Bonnie and Clyde, Public Enemies (AFI #42)

April 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm (AFI Top 100 in 100 Days)

As absurd as it sounds, this is the first film I think I’ve ever seen with Warren Beatty in it. Frankly, for purposes of this exercise, I wish I’d seen 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” prior to having already seen Johnny Depp in 2009’s “Public Enemies.”

I can’t help but be struck by the number of similarities between these films. Bank robber falls for girl and drags her into his life of crime, which becomes romanticized. Shoot-outs and bank robbings, punctuated by some dead friends, and ultimately, at least one treacherous friend. The public, in the throes of the Great Depression, helps and even idolizes the criminals; and in both cases, robbers are shown letting regular folks keep their own money during bank robberies. Both cases end in death.

It will surprise nobody to hear that I prefer watching Johnny Depp. Warren keeps this cheesy car salesman grin on his face a lot of the time, despite a similar unspoken understanding that things can only end badly. Both women involved (Bonnie is Faye Dunaway with perfect hair and her counterpart, Billie, is Marion Cotillard, with haunting eyes) have grim prospects as compared to being on the lam with sexy robbers. In Bonnie’s case, she might have found a rich man to pluck her from poverty, because of her beauty; Billie’s case was more complicated because of her ethnic background. Bonnie has more to lose, but Billie has fewer options. Both women are loved unquestioningly, and for each, this becomes more important than the paltry fact that her lover is a robber and a killer.

As a musician and scorer myself, I always notice the music and pay particular attention to it in my own work. Both scores have a lot of bluegrass banjo in them, but in the end, I prefer the score to “Enemies” because it also mixed in some slide guitar. Slide guitar is sexy, and did more to accompany the seduction of a life of crime, than the constant banjo during “Bonnie and Clyde.” (I kept waiting for the dueling banjos.)

Both films show a stalwart lawman, trying to get his man. In “Enemies,” there’s a lot more to understand about the pursuer and his motivations. In “Bonnie and Clyde,” Denver Pyle (yep, that would be Uncle Jesse from “Dukes of Hazzard”) follows up more from a sense of personal outrage than anything else.

As for filming style, both films make use of the wide expanses of the midwest, and cramped, dark hiding places; “Enemies” can at points make you motion sick owing to the HD-handheld camera style during action sequences. Would Arthur Penn have used that technology in “Bonnie and Clyde” had it been available to him? We can’t ask, as he died in September. It is an interesting question.

Does “Bonnie and Clyde” deserve to be on the AFI list? I don’t think so. I see it as pretty close to the same film as “Public Enemies,” and while I did enjoy “Public Enemies,” would not describe it as among the Best Ever (nor did the Academy, or most professional critics).

For argument’s sake, though, I will provide an alternate title which I believe should have been on the AFI list, instead. I will at least try to keep my replacements in similar genres. Seeing “Bonnie and Clyde” as a 1930’s crime drama, I’d replace it on the AFI list with 1987’s “The Untouchables,” starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert DeNiro.

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