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Shooting from the hip: Once radical 'Bonnie and Clyde' turns 50

Fifty years ago, the Arthur Penn-directed love story “Bonnie and Clyde” arrived in theaters, luxuriating in cinematic taboos and testing cultural norms with its depiction of violence and sex.

So before it racked up nine Academy Award nominations — including one for Best Picture and acting nominations for its stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway — “Bonnie and Clyde” spawned one of the most famous reviews in the history of film criticism from the New York Times’ influential Bosley Crowther.

In a lean seven paragraphs, Crowther eviscerated “Bonnie and Clyde” and its brain trust – Penn and Beatty, also the producer – for their “cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Sounding personally offended, Crowther’s condemnation was delivered with entertaining vigor as he slammed the film’s “strangely antique, sentimental claptrap … ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties … reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort.” The film was “as pointless as it is lacking in taste,” Crowther sniffed.

Now hailed as a landmark blueprint for the era of counter-culture filmmaking that followed, “Bonnie and Clyde” on Sunday returns to theaters across the country, including 15 from Royal Palm Beach to South Miami, for anniversary screenings sponsored by Warner Bros., Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies. The screenings, which will include pre- and post-film commentary by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, take place at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and on Wednesday, Aug. 16.

Gregory Von Hausch, president of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, was a young college student when the film first hit theaters, exactly the adventurous viewer Penn and Beatty seemed to target.

“What I remember most [was] the violence juxtaposed with the laughing and merrymaking, like out of a Robin Hood film,” Von Hausch says. “The combination was riveting.”

“I drove my motorcycle to the cinema during a horrendous lightning storm,” Von Hausch says. “I sat, drenched, by myself in the ice-cold meat locker of the movie theater, shivering, and the movie did little to cease my shudders. I also remember, for the first time, the subject of male impotence so prominently discussed. The film was groundbreaking to be sure.”

In 2015, FLIFF hosted Estelle Parsons, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in “Bonnie and Clyde.” Penn had been an honoree at the festival some 15 years prior, when Von Hausch was struck by the director’s “mild-mannered meekness.”

Parsons’ FLIFF appearance included hosting a screening of “Bonnie and Clyde,” and in an interview prior to her visit she saluted the work of the director who “profoundly changed my life.”

"I'm amazed every time I see it," Parsons said. "[Akira] Kurosawa has said about Arthur Penn's work that there was never a wasted frame. The story never goes off the track even for a half second. It's just compelling, that's all."

In his review, Crowther revealed a blindness to the vanguard of New Hollywood visionaries that would come to define American filmmaking in the coming decades. While he was not alone in his disapproval of “Bonnie and Clyde,” Crowther was the only critic to pay a price for being so out of touch with evolving tastes. He “retired” later that year, after 40 years at the newspaper.

Tickets for “Bonnie and Clyde” will cost $13.25. For more information on the film and theaters screening it, visit FathomEvents.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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