‘Too notorious to breathe’

Sex, violence, and terrible taste collide in a celebrity picaresque

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure,” Pauline Kael wrote in her January 1972 review of A Clockwork Orange in The New Yorker. Her piece was a cast-iron pan to the head of Stanley Kubrick’s widely acclaimed adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, a thunderously disparaging review that helped to establish the terms of the debate around a modern classic. Kael was surely not averse to stylized renditions of violence; two of her most influential, and generous, reviews were of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, both of which concluded with orgiastic, virtuoso shoot-outs. Their directors, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, had a shared tactic of humanizing their outlaw protagonists and then having them torn apart by bullets, which offered a modern gloss on the visual language and ethos of ancient one-reelers like The Great Train Robbery, indicating in the...