biopic but Penn doesn't have much use for the facts. This is a highly stylized version that only uses the framework of this true outlaw story. The point of the film is the characters, they meet, they talk, they do stupid things, they feed their own legacy and ultimately they go down in a hail of bullets.
Bonnie Parker meets Clyde Barrow one morning as she looks out her window and sees him trying to steal her mother's car. He looks the car over in the manner of a man intending to buy. They talk, she likes him, he takes her for a ride and before you know it, they are robbing banks and grocery stores. It isn't the profit she is interested in, she just likes Clyde's fearlessness and the fact that he makes armed robbery look like a fun little game.
That's the point of the crime - it isn't the rewards, but the adrenaline from the act itself. We understand very early on that Bonnie and Clyde are not very good criminals. On his first bank holdup, the teller laughs as he informs him that the bank went under three weeks ago, and Clyde walks out with $1.98. Holding up a grocery store for food, he nearly loses his hand when a butcher attacks him with a meat cleaver. The crimes are not presented as realism and all through the film we see the manic zeal with which they approach each holdup. They act less like desperadoes and more like rowdy kids on a spree of mischief.
They also lack the talent for planning. Most of their jobs are done on the spur of the moment and when they are caught off guard, it usually turns fatal. They recruit several people for their gang but probably regret it later. First is C.W. (Michael J. Pollard), who leaves his job at a gas station and joins them because he knows how to fix cars. Then he recruits his brother Buck (Gene Hackman) who is all too willing to go along but unfortunately has to drag along his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). They rob banks without a second thought but they usually find a kink in the plan, as when Clyde is forced to shoot a bank manager in the face during a getaway because C.W. parked the getaway car.
They are lousy criminals but they have charm and a talent for spinning their own publicity. Walking into a bank, Clyde announces “Good afternoon, this is the Barrow Gang,” and Bonnie writes poetry about their exploits and sends them off to the newspaper in an effort to feed their publicity. Unfortunately, as their fame grows, so does the determination of the police to find them. A pall of death hangs over the gang's heads and even seems to be in the landscape as in a scene when Bonnie runs frightened into a field and a dark cloud rolls in just overhead.
A visit to Bonnie's mother is the saddest scene in the film. Bonnie wants to move in next door to her mother but her mother, all the wiser, informs her that this is the best way to find herself in an early grave. The woman seems to be in a state of shock, whimpering as she says "You know Clyde, I read about you all in the papers, and I just get scared." Her daughter tries to reassure her but it's no use and as they leave, the old lady mournfully says, "Bye, baby," somehow sensing that it is the last time.
What is amazing about this film is the delirium with which these two lovers commit these crimes. Clyde is impotent but it is never spoken of, both he and Bonnie know it and so the rush of the crimes makes for a surrogate sexual charge. They get so caught up in what they are doing that it becomes a source of food and of money. Then as their fame grows, they become hooked on the luster of their own fame. Eventually, of course, it pushes them into a trap as lawmen from several states hear about their crime spree and become part of the pursuit. Bonnie and Clyde become the victims of their own addiction, they become so notorious that we aren't surprised that they go down in a hail of bullets. We have to ask, what lawman wouldn't want to be the guy who got to proudly say, "Yep! I was one of the fellas that shot Bonnie and Clyde".