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'Bonnie and Clyde' Revisited

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Anyway, here is a motion picture starting. It has pretty people who kill, and the killing they do is pretty too. When Warren Beatty shoots a man from a bank who is hanging on the running board of the car, he shoots through the rolled down window and the bullet makes the' glass spider web in a great pattern and the red splurts in a nice splotch of color between the banker's eyes, where the bullet is supposed to have gone. The scene probably was supposed to chill you, but it was really quite pretty. The patterns and light refractions and color all were excellent and pleasant. In a real murder, there is a grease-slicked, pebbly gray cement floor with dirty water slopping around and the smell of sour ovens and the heavy smell of sweat from people crowding around the body and then through it all, the smell of blood.

I was making notes on the dialogue, which was, like most movie dialogue, truly magnificent.

HER: What's it like?

HIM: Prison?

HER: No, armed robbery.

HIM: Slow grin with good white capped teeth showing.

Armed robbery is not a grin. It really isn't. Armed robbery is this old woman on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on the floor behind the counter of her husband's tailor shop clawing at the three bare-armed cops from the emergency squad who are trying to stuff her 72-year-old husband into a body bag. He is dead from three bullets in the head over a $10 stickup. One of the bullets went through his eyeglasses and the bits of glass are everywhere on the floor and the old woman is on her hands and knees and she comes off her hands to claw at the three cops and then she falls onto her hands again and screams.

In another part of this movie, the guy is teaching the girl to shoot a gun and she throws one off and jumps with joy and blows the smoke from the black barrel of the gun. He starts saying something about, "I'm goin' to get you a Smith and Wesson . . ."

I begin thinking about a face now. A magnificent dark brown face coming through the glass doors and into the hallway of the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan. Leary, the police commissioner, and Garelik, the chief inspector, and Bluth, another inspector, have been standing in the hallway waiting to see the face. Pollins' wife. Pollins is a narcotics detective and he is upstairs dying because a junk peddler caught him in the face with a shotgun. The three bosses of policemen are waiting in the hallway to tell Pollins' wife exactly where everything stands. They keep saying it is a very hard thing to do, but they have been through it before and they can handle it. They can tell a young woman that she is going to be a widow with children. "Guns," one of them said. "Dirty Mother—guns." Now this great face comes into the tile hospital hallway and the three of them, Leary, Garelik and Bluth, turn as one and start walking away, walking very fast, because they have to get a priest to tell this woman. There is no such thing as a man being tough enough to handle this job. And I go into a phone booth because I don't want her to see my face, either. I remember her face, though. God, but she was a stately woman.

So when you had all these things going through your mind and you sat in this movie and started to put it all together, you had to be careful because it is so easy to say the movies breed the violence. All the treatises going around now about violence in America all mention Bonnie and Clyde. Here, right on the desk by the typewriter, is a caption from Life. "The casual acceptance of violence, epitomized in the movie Bonnie and Clyde (right, Bonnie is gunned down), creates a climate which some scientists believe can arouse susceptible people to violent acts." Maybe. But they had no movie houses to speak of in India when they murdered Ghandi and Bonnie and Clyde had not been produced when a Japanese jumped up and assassinated a leader right in the Diet. The movie can arouse, perhaps. But it is only a reflection, a beautifully done reflection, of what really arouses the people who murder in this country.

Well, to me, what the picture really stands for, is the thing noticed most the first time I saw the movie. The girl petting the gun. You see, the movie is all about playing with things. Playing with yourself, really. And it is in tune with the times, Bonnie and Clyde is. We are not a violent society. This is actually a society of jerks and for some of them the gun has got everything to do with it. Lee Oswald couldn't make it with his wife and I bet he got his kicks when he shot Jack Kennedy, and James Earl Ray ran around Toronto buying pornographic pictures, and the way Sirhan Sirhan hung onto that freaking gun of his when great big guys tried to get it off him—Bill Barry and Rosie Grier and Rafer Johnson had him and he still wouldn't let go of the gun—the way this little guy with the rotten face hung onto that gun, don't tell me what he was doing, he was hanging onto himself. They are, all of these shooters, the ultimate products of an era of masturbation, of Playboy Clubs and Andy Warhol movies and Truman Capote parties. And they are from the new bit with the cops out West, leather puttees and black leather jackets and big, creaking gun belts and fancy-handled guns and crash helmets and sunglasses, all worn in a certain way. In Memphis, when they were putting Martin Luther King's casket onto the plane, the cops stood in a line and they all were dressed like Nazis, with a good dose of sadism represented in the black leather. One guy, a moon-faced captain, stood there with his crash helmet strap hanging loose and a cigarette dangling from his mouth and he held a submachine gun so nice, and he kept running his hands over it so much, that all of us standing by the fence made it 7-5 that the gun was going to have an orgasm.

There have been 800,000 murders by gun since 1900 in this country. There have been 42,000 murders by gun in the period between 22 November 1963 and the early morning of 5 June 1968. The murders took place in a country which has guns everywhere. A federal gun law enacted now will not have any other immediate effect except to make shooting somebody maybe a little less respectable. You see, in the South you still get a clap on the back if you get your kicks by shooting a buck nigger. The gun law will make a real difference maybe 15 years from now. The only effective thing which can be done at the present is to outlaw the sale of bullets. We have the guns everywhere. Cut down on bullets and you might have something.

It still won't do anything about the conditions and the atmosphere in which people use guns. All these murders took place in a country which has virtually nothing on television that does not come down to gunplay, and this is because it is really all the people watching television want to see. And the movie that created the biggest splash in the entertainment field is Bonnie and Clyde, which is all about pretty people playing with guns, and the public loved it.

When the last scene came on the screen at the Cross Bay, the pretty machine gunning, and the picture ended, I got up and walked outside into the late Sunday afternoon sun. I stood in the shade under the rusted El and waited for a taxi. I had just seen what is, in the end, a fine movie. Bonnie and Clyde caught a piece of this country as it is today, and this is all you can ask of any movie.


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