On August 13, 1967, Bonnie and Clyde movie changed. The gory biopic, starring Warren Beatty and an ascendant Faye Dunaway, was released in theaters and – to the surprise of Warner Bros. – was a hit with the public, who rushed to see the gangster photo. It had unprecedented violence for a studio film of that era and quickly became a darling within the industry; the film was nominated for several key Oscars, including nods for its core and supporting cast, best writing, best director and best picture. He lost that year (to the benefit of the Sidney Poitier vehicle In the heat of the Night) but still ushered in a new wave of films inspired by the 1970s.
It would therefore be natural to think that the critics of the time were also fond of this revolutionary film. But that’s not quite what happened. Some have defended the film, including prominent voices like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. But many others trashed it, criticizing Bonnie and Clyde like a bloody, empty project that has degraded modern cinema. Here are some of those reviews:
Variety: Critic Dave Kaufman began by beating the script, saying the titular bank robbers had been portrayed as “incompetent, clumsy, dumb guys”. He then criticized Arthur Penn’s directing style, calling it inconsistent, before praising Dunaway and tearing up Beatty, as well as Michael J. Pollard and Gene Hackman, who “are more clowns than villains as gang members”.
New York Times: Critic Bosley Crowther’s second paragraph makes his opinion clear: “It’s a cheap slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of this sleazy, moronic pair as if they were as much fun and frolic as the Jazz Age cuts in Resolutely modern Millie.” Like many others at the time, Crowther was put off by the film’s violence and Penn’s “aggressive” directing style in this regard. The film could would have been “a frankly commercial movie comedy,” if it weren’t for those “stains of violence of the most macabre sort.” . . . This mixture of farce and brutal murder is as pointless as it is tasteless.
Time: The title of this review pretty much says it all: “Low-down Hoedown”. It doesn’t get better from there; the film was criticized for being “an odd, aimless mix of fact and patter that sways uncomfortably on the edge of slapstick.” The script didn’t come out unscathed either, shredded for creating characters with no “discernible form”. The plot “leaves in all directions and is full of holes”.
It was normal for the course of Bonnie and Clyde. That said, the movie had some amazing champions, including:
Roger Ebert: The legendary film critic gave the film a perfect four stars, foresightedly calling it “a milestone in the history of American cinema, a work of truth and brilliance.” He also applauded the film’s audacity: “It’s also ruthlessly cruel, sympathetic, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking and stunningly beautiful. If it doesn’t seem like these words need to be linked, maybe it’s because movies don’t very often reflect the full spectrum of human life.
Pauline Kael: the New Yorker The critic who never watched anything twice had a similar vision to Ebert’s, remaining attuned to the contemporary nature of the film. “Bonnie and Clyde is the most thrilling American film since The Manchu Candidate,” she wrote. “Audiences are aware of this. Our experience of watching it has to do with how we reacted to movies as children: how we came to love and feel about them. that they were ours – not an art we have learned over the years to appreciate, but simply and immediately ours.”
Joe Morganstern: the Newsweek criticism was the most curious case of the group. At first he wrote a bitter review of Bonnie and Clyde, tear him apart like so many of his colleagues. But then he saw the film again on a Saturday, this time to a room full of delighted viewers. He changed his mind and did something reviewers rarely do – he immediately wrote a second review, disavowing his initial response. “Monday morning, I walked into Newsweek and wrote a six-column review,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “It started with a description of the previous review, then I said, ‘I am sorry to say that I consider this review to be extremely unfair and unfortunately inaccurate. I’m sorry to say that I wrote it.