“We rob banks.” Spent a swell couple of hours last night running from the law with Bonnie and Clyde, after reading Sasha’s suggestion yesterday. I was struck by how effectively Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty glamorized and sexualized shady behavior, turning a couple of heinous low-lifes into tragic heroes. Expanding brilliantly on the New Wave foundations laid by Godard’s Breathless eight years earlier, Arthur Penn created a cinematic sensation that paved the way for a string of post-modern mob films that stretches from The Godfather to The Departed. Truly a pivotal masterpiece that marked seismic shift in the direction of American movies, 40 years later it‚Äôs as jolting as ever.
So successful was this newfound formula that the very next year, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled the same slippery amoral trick with its adorable duo of hunky frontier gunslinger outlaws. Buddy pictures pairing heartthrobs with cowboyish machismo work like a charm, as exemplified in last year’s 3:10 to Yummm.
The outlaw mystique explored most recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and American Gangster highlights a fascinating clash of charisma and crime. The extraordinary photo comparison here shows just how much the glamour of Bonnie Park and Clyde Barrow was enhanced for the buffed-up hyper-reality of the movies — but adjusting for decades of hotness inflation and improved standards of grooming, maybe not exaggerated by all that much.
(With a healthier lifestyle in more sophisticated times, the gutter-rat grubbiness of the actual Bonnie and Clyde might’ve cleaned up pretty nice. A week at the spa and a makeover at any decent Supercuts would smooth out a lot of the rough scary edges… or hey! maybe the quantum leap in good looks is just further convincing evidence of evolution!)
Warren Oates‘ resemblance to Dillinger is astonishing in the John Milius version from 1973, as mentioned by several savvy readers a week ago. It’s rare when an actor can reproduce a Memorex replica of their real-life characters without the help of makeup. It’s uncanny, but in the final analysis irrelevant to the impact of a great movie. Sure, there might be alternative casting choices (like this mugshot matchup) that might more accurately mimic the creepy/skanky personas of the actual historical figures in Public Enemies. But that would be an entirely different movie, wouldn’t it?
Once again, in Michael Mann’s upcoming Public Enemies, it’s pretty much impossible not to glamorize gangsters when the casting is culled from the cream of Hollywood’s Hawt List. It’s quite remarkable that the star wattage is very nearly matched by the undeniable magnetism of the real life people they portray in the photos above. (Though Melvin Purvis clearly gets the biggest boost in refinement, from fugly to fresh, in his CAA upgrade — or is Christian Bale with Endeavor?) There hasn’t been a Rad Pack gang of bangin’ riffraff this tight since Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio said hello to my little friend.
If we established last month that the “Fuckability Factor” is a reliable measure for generating box-office bucks and ultimately attracting Oscars — and this year’s Oscars proved that the rule held true — then Michael Mann has assemble a winning hand with this Hollywood Royal Flush.
In 1968 — the peak of the anti-war anti-establishment counter-culture movement — the lawbreaking rebellion of Bonnie and Clyde tapped in to the radical unrest and political turmoil of the era with prescient timing. Non-conformity was in, civil disobedience was cool, and kids were getting shot full of holes on a daily basis in a tragic scenario far more devastating that anything the movies had ever been allowed to show. The nihilistic attitude was already primed by a numbing decade of watching the nation’s youth wrung through the meat-grinder of Vietnam.
Bonnie and Clyde was shocking for its graphic violence, but perhaps even more stunning and controversial for its sexy and stylish portrayal of murderers and thieves. As usual, the media hyperventilated about the provocative screen treatment. Meanwhile, moviegoers felt no little internal conflict over mixed feelings of felonious pistol envy — anesthetized to the callous savagery they witnessed every night on the evening news, the romanticized immorality was absorbed without qualm. Already emotionally battered by current events, disaffected audiences surely must have swooned, dazzled by the swank hooligans.
While empathy for the gangster psychology dates all the way to back to the 1930’s (the same decade when the most famous mobsters rose to prominence in the public eye) the early crime films were produced long before the contemporary concept of anti-hero was applied to outlaws who operated outside the acceptable realm of normal morals. John Houston set the stage with The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, another milestone film so far ahead of its time it took nearly 20 years before David Newman, Robert Benton, and Robert Towne put audiences in such intimate proximity with a complex and personable gang of criminal minds.
Denzel Washington caught a lot of flak last year for making gangster Frank Lucas likable and even alluring. But there’s ample precedent and valid artistic rationale for dramatizing gangster glamor in ways that enable audiences to relate sympathetically to society’s rebels. It’s maybe a tool to understand the social and cultural forces that breed an alternative lawless underworld — and equally important to examine the reasons law-abiding people can sometimes seem to put infamous criminals on a pedestal.
It could be that prohibition — an oppressive authoritarian infringement on personal liberty that made criminals of any average citizen who might want a sip of beer — helped create a restless national attitude in which racketeers and two-bit rum-runners were seen as romantic anarchists against a social system that sought too much control over the personal pleasures of the general population. (Gatsby made his millions smuggling whiskey, but it took the movies much longer than novels to depict bootleggers and hoodlums as elegant tragic heroes.)
Caught in the clampdown of severe economic hardship and harsh divisions of social strata, it doesn’t take long for people to invent ways to overcome the unjust repression. So it’s easy to see how gangsters and outlaws can quickly attain celebrity status (especially when it’s so blatantly obvious that those in authority are also busy inventing new ways to make a buck from corruption to circumvent the very laws and restrictions they’ve arbitrarily imposed).
Gangster lore resonates because the struggle to rebel against a tyrannical social system that seeks to keep huge segments of the population under the thumb of bloodsucking bureaucratic control is as old as civilization itself. Rarely is the positive identification with thieves so clean-cut as with a Robin Hood legend, but when the failed banks, evaporated savings, and brutal foreclosures of the great depression ruined the lives of so many families, it’s little wonder that any rascally individual who dared come along and stick it to the bankers would be regarded with a complex mixture of revulsion and awe, fear and admiration.
There’s good reason to validate and defend the romanticized and gorgeously stylized image of gangsters and the mafia in the movies. The moral questions don’t trouble me a bit, especially when the idealization of maverick mobsters results in so many damn fine films.