Saturday, June 23, 2012

One Long Look (and a little history too!)...Gun Crazy [1950]

In 1967 when two characters by the name of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker first appeared on movie theater screens, their presence would make a lasting impact on the forever changed American cinema. With its release, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was an instant hit. Its gritty yet romanticized depiction of sex and violence won over both critics and fans and marked the beginning of an exuberant trend that would soon occur in the movies. Bonnie and Clyde became one of the first motion pictures connected with and created under the New Hollywood era. Paving the way for the soon-to-arrive big Blockbuster pictures of the 1970s (JawsStar WarsApocalypse Now), this new era of American filmmaking favored more studio control, bigger budgets, and less hindrance by censorship policies. The covers were finally ripped off in movies so to say.  Movies from this era such as The Graduate and Blow-Up pioneered a trend of unrepressed sexuality while films like Straw Dogs were packed tight with gut-wrenching violence.  Penn managed to sustain both of these exotic themes in perfect balance with Bonnie and Clyde and in the end managed to create a masterpiece that has yet to be forgotten.  Innovative, striking and perverse all adequately describe this great movie and very deservingly, Bonnie and Clyde will always be remembered as an American classic holding its place on the AFI’s list of 100 Best American films.

But Bonnie and Clyde technically did not mark the movie debut of the two rambunctious bank robbers.  Seventeen years prior to Penn’s movie, the couple appeared on screen under the names Annie Starr and Bart Tare in the 1950 film Gun Crazy directed by Joseph H. Lewis.  Also taken from the real life account of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Gun Crazy tells the same story of two impulsive, bank robbing lovers- and did it first.  Though Gun Crazy was also a smash hit on its release and remains a critical acclaimed film (preserved in the National Film Registry), it is hard to say the original outshines its successor.    Many people simply do not know the original 1950 film exists, while others simply prefer to pass on it in favor of the more modernized, sexualized and violent 1967 version.

Similarities aside, Bonnie and Clyde and Gun Crazy together represent the phenomenon of this singular story as constructed by two different eras of American filmmaking.  Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde had the freedom to blast their way through everyone and everything, showing it all too.  His film includes one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history.  But back in 1950, violence to the extent at which it is displayed to the audience in Bonnie and Clyde was not tolerated by censorship regulations of the time.  Lewis’ surrogate Bonnie and Clyde duo was forced to implement the same type of violent renegade characters only in a more repressed and subtle manner.  These tightly-bound censorship policies manifest themselves in a particular scene from Gun Crazy in which a long take is employed.  Here, the differences between the old Classical Hollywood and the New Hollywood are on full display.  

Separating these two eras is not solely the use of a long take in the earlier film.  Although it has appeared less and less with each decade, the long take was not quite yet a rarity in 1967s.  What is striking about this particular long take was the specific manner in which it was employed.  Bank robberies in the movies always carry a sense of excitement.  The stick up, the actual robbery and the getaway are always high-intensity moments, even if everything goes smoothly for the crooks beacuse there is always a chance it won’t.  So the long take would be the last thing you would think to use in this situation (favoring quick editing and high speed montages), especially when this camera never leaves the car.  This unconventional use during a point of potentially high action would be unheard of for today’s standards and probably even during the 1960s.  But despite this, the scene is not ruined.  Its use certainly demands a bit of patience and if so, the long take in this instance can work to heighten not diminish the drama.  Never leaving the confines of the car, we are left without a clue wondering if all is going smoothly for Bart inside the bank.  And it gets worse when Annie too leaves the car to confront the policeman leaving the viewer in an unusual and uncomfortable position- all alone inside the car.  

Given the style of filmmaking in the 1950s, incorporating lower budgets and having to pertain to stricter censorship policies, maybe nothing I mentioned above was even considered when they were figuring out where to put the camera for this scene.  Showing the robbery take place inside the bank would take more time and money and if it was out of the budget, a solution would then be to keep the camera inside the car and not show it all.   And even worse, maybe the camera remaining in the car gives the audience a sense of safety, knowing that if we are already here inside the car, would the character s really go off somewhere else and leave the camera behind?  Probably not.  From this perspective could the long take then reduce this scene’s drama? For a generation that has grown up on the  pinnacle of American film violence, I would not be surprised to hear certain disappointment for the limitations brought down by this long take, especially for those who have seen this. [graphic content :)] Enjoy!


+I've done a bit of comparison between Gun Crazy and Bonnie and Clyde so here's a trailer for each movie.  The Gun Crazy trailer is pretty awful and gives the ending away (if there's still any surprises) but its all I could find.



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