It wasn't until the mid-1960s that a new generation of filmmakers was ready to address "The Great Depression" in more artistic terms than the backdrop for the struggles of the noble Joad family. Though the cinematography may be beautiful in these films, giving a haunting, almost romantic feel, the barren landscapes and weatherworn faces of the poor provided desolate images of loss and despair. It is in the midst of dusty towns and rural environs that the following three films are set. You have probably seen them all, as they are universally acclaimed and considered modern classics by many. If you haven't, you really should, and if you have then you just might want to experience them again.
By far the most popular, and arguably revolutionary, of this trilogy is Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The beauty and charisma of its leads, the great ensemble acting, the sass and violence, all make for a rollicking good time with an overtone of serious issues. However fictionalized, this was based on events that actually took place. Hovering around the periphery is the constant reminder that these were hard times; people had lost everything and were just trying to get by. Robbing banks may have been a fun and easy way to get money, but most of those banks were near empty. The famous scene where Bonnie reunites with her elderly grandmother, on a windswept hilltop, is striking for summing up the era in a few short minutes with the eyes of an old woman who has seen it all.
Seldom taken as seriously, Paper Moon (1973) is not only a great comedy, it's a fantastic evocation of a time when pleasures were simple and money was scarce. The use of period music ("Let's have another cup of coffee"), or, conversely, the silence that fills the background in many scenes, plus the attention to detail in the prop, costume, and makeup departments, create a very definite time and place. Long dirt roads and wide open spaces provide a vast context for the tiny dramas of the lead characters. Once again, a windy hilltop comes to mind: when Miss Trixie, after going winky-tink, approaches young Addie and tells her what her plans are, the desperation and determination are obvious.
The incredible Days of Heaven (1978), though portraying a slightly earlier time, fits in well with the above-mentioned films. Much has been written about the fabulous, dreamlike cinematography. The vast and endless plains seem to swallow up the characters and their intertwined destinies. The sound of the wind is almost another character. The gypsy lives of migrant workers is shown without explanation; it's simply a given. Again, people are doing whatever they can to get by. This movie, more than most, is so image-driven that it is difficult to choose only one that sums it all up. If ever possible, see this on the big screen. Please.
Other recommended films that display an essence of the era are They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) and
As a footnote to this post, I simply must add that each of these films has a fantastic supporting cast. Estelle Parsons won a well-deserved Oscar for her hysterical (in every sense of the word) performance in Bonnie and Clyde. Paper Moon would not be the same without the fabulous Madeline Kahn as Trixie Delight. Also, P. J. Johnson's performance as Imogene never fails to amuse! And Days of Heaven would not be as strange and wonderful without the phenomenal narration of a young Linda Manz. Great stuff!