Cinema: Low-Down Hoedown

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Bonnie and Clyde. Bang bang! go the guns, and the bank guard falls dead, his face oozing ketchup from every pore. Twang twang! goes the banjo, and Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker ride off in a stolen flivver for further merriment, murder and mayhem.

For his long-unawaited debut as a producer, Warren Beatty has searched out the familiar saga of the scruffy, sleazy desperadoes who cut a staccato swath from Iowa to Texas and were ambushed and shot down near Arcadia La., on May 23, 1934. But Producer Beatty and Director Arthur Penn have elected to tell their tale of bullets and blood in a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap that teeters uneasily on the brink of burlesque. Like Bonnie and Clyde themselves, the film rides off'in all directions and ends up full of holes.

Beatty, playing the lead, does a capable job, within the limits of his familiar, insolent, couldn't-care-less manner, of making Barrow the amiable varmint he thought himself to be. Barrow fancied himself something of a latterday Robin Hood, robbing only banks that were foreclosing on poor farmers and eventually turning into a kind of folk hero. But Faye Dunaway's Sunday-social prettiness is at variance with any known information about Bonnie Parker. The other gang members struggle to little avail against a script that gives their characters no discernible shape.

The real fault with Bonnie and Clyde is its sheer, tasteless aimlessness. Director Penn has marshaled an impressive framework of documentation: a flotilla of old cars, a scene played in a movie theater while Gold Diggers of 1933 runs off on the screen, a string of dusty, fly-bitten Southwestern roadhouses and farms. (One booboo: the use of post-1934 dollar bills.) But repeated bursts of country-style music punctuating the bandits' grisly ventures, and a sentimental interlude with Bonnie's old Maw photographed through a hazy filter, aim at irony and miss by a mile. And this, if you please, was the U.S. entry in this year's Montreal Film Festival.