I’m hoping to see 4 of Sam Peckinpah films, Straw Dogs (1971) is the first one out of the gates, and very much by chance too. I remember reading about the film long before I really considered seeking it out – the article focused on the infamous rape scene which is probably one of the most violent scenes I have ever watch on screen. It was also a chance to see how the director, a few years after the success of The Wild Bunch (1969) and the quirky melancholic musical Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with far less violence than it’s predecessor. Moving forward he would be going across the Atlantic to a completely different environment – Great Britain, involved in no conflicts, yet struggling with rolling strikes and blackouts. The summer of love is long behind us and things are looking bleak.
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) has moved to rural Cornwall to be with his new wife Amy (Susan George) who from the first few minutes is very much seen from the male gaze, the camera pans down to focus on her chest, clearly not wearing a bra. Partly out of women’s liberation and easily seen as a directorial decision to engage the male before they’re shocked later on in the film. They have just bought a hunting trap, Peckinpah has sewn a seed early on for what to expect later on. You can’t remove the potential image for violence, a man caught within the teeth of the trap that for most of the film’s fixed to the wall. I notice early on, children are dancing in a graveyard, whilst local pedophile Niles (David Warner) looks on quietly at them, not fully aware of what he’s capable of. I’m wondering where he fits into the dynamic of the film, hovering in the background used as a minor character. Warner is sadly not even credited for his role which is staggering when you see his role increase at a pivotal moment in the film.
We learn that Sumner decided to move into his wife’s family home to allow him to study and write his book, something he really wants to focus on. Having escaped his own countries violence, he can finally begin with hopefully fewer distractions. That’s not considering the sexual distraction of his newly wed wife, who sees the world around her far differently to the naive American intellectual whose still finding his feet in this foreign world. They have employed roofers who leer over Amy at any chance they get. The only attractive female in the film, she’s the only object of desire her even though she’s married, it doesn’t stop their actions. David is oblivious to all of this until he is forced to confront what is only going to be an increase of violence against the couple. I’ve not even touched upon Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) who spends the first half of the film in the local pub, seen as the town drunk. We don’t yet know how much power he yields over the men in the village. He’s the Cornish equivalent to a gang leader, a translation of the Western villain to British countryside. His influence and position in the community allow him a certain freedom, he’s probably never left the village since he was born.
Diversionary tactics come into play, taking David away from his wife on what is a very British past-time; Pheasant shooting, a right of passage for those in the country and part of society. The same men who have been work on the barn roof for the couple take him away, into a civilised arena of violence. Hoffman again plays the innocent, useless with a gun at first. Instead of shooting a man, who can potentially defend himself he aims at the defenceless birds who can’t seem to kill at first. When he finally kills he’s repulsed by what he has just done. Instead of taking home his kill for dinner he leaves the lifeless bird in peace. Juxtaposed with the rape scene which the film is now known for, the build up to the attack is pretty calm, as Charlie Venner (Del Henney) whom she previously had a relationship with, moves in to forcibly seduce. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as he gains control, ripping her clothes from her body before he rapes her. Where it becomes blurry for me is when it moves from what looks like rape to possibly consensual, she somehow accepts him and allows him to make love (in the loosest possible terms). Has she given in to his forceful actions, her past feelings overwhelm her working in his favour. The changes with the introduction of Norm Scutt (Ken Hutchison) carrying a rifle, he want a part of her, he wants a share of the action. Amy returns to being an object to be abused, returning her to a victim. I feel uncomfortable again, the sweaty bodies, is not just sexual joy, but pure terror and transfer of empowerment from woman to the men who have violated her. During the scene we have the first flourishes of slow-motion – the Peckinpah signature, here it’s to display the pain and violence towards Amy who has lost her freedom.
This experience naturally stays with Amy and the audience for the remainder of the film, we are forced to experience the imagery in a packed village hall. As she’s forcing herself to try and return to normality, it’s too. She can’t comes to terms with it during the course of the film, events won’t allow her to. When Hedden’s daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) who we see leading Niles away to try and take advantage of him. She wants to abuse his innocence, unaware of his true nature she meets a fate similar to Lennie Hall’s victim in Of Mice and Men. Unaware of either’s power it ends fatally for Janice, the first victim of the night.
The finale of the film is long and drawn out, from what begins as a car accident develops into a full blown home invasion as Hedden on the look out for Niles now in the care of still innocent Sumner who wants to defend his house turns into a homestead under act from the natives who use all their forces to try and break through. A once civilised man is broken as he turns to violence, doing all he believes is necessary to protect his home from outsiders who want to kill his guest and obligation, wanting to do the right thing becomes very dark and murky. I’m reminded of the farmer Tony Martin who shot dead a burglar after entering his property. He too went to fatal lengths to ensure the safety of his property, sparking a nationwide debate. A real-life parallel, not as extreme as the Hollywood depiction, we can still see the lengths that even a quiet man will to.
We don’t truly get to see what happens to the last men standing, where do they go from here. Have the images of a war that have been broadcast daily on his TV been subliminally brainwashing him to pick up a gun a shoot. Has his countries love for guns become part of his identity, laying dormant ready to be awoken. I leave the film shaken by the imagery, the intensity of violence an intense and relentless barrage that we are more than glad to end. I’m now interested to see how the violence couple dynamic is carried through to The Getaway (1972), a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (1967) who get a thrill from violence, unlike the Sumner’s who used it as a last resort.
I’ve just finished a book I bought from my local independent cinema, which has started a small shop. The book I bought was Dogville Vs Hollywood: The War Between Independent Film and Mainstream Movies by Jake Horsley was on the basis it would go into what the title suggest, look at the battle between directors who are either considered auteurs or independent of the Hollywood system. Building on Peter Biskind’s fascinating Easy Riders, Raging Bulls which was an entertaining and in-depth look at the American New wave which began with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and ending around Raging Bull and Heavens Gate (1980). Dogville covers much of the same ground coming up to 2006 (when the book was published).
I remember when I first started reading this book I had a gut reaction to the harsh critical tone that the writer who didn’t check his facts, saying Citizen Kane was released in 1942 – was 1941, and Hitchcock’s first sound film was The Lodger (1927) – it was Blackmail (1929), I found a few more errors but these two stuck in my mind. It shows how fast this book was written, with passionate anger and disregard for accuracy, when talking about the history of any medium in such detail he got things off to a bad start.
The first chapter was an extended review of Lars Van Trier‘s titular film Dogville (2008) which he uses the basic framework for the book. A film made in response to the current state of Hollywood. A film that is devoid of likeable characters, a set that’s limited to suggestion and a dog that it’s just a drawing on the ground. Most notably an all American cast. I do see the film in a new light now which explains a few things. It’s a dogme that had teeth to bite back.
There were sections where pages where the main body of text was fighting the foot notes that were almost half a page long in places. Why didn’t here just incorporate his research into the main body or minimise it, they became not so much backing up the quotes legitimacy but they were points of trivia which pulled you away from the main body. Eventually I just stopped reading them, noticing that Horsley lifted a lot of quotes from two of Biskind’s books; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, showing an over-reliance on superior books on the subject. (I haven’t read the second one yet).
Lastly the overall tone of the book was scathing on just about any director whose mentioned in the book. I agree on some points, the state of Hollywood has not changed in ten years, relying on franchises, special effects and remakes – nothing new there, showing that the argument still stands up. However hardly anyone gets off lightly, unless its a director you’ve never heard of yet. The established directors – Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola etc are seen in varied shades of black. They’ve either sold out, burned out or just faded away. He blame critics for helping Hollywood in the dumbing down of audiences, their expectations and their thinking of a film. You could say Horsley is a film snob who has an axe to grind, has he been burnt in Hollywood and fighting back? It would explain the horrible tone and the scathing attack to practically everyone, he can be fair in places which is rare, whole chapters and sections are rants, building up individuals before bringing them back down to earth with a bump.
I’ve not really learned a lot, except who Horsley hates and hates not so much. I hope in the 10 years since it’s publication he has mellowed.
I was inspired to get out of my collection a film I hadn’t seen in a few years thanks to m friend over at Once Upon a Screen. It was one of the first classics that I devoured when my interest in film was developing, hungry for the more obvious pieces that everyone knows without really having to look to far, readily available to watch you could say. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is also a turning point in American film, breaking the mold of the decaying studio system to deliver one of the then most violent films. Very much a product of its time, that has stood the test of time, still having the power to shock. It may look dated in places however that’s hardly something to complain about, it’s almost 50 years old, yes 50 years old, a film about two of the most prolific bank-robbers of depression era America, a two-man Jesse James gang that drive around the Deep South, robbing from the rich banks that prevented them having the life they felt they deserved.
I can’t leave the subject of violence that my friend discussed, It wasn’t used for the sake of violence. Like any content it has to be used properly and for a reason, unless the intention is to throw you off-balance, a stylistic choice by the director. Violence has since this film and The Wild Bunch (1969) been attributed to a rise in violence which is nonsense, violence was there before both those films and as we know after the events in France its still happens. No one is blaming film-violence for the acts of terrorism there. It comes from a root cause, a method to scare and control. Violence of the screen acts only as a mirror image of life, if we don’t see violence behind the security of a projected image we don’t truly understand the power of violence. It’s not glorified by Arthur Penn its simply mirrored and exaggerated in order to show us how bloody and horrific it really is. Just what Peckinpah built upon two years later using slow-motion that became a signature in hos work. If we re forced to look at it we’re engrossed by it, which we should be repulsed by. The images on the news is the real violence which we’re warned about before a piece of broadcast. To deny violence on-screen is to deny that it happens, much the same goes for strong language which is used right is a true reflection. Obviously not all audience should be exposed to this, learning the dangers of the world through the comfort of fairy tales that have dark characters and morals that stay with you, allowing you to understand the world around you as you grow up. Violence and strong language if dealt with sensitively can be powerful weapons in their own right.
Enough of the lecture and onto the film that I hadn’t seen since I was at uni so over 3 years ago now. I think that was long enough to forget most of the plot, even the odd clip didn’t really join up all the dots. Allowing me to go into this film very much with a fresh pair of eyes, maybe that’s the power of the images that they stay with you long enough that they you can feel their presence even as they fade into the long-term-memory. The events had long since faded leaving a sense of visceral violence and youthful energy that excites you, even though it’s about bank robberies. We are slowly lulled into a false sense of security, an uncertain time of un-seen poverty in America via old photographs that depict suffering, poverty and struggle to survive against the odds, the banks and ultimately the system that itself is fighting to stand-up. Before we meet a young couple in the oddest of situation, a crime is about to be committed, the start of a strange relationship between Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway). Sparks fly between them but not in the standard sexual sense, getting their kicks on the open road in the small towns of Deep South.
It’s the youthful energy that sets this film alight, we don’t really care about what they do in the beginning, no bloods shed. They are stealing from the rich, whilst respecting the poor. In the beginning it’s just the too of them, riding the open road, enjoying the spoils in the cars that come and go like the clothes on their back. As if they don’t have a care in the world, they have their whole lives ahead of them. Before meeting their getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) who wants to share the spoils, add some excitement to his otherwise boring life. It beats the routine of adult life they are now trapped in. Are they escaping adulthood or just the responsibility of it? They are using their bodies to get what they want, becoming powerful forces in the Southern states, forcing the hand of the already stretched banks. They are unaware of the effect they are having, a danger to society, only interested in the notoriety that is produces, they relish it, they are somebody, the Barrow gang as they come to be known when they join up with older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) who is trapped between her upbringing and obligation to her husband.
We have our outsider within the gang acting (Blanche) as the conscience of the film. Scared witless by the acts of violence that escalate, and torn by her love for Buck. Screaming at any given time, out of fear or excitement the line becomes blurred as she comes to accept her position in the gang, neither a prisoner nor a participant in the robberies. We the audience however have the choice to continue watching or turn-away. I stayed. There was too much to not ignore. I noticed that as however modern the content, the violence of the bolemic blood. It’s very classic in terms of production. The interior car scenes are all completed with front and rear projection, this could be due to budget or stylistic choices, to have a classic look, when as early as the mid-fifties car scenes were being taken to the location. We’re reminded we are looking at an artifice not reality, it shows up on-screen, yet we don;t care as we are lost in the energy and conversation of the Barrow gang. We are looking at kids, young people swept up in the moment before reality soon comes back to haunt them.
I could go on about the plot, which we all know, it is also a road trip that charts the life of these two lovers on the run from the law. They start loosing that youthful edge as the presence of the police is not far behind them. Numerous shoot-outs which I had forgotten reference films from the era, loud and messy affairs that are nostalgic for that era of film before the Hays code had been enforced on American film. It’s finally breaking free from those restraints. However as much as they are loosening there lies within a moral, that all these acts of violence will catch-up with you. As we have come to have burned in our minds, as one of modern cinema’s greatest scenes begins to unfold, bringing a close to an era in the South.
The gunning down of Bonnie and Clyde is the only scene I have re-watched away from the film, yet connected to the film is even more powerful, we’ve been taken on a thrill ride through open country, sex, violence and silliness. Reality kicks in, and orders restored in the world, our image of the film’s shattered and reformed. Violence is not a nice thing, as a mentioned earlier, it can kill with ease. The slow-motion image of their death, two dancing corpses being pumped with bullets is hard to swallow yet at the same time parodies the death scene, that moment actors relish, to leave the screen with a dramatic exit. They are also leaving life to something less exciting…death that has no escape. Driving that image home is enough to shock the audience, whilst at the same time wow them with this effect.
Bonnie and Clyde was a turning point in cinema there-after there was no point where you could go back, the fast images of death have been burned into a generation. Wanting more, seeing more on the TV at night with the Vietnam war showing death every night, when it happens everyday on our streets. Cinema had to reflect that not shy away from reality which is far darker than it wanted us to believe. It’s not even just a standard crime thriller as the characters each question their position in society, all equally “rednecks” who are fighting against the stereotype to be something more, it has a voice for the younger generation that was then still fighting to be heard against the establishment.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (lecinemadreams.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Dueling Divas Blogathon: Female Rivalry in Bonnie & Clyde (1967) (thewonderfulworldofcinema.wordpress.com)
- Savage Friday: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.co.uk)
- Film #65: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (scottsfilmwatch.blogspot.co.uk)