Arthur Marks passed away in 2019. This news made minimal ripples in Hollywood circles but it was acknowledged with sadness by fans of ’70s exploitation cinema. Those in the know remembered that Marks had a prolific period between 1970 and 1976 as a director, producer and distributor of films made specifically for the drive-in circuit. A look at his work will reveal someone who knew how to deliver the exploitable goods to his target audience while doing so with intelligence, solid production values and a bit of wit.
Bonnie’s Kids is one of his best efforts as a director, a film that cleverly takes elements of the crime film and the noir and repurposes them to fit the demands of the early ’70s drive-in programmer. The titular duo consists of Ellie (Tiffany Bolling) and Myra (Robin Mattson). Ellie is a 20-something waitress who dreams of better things and Myra is her mid-teens sister who is just learning how to use her sexuality. When their sleazeball stepdad (a menacing Leo Gordon) tries to rape Myra, Ellie stops him with a shotgun. Ellie and Myra stash stepdad’s body in the cellar and head for Los Angeles, where their deceased mom’s brother Ben (Scott Brady) lives and operates a modeling agency.
Ben’s also got a sideline in crime, which Ellie is all too eager to get mixed up in. She takes an “errand” for Ben, hooking up with kind but dim private eye Larry (Steve Sandor) and trying to enmesh him in a plot to rip off Ben. This puts them in the crosshairs of Eddy (Alex Rocco) and Digger (Timothy Brown), a pair of enforcers who do Ben’s dirty work. Meanwhile, Myra spins her own sinister web by seducing Ben’s closeted lesbian wife, Diana (Lenore Stevens). Before these plot threads resolve themselves, there will be plenty of double-crosses and dead bodies.
Bonnie’s Kids delivers the staples of early ’70s drive-in fare – casual nudity, a bit of sex, a little kink, a little gunplay, some killings – but it’s unique in other ways. At 105 minutes, it dares to go for a slower burn than its 90-minutes-or-less contemporaries would. This measured approach works thanks to Marks’ sense of craft.
Marks wrote in addition to directing here and his script is a tidy affair, carefully laying out a variety of subplots and intercutting them judiciously to maintain viewer interest. It uses the extra time it spends to develop characterizations, often through conversations that have a delightfully hard-boiled touch to them. The plotting avoids trends of the day to utilize the kind of plotting associated with crime novels of the ’50s and ’60s. It also evokes film noir with the Detour-style air of hopelessness it affects in its final 30 minutes.
Bonnie’s Kids is also quite tidy in its direction. Marks got his training producing and directing Perry Mason and he puts that training to good use here: his style is crisp and stylish in a utilitarian way. His choice of camera setups doesn’t call attention to itself but everything looks good and there’s a focus on using attractive or striking settings as a backdrop for the plot’s machinations. When it’s time for suspense or action, he can weave a setpiece together to get the desired effect: a hit that goes down in a hotel room late in the film is a great example.
Most importantly, Marks casts his film well and gets good performances from a mix of up-and-comers and industry vets. Bolling shows her chops as a b-movie starlet here, easily displaying sex appeal but also digging into the dramatic demands with conviction, and Mattson gives an eerily convincing interpretation of a baby-faced sociopath. Old pros like Brady and Gordon hold down the hard-boiled end of things nicely and Rocco and Brown are a fun baddie team (rumor has it their characters were an influence on the hitman duo in Pulp Fiction). That said, it’s Sandor who does the most impressive work here as perhaps the only pure soul in the film: his slow realization that he’s being played and the quiet anguish it brings him is unexpectedly affecting.
In short, Bonnie’s Kids is a gem from the drive-in era and a compelling display of Marks’ skills as a filmmaker. You get all the sordid thrills you’d expect but they’re delivered with a substance and a dramatic punch that takes you by surprise. As such, it’s a little treasure that deserves to be rediscovered by fans of crime films.