Every filmmaker who has had some success at making action movies knows the importance of an appealing hero. After all, car chases and gunplay can get awfully monotonous if we don't care about the people whose lives are being jeopardized. That being the case, it's a bit startling to note how many action pictures over the years have won broad audience appeal by centering their story around characters who don't qualify as heroes in the usual sense at all. Bank robbers, for example, seem to make excellent movie protagonists despite their general unpopularity in real life. "The Newton Boys" is the latest film to capitalize on this paradox, but there have been many others. If you enjoy the vicarious thrill of following the exploits of bank robbers on the screen, look for these titles on home video.
"Gun Crazy" (1949). Not to be confused with the 1992 film starring Drew Barrymore, this was an important forerunner of "Bonnie and Clyde," telling the story of two young lovers on a reckless crime spree. John Dall and Peggy Cummins star as Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr, a doomed couple if ever there was one. They are drawn to each other largely by their common interest in firearms. She's a carnival sharpshooter and he was a gunnery specialist in the army. Goaded by Laurie, Bart agrees to put their combined artillery skills to use in knocking over banks for kicks. Shot on a shoestring by director Joseph Lewis, this tale of perverse love has influenced untold numbers of filmmakers since its release.
"They Live By Night" (1949). Farley Granger stars as a naive young man whose downfall is guaranteed from the moment he allows himself to be talked into being an accomplice to a bank holdup. Tragically, he falls in love with a young woman, pulling her into his fatally tainted life. Inevitably they end up alone, pursued by the law, out of luck and out of hope. This was legendary director Nicholas Ray's first film. It was remade in 1974 by director Robert Altman as "Thieves Like Us," which was the title of the Edward Anderson novel from which "They Live By Night" was adapted.
"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967). Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway light up the screen in a stylized portrayal of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as bank robbing folk heroes. Almost everything about this remarkable film was calculated to shake up the industry, from director Arthur Penn's modernistic techniques to Beatty's frank and straightforward allusions to Clyde's impotence. A powerhouse at the box office and with the critics, its influence continues to be felt some thirty years later.
"The Wild Bunch" (1969). One of the many accomplishments of "Bonnie and Clyde" was pushing the envelope of the onscreen portrayal of violence. Two years later, Sam Peckinpah took movie violence to yet another level, creating visual poetry out of the horror of violent death. The focus of Peckinpah's story is a band of outlaws in the waning days of the wild and woolly West. To their consternation, this wild bunch has begun to realize that the West is settling down. A burgeoning civilization has taken root, displacing the rugged, lawless frontier where men such as they could thrive. To tell his story effectively, Peckinpah needed a cast that combined a high testosterone level with consummate acting skills. William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and Ben Johnson more than fill the bill.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969). In contrast to the dark world of "The Wild Bunch" and the neurotic flakiness of "Bonnie and Clyde," this pleasant little picture presents us with as likable a pair of outlaws as you're ever likely to meet. Sundance, as played by Robert Redford, may be a bit moody at times, but that's offset by Redford's boyish good looks and winning smile. As for Butch (Paul Newman), his single most salient characteristic is his likability. Even the lawmen who have arrested him seem to like him. In fact, sometimes he manages to establish cordial relations with the people he robs. Newman and Redford were so successful at playing appealing rogues that they were reunited as a pair of con men in "The Sting" (1973).
Next week we'll look at a few more movies featuring sympathetic bank robbers. Until then, keep an eye on your valuables, especially if you find yourself in pleasant company.