The real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
Get robbed at gunpoint by a maniac it’s highly unlikely that your first thought will be, ‘I’d love to see a movie about that guy’. Yet we love watching the antics of criminals - as witnessed by the enduring popularity of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Godfather (1972). This has never struck me as a complicated phenomenon. We spend our lives hemmed in by the laws required for human civilization to function. Ignore a parking ticket and the grim bloodless cogs of the state begin to turn. Watching Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow on their wild spree, we take a vicarious holiday from the constant pressure to be law abiding. Clyde laughs at parking tickets and if he wants something he points his Browning Automatic Rifle and takes it. Transformed by art into a jaunty narrative the Bonnie and Clyde story becomes a roller coaster ride filling us with the fresh air of pure freedom.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot
Of course in many films criminality is simply a plot device. For example in Some Like it Hot (1959) the writers needed a threat so terrifying that it would persuade the two male protagonists to disguise themselves as women – so they borrowed the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and had them witness it. But in films that take criminals as their chief subject matter, criminality becomes a useful shorthand for freedom –and to really appeal to a mass audience it is essential to transform reality.
Robert Redford and Paul Newman, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
First and foremost we must empathize with our protagonists and the easiest way to do this is to cast movie stars. Their charisma and beauty will mean, vain creatures that we are, that we will identify with them instantly. If you cast Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with actors who actually looked like Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh you might make an interesting film but you’ll also lose your shirt. Interestingly Bonnie Parker was actually a very attractive and elegant lady, and contemporary photographs show the casting of Faye Dunaway to be remarkably accurate – but this is certainly an anomaly in the genre, and in fact part of the reason Bonnie and Clyde became so famous is that photographs of her were widely published while the gang were still on the run – and the public fell a little bit in love with the slim petite Bonnie and her jaunty beret. Clyde, however, looked nothing like Warren Beatty.
The next thing you must do with these ‘true crime stories’ is take care not to dwell too much on the consequences of the crimes committed. Yes you can show Clyde Barrow shooting innocent people – this, after all, is what conjures up the counter force (the police) that will provide so much of the conflict in the story. But if you show grieving relatives at funerals then the audience will start to hate Bonnie and Clyde and will lose interest. There’s a remarkable detail from the real story, which a director might have been tempted to include. One of the more controversial killings by the Barrow gang was that of a young soon-to-be-married patrolmen, H. D. Murphy. Eyewitness accounts stated that Bonnie Parker was seen laughing when the patrolman’s head bounced on the road as he fell. His young fiancée later attended his funeral in her wedding dress. The sight of this young woman in white, surrounded by mourners in black, following a coffin, would have been extremely arresting – but a powerful disincentive for the audience to continue rooting for the two cheeky tearaways. Likewise when Bonnie and Clyde were eventually gunned down a large crowd formed and the two officers charged with guarding the bodies lost control. A woman managed to cut off some of Bonnie Parker’s hair and bits of her dress (later sold as souvenirs) and a man was only just stopped from cutting off Barrow’s trigger finger – another nearly got an ear. This too might have made an unforgettable sequence – but it would have left audiences with the uncomfortable feeling that their fascination with the two legendary figures placed them in the same category as the gruesome treasure hunters.
Bonnie and Clyde is a charming and entertaining film and I feel no unease in enjoying it. The period setting is an effective distancing device and Arthur Penn’s direction remains stylish and fresh. When filmmakers attempt to be more realistic in their telling of these outlaw tales they tend to come a cropper at the box office – although it can result in a fascinating movie. The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is an extraordinary, languorous but captivating film that tells with almost forensic precision of the months leading up to the judicial killing of Jesse James by his disloyal accomplice Robert Ford. The film gives the impression that Jesse James, despite being a hardened criminal who had ruined many lives, was at least something genuinely amazing in an otherwise moribund world. But hunted unrelentingly by the law he was forced to rely increasingly on a shrinking band of low-grade individuals, barely worthy of our attention, who were only involved with him through vanity, stupidity, and their failure to excel in any other field. If you want to see the presentation of a railroad robbery as a glamorous and hilarious escapade, watch the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the railroad employee is rendered as a comic figure, constantly citing his employer’s name in the hope it will protect him from being blown to smithereens. If you want to see the sordid, greedy reality of a 19th century railroad robbery, watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – where the thieves make impoverished rail passengers empty their pockets of their meager earnings and a railroad employee attempts to do his job with dignity and is smashed in the head for his pains. The Assassination of Jesse James boasts producer credits for both Tony and Ridley Scott and has the kind of cast where quite minor characters are played by world-class actors - but not even the presence of Brad Pitt could give this ponderous sophisticated film a box office boost. I love it because it seems to nail a profound truth about outlaws and feels so authentic it is like time travel.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather
But for real box office success the key word is ‘transformation’. How do you take criminal activity – something that we so thoroughly despise when we are victims of it ourselves - and transform it into something that is appealing? The Godfather, the first of Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy about the fictional Corleone crime family, utilizes the simple and, at the time, revolutionary idea of making the boss of the family, not a cigar chomping machine gun-wielding ‘public enemy’, but someone with the dignity and authority of a Medici Pope. His lieutenants, meanwhile, are largely presented as immaculately turned out gentlemen, ruled by an admirable code of honour. A side effect of this was that the Godfather movies acted as a boost to the morale and self-image of Mafiosi in the US. Of course Francis Ford Coppola might argue that his film uses the activities of the crime syndicates as metaphors for corporate America but ‘made guys’ were drooling over the film because it made them look good. For example in the book Mafia Wife, Lynda Milito, wife of Louie Milito of the Gambino crime family (his speciality was robbing payphones – very classy), writes:
“When the Godfather movie came out, Louis got a copy and watched it like six thousand times. It was like a searchlight had lit up on something he had always believed in but had never seen the proof of before. He couldn’t pull himself away from the TV. He couldn’t stop watching that stupid movie. A dozen times he told me, “This movie is fantastic!” He was amazed that the people who made it knew so much. All our friends were watching it.”
“…the guys who came to the house were all acting like Godfather actors, kissing and hugging even more than they did before and coming out with lines from the movie.”
(From Mafia Wife by Linda Milito and Reg Potterton)
Joe Colombo Senior
In fact The Godfather producers originally faced great opposition from Italian-Americans to filming in New York. In the spring of 1970, Joe Colombo Senior had created the Italian-American Civil Rights League to protect the interests of Italian Americans and to protest at their treatment by the Federal government and their portrayal in the entertainment industry as a bunch of hoodlums. Colombo himself was actually the boss of the Colombo crime family, one of the "Five Families" of the Cosa Nostra in New York. In fact for a while he became a sort of media-friendly mob boss and Albert Ruddy, the producer of the Godfather, met with him and agreed to excise the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the film. After this the League cooperated fully with the production. The Godfather is often voted as the best film of all time and it is certainly a highly seductive portrayal of power, ruthlessness and family loyalty – but it is not an accurate portrayal of organized crime. It transforms it into something glamorous and dignified, giving it a gravitas it does not possess – and that’s what audiences love about it.
If you want to see a more accurate portrayal of organized crime you could not do better than to watch Gomorrah (2008). This is a clear-eyed examination of the activities of the Camorra, southern Italy’s crime syndicate. All pretence of glamour has been peeled away to reveal a shameful truth. The film was based on a remarkable book by Roberto Saviano who grew up in a small town on the fringe of Naples where 80% of Europe's cocaine is processed. A 2012 report by the Italian Employers Association states that organized crime is the biggest business in Italy generating an annual turnover of 140 billion Euros. Saviano showed how, far from being victimless, organized crime in Italy has seeped into every aspect of life and degrades and ruins countless lives. For having the courage to tell the truth about the Camorra, Saviano has been forced to change his identity, cut ties with his family and will spend the rest of his life under twenty-four hour police protection. It’s a hell of a lot safer to dress these people up as heroes than to tell the truth about them – but to my mind Roberto Saviano is a real hero. The first Amazon review of Saviano's book of the same name, on which Gomorrah was based, ends with this heartfelt plea: “Please read this. The Camorra is not a Scorcese movie, the mafia is not some antiquated clichè. We live with it, and our country is slowly dying because of it. This is not a work of fiction, sadly”.
Patsy Byers after being paralysed.
I would feel uneasy if I was involved in a film that inspired copycat crimes but it is never going to be possible, in my view, to prove a direct causal link between a movie and a specific act of violence. The number of massacres that have been shown to have some connection to the film Natural Born Killers (1994) (through the murderer’s citing it as a favourite film or actually watching it immediately prior to their crimes) are too numerous to mention here but include the infamous Columbine massacre (in correspondence prior to the massacre the killers used the shorthand “NBK” – short for Natural Born Killers - to mean a killing spree). Most worrying for the film makers – and frankly all film makers everywhere – the film became the subject of a lawsuit, claiming that it had incited the 1995 killing of Bill Savage and, in a separate incident, the shooting of Patsy Byers (who was rendered paraplegic). The attackers watched the movie obsessively before they went on their spree. On January 23, 1997 the case was dismissed on the grounds that filmmakers and production companies are protected by the First Amendment, but the Intermediate Louisiana Court of Appeals overturned that decision, claiming there was a valid case against the filmmakers. Director Oliver Stone must have lost a bit of sleep but on March 12, 2001, judge Robert Morrison dismissed the case on the grounds that there was no evidence that either Time Warner or the director intended to incite violence.
Mickey and Mallory tie the knot
The first section of Natural Born Killers is stylistically audacious – telling the tale of young Mickey and Mallory’s entry into a life of murder and mayhem as if we were flicking through the channels of a television and all the channels were telling the same story through a multitude of trash genres. The film is baroque, frenetic – almost deranged – and despite being only credited with writing the story, the hand of Quentin Tarantino is detectable everywhere. There is plenty for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the bitter and the mad to latch onto. The film seems to suggest there is no reality – only different types of television, or at least that you can escape mundane reality and enter television by becoming a sort of one man terrorist - hell bent on the sacred cause of becoming famous. Woody Harrelson’s character Mickey delivers an array of insane but articulate reasons for his actions, and the film sketches in abusive childhoods for both himself and his wife, providing a whole shopping list of justifications for would-be mass murderers. As Robert Downey Junior’s Ozzy reporter says after an interview with Mickey is over: ‘every moron on the planet is going to see that’. The truth is you would have to be a moron not to see that the film is a bludgeoning satire on the media’s obsession with violent criminals. At one point, when Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory are about to kill a Native Indian, Oliver Stone actually projects the words “Too much TV” onto their chests . On the plus side if you want to gain access to the self-image and worldview of your average attention-and-revenge-craving mass murdering nut job the film probably has not been bettered. In fact the irony is that despite using a colossal number of distancing devices it probably is the most accurate film about the relationship between the media, violent crime, and the public yet made – even if the last section, with Tommy Lee Jones gurning like crazy as a prison governor during a riot, is completely over-the-top.
A person who has very little stake in the world, no reliable role models, perhaps has suffered abuse, feels a deep rooted sense of personal injustice and craves attention might well see a film glorifying criminal activity not as a metaphor but as an advertisement. Many film makers put out a blanket refusal to accept any relationship between screen violence and actual violence but that is disingenuous - nobody would suggest that there was no connection between human culture and human behaviour. I am no advocate of censorship and would not suggest that film makers should try to make films 'safe' for the mad, sad or bad. But I would urge a healthier, more honest attitude to the whole subject. In short, be more like the director John Waters who started out with deliberately shocking fare like Pink Flamingoes (1972) which famously features the actress Divine eating a real dog turd. Later he entered the mainstream with films like Hairspray (1988) and Serial Mom (1994). Waters used to visit prisons and show his movies to the inmates. Afterwards he would tell the prisoners to find a creative outlet for their transgressive urges. "These films" he told them, " are my crimes".