Authors: Mark Harris
Neither Benton nor Newman had ever read a screenplay, and they barely knew anyone in the movie business; a few weeks earlier, Benton had gone to a party at the comedy writer Herb Sargent's apartment and met Warren Beatty, but neither man had then made much of an impression on the other.
Nonetheless, high on everything they'd been watching and talking about, they decided that summer that the adventures of Bonnie and Clyde would make a great movie. From the afternoon they started working on the script after a midday screening of Hitchcock's
they thought, this could be the movie that brings the French New Wave to Hollywood, “a gangster film,” says Benton, “that was about all the things they didn't show you in a gangster film.” And if we do this right, they told each other, maybe we can get FranÃ§ois Truffaut to direct it.
“We didn't know how to write a screenplay,” says Benton, “so we wrote an extended treatment. We described a scene, including camera shots, and we'd write down what characters were talking about, but we didn't put dialogue in.” Some of that writing took place in
's offices, behind closed doors, but much of it happened after hours, with Newman or Benton sketching out a scene at home, then giving it to the other in the morning. “The next day we would talk about the scene, and say, no, that's all wrong, and if David had written it, I would take it home and rewrite it, and if I had written it, David would redo it,” Benton recalls. They would work together into the night, with Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys playing at full volume on the phonograph
and becoming, in effect, the sound track to their experience of writing the movie. “We had an enormous sense of freedomâand we didn't have skill, which was a good thing,” says Benton. “If you have enough skill, when you get to a trouble spot, you can use that skill to skirt it, which can be dangerous. We didn't know how to do that.”
As they wrote, Benton and Newman tried to give themselves a crash course in both film technique and the gangster era. They'd return again and again to the Hitchcock retrospective, listening to what Bogdanovich, who at only twenty-four was about to publish a monograph on the director, had to say about the ways in which his movies were constructed. They would read and reread what Truffaut had written on the difference between creating shock and building suspense. Benton would leave the office to browse through used-magazine and old-book stalls on Sixth Avenue in the lower 40s, sometimes returning with treasures like the 1934 book
, written by Bonnie Parker's mother, Emma Parker, and Clyde Barrow's sister Nell Barrow Cowan, or vintage crime pulp magazines, including a 1945 issue of
that included photographs of Parker and Barrow and a story about how “adventure and bloodshed marked the Law's long pursuit of the Barrows and their murderous molls.”
And as a touchstone, they kept returning to a sentence about Bonnie and Clyde from
The Dillinger Days:
“Toland wrote, âThey were not just outlaws, they were outcasts,'” says Benton. “That line was what hooked us.”
In some ways, Parker and Barrow were natural subjects for a movie. They were youngâBarrow was twenty-five and Parker twenty-three when they were killed. They had a great hunger and flair for self-invention and self-promotion, taking photographs in which they posed as hardened outlaws as if they were playing dress-up and sending Bonnie's doggerel about themselves to newspapers. And although Barrow's record stretched back to his teens, their history togetherâa string of robberies that often led to murder, interspersed with periods in which they lay lowâlasted only about a year and a half, ideal for the compressed narrative of a movie. Parts of their crime spree and relationship had already been appropriated for Fritz Lang's 1937 pre-noir drama,
You Only Live Once
, with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, and 1958's quickly forgotten
The Bonnie Parker Story
, which starred Dorothy Provine, had depicted a peculiar version of their lives that turned Clyde Barrow into “Guy Darrow.”
Benton and Newman were interested in all the historical information they could get their hands on, but not in documentary realism. Already, they knew they were going to leave out certain unromantic details: Parker's early marriage to another man, Parker's and Barrow's separate stretches in jail, and the fact that Parker was severely and disfiguringly burned in a car crash almost a year before she and Barrow were killed.
Their version of Bonnie and Clyde's story would not be a history lesson, but a drama that entangled crime and passion, comedy and bloodshed. If Benton and Newman even knew of the Production Code's rules that “crimes against the lawâ¦shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime,” that “theft, robberyâ¦etc. should not be detailed in method,” and “that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right,” hewing to those restrictions would have been the furthest thing from their minds. And the Code, which still maintained that “seductionâ¦should never be more than suggested, and then only when essential” and that “suggestiveâ¦postures are not to be shown,” didn't even have language, other than a general opprobrium on “sex aberration,” that could have adequately expressed the futility of their plan to include a sexual mÃ©nage Ã trois (the
Jules and Jim
influence at its most apparent) involving Bonnie, Clyde, and their strapping male getaway driver.
By November 1963, Benton and Newman were putting what they thought were the finishing touches on a seventy-five-page treatment of
Bonnie and Clyde
and, says Benton, “specifically writing it for Truffaut.” The constant presence of the director's name in their bull sessions represented a combination of hubris, sky-high optimism, and a sliver of actual hope. Though neither writer was particularly well connected, Benton knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. While attending the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1950s, he had become friends with fellow undergrads Harvey Schmidt, an aspiring composer, and Tom Jones, a writer and lyricist. All three went on to serve in the army and then came to New York, where Schmidt and Benton roomed together and occasionally collaborated at
and Schmidt and Jones worked on their first musical. That show,
, opened off Broadway in 1960 to mixed reviews but hung on with remarkable tenacity and was now starting the fourth year of its run. Jones's wife, Elinor Wright Jones, had gotten to know and admire Benton; she had even produced a short film he had created called
A Texas Romance 1909
, a chapter of his family history told through the paintings of four illustrators. “Bob called me one day and said, âDavid and I want to tell you a story,'” she remembers. Benton and Newman went over to the Joneses' Central Park West apartment, bringing with them their treatment and their yellowed issue of
Jones was dazzled by their enthusiasm and by their conviction that a movie based on their screenplay could bring a Nouvelle Vague aesthetic to as American a subject as Dust Bowl bank robbers. At the time, she was working as an assistant to Lewis Allen, a Broadway producer who was trying his hand at low-budget art films (that year, he had produced a movie of Genet's
as well as Peter Brook's adaptation of
Lord of the Flies
), and she was eager to start producing as well. Her younger brother, Norton Wright, then a twenty-eight-year-old production assistant, shared her ambition. “In the early 1960s, low-budget pictures were being made in New York City for $350,000, and some of them were good movies,” says Wright, who had learned the ins and outs of working with a tight schedule and minimal budget as a production manager on a number of those filmsâ“indies,” before the term was in common use.
Wright and his sister shared Benton and Newman's reverence for the French New Wave and had accompanied Benton on some of his return visits to the New Yorker Theater. And the two writers made a good pitching team: “You kind of had the feeling that Benton had the history and the heart of it, and David, who was very funny, was the sparkplug, the live wire,” says Wright.
By the end of the meeting, it didn't seem impossible that, if the two would-be producers got the script into the right hands, they could raise the money to make a lean, no-frills, black-and-white version of
Bonnie and Clyde
themselves. And they had a well-placed ally: The Joneses' attorney was the powerful entertainment lawyer Robert Montgomery of the New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Elinor Jones sent Montgomery the treatment for
Bonnie and Clyde
almost immediately. Montgomery agreed to send it to another of his clients, Arthur Penn.
Penn got the seventy-five pages, glanced at them, turned it down on the spot, and barely gave
Bonnie and Clyde
another thought for two years.
FranÃ§ois Truffaut and Arthur Penn were already friendly acquaintances and admirers of each other's work. Early that year, while working on what was to become a seminal book about Hitchcock, Truffaut, whose English was tentative and whose insecurity about it was great, had asked Helen Scott, who worked for the French Film Office in New York, whether Penn might be able to review some of the technical passages in his manuscript to make sure the English translation was accurate.
A few months later, Penn had begun to direct
, a World War II suspense drama for United Artists that starred Burt Lancaster. Lancaster had just made a greater foray into European filmmaking than many of his Hollywood peers by starring in Luchino Visconti's
, a poorly edited and dubbed version of which had opened in the United States and flopped. Lancaster was now interested in making a hit, not in working with a director whose taste for sophisticated European moviemaking might get in the way of success. “He wanted a lot of hoopla and derring-do and I wanted a serious film with an ironic twist,” said Penn a couple of years later. “He won.”
Lancaster clashed with Penn and had him fired, replacing him with John Frankenheimer.
In September, Truffaut had dinner with the dejected Penn and his wife in New York and wrote sympathetically about his firing to Helen Scott, dismissing Frankenheimer as “someone Lancaster can manipulate as he pleases.”
Soon after, when Penn was considering a film adaptation of William Faulkner's
The Wild Palms
, Truffaut recommended his
Jules and Jim
star Jeanne Moreau as a possible lead.
Penn, then forty-one, had cut his teeth on New York City's thriving television production business in the 1950s, working on episodes of
The Philco Television Playhouse
His first feature, 1958's compelling revisionist western
The Left Handed Gun
, which starred Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, was an adaptation of a
one-act on which he'd worked. Penn shot the movie in just twenty-three days, only to have Warner Brothers take it away from him and add an ending he called “terribleâ¦. I never heard âBoo' from Warner Brothers, I never saw a cut, nothing. It got a bad review in
The New York Times
and bing, it was gone.”
(The film was much more appreciated in Europe, where its maltreatment by a Hollywood studio only helped to burnish its status among critics and directors like Truffaut.)
Penn walked away from the movie business and went home to New York, where he began a robust career as a Broadway director. In less than three years, he mounted five successful shows, including Lillian Hellman's
Toys in the Attic
and the immensely popular
An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
One of them, William Gibson's
The Miracle Worker
, became his return ticket to Hollywood. This time, working for a sympathetic producer, fellow TV veteran Fred Coe, and United Artists, a more director-friendly studio than Warner Brothers, Penn was able to make the movie largely on his terms, which included using the Broadway production's original stars, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. The result was a critical and commercial success that, in the spring of 1963, won both actresses Academy Awards and Penn a nomination for Best Director.
But Penn's luck soon started running cold again. His demoralizing experience on
indicated how little Hollywood capital his recent success had won him, and his return to Broadway resulted in two plays that ran for a combined total of eight performances after they opened. When the
Bonnie and Clyde
treatment landed on his desk, he says, he was trying to figure out what to do next, and “I was caught up in so many other projects, I just didn't take it seriously. I was sent that movie, but it was not âthat movie.' Yet.”
The rejection from Penn came so quickly that Benton and Newman may not even have known he saw their work in the first place. In any case, Elinor Jones wasted no time in trying to get a copy of the treatment to the director whom they had had in mind all along. This time, she used a different connectionâher boss.
Lewis Allen and Truffaut already had a mutual friend in Helen Scott, a New Yorkâborn, Paris-raised former journalist and onetime Communist organizer whose remarkable rÃ©sumÃ© included everything from working as press attachÃ© to the lead American prosecutor at Nuremberg to publicizing French films in New York.
Allen and Truffaut also had a mutual interest: Both men wanted to make a movie out of Ray Bradbury's dystopian book-burning novel,
, which Truffaut had already spent more than three years planning as his first movie in English.