(Note: much of the historical context, and some of the analysis, is drawn from two sources: Bonnie and Clyde by Lester D. Friedman and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, edited by Friedman, who seems quite the expert on the film. I won’t reference rigorously, this not being an academic essay – just note that I’ve stolen much of the material.)
Bonnie and Clyde is a rich film. It bears endless scholarly dissection. But for the casual or not so casual viewer, it’s a visceral, innovative and, dare I say it, thoroughly entertaining experience centred on a couple of outstanding performances. Like Godard’s Weekend, Bonnie and Clyde has a sort of inbuilt negative dialectic: it constantly negates the meanings it seems to construct. It’s a cautionary tale about the follies of youth. Ah, but it’s so romantic! As for me, I’ll remember the tragedy and the violence. And Faye Dunaway sporting a beret.
The ‘New American Cinema’ (c. 1967-1981) was without doubt the richest period of Hollywood. Easy Rider, The Godfather and its sequel, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Badlands, Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, A Clockwork Orange, Annie Hall… That’s just a few of the most important films of that magical decade-and-a-half when new filmmakers revolutionised cinema. They were auteurs, fiercely protective of their individual visions, but by common consent they had one thing in common: they were unleashed by Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was created first and foremost by the passion of four men: first-time screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, producer and leading man Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn. Beatty wanted to gain more independence within the studio system, while Penn was eager to realise his vision of a film inspired by the New Wave that was then in full bloom in France. Indeed both François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were in talks to direct the film: while Truffaut made some very specific suggestions that survived in the final product (such as the high angles during car chases), Godard wanted to make the film resolutely his own and set it in the modern day. But Penn won the day, and being no Godard can be a good thing: while still an auteur, he did not insist on being so idiosyncratic and, frankly, difficult. So, like it or not, Bonnie and Clyde is far more accessible (‘easy’, I guess) than your average French film. It was a box-office flop on its limited release in October 1967, but the immediate critical controversy it spawned and the ten Oscar nominations received persuaded executives to re-release the film in early 1968, and the rest is history.
After an astonishingly effective opening montage of Depression-era photographs that begins in silence, the film proper starts with a close-up image of a woman’s mouth. She’s Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), and she spends this opening scene naked. Hollywood naked, you understand: it’s quite clear she is, but you don’t see anything. Still, that’s Penn telling you straight away that what you’re about to see will be taboo-breaking and exciting in all sorts of ways. From her bedroom window, Bonnie observes Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car. This leads to him inviting her out for a drink, and when he tells her that he has just been released from jail after serving time for armed robbery, she not only suggestively strokes the gun he produces to show off (really, it’s very suggestive, and no-one in 1967 was in any way likely to mistake it), but also dares him to rob a shop for her. Which he does, and she is so excited by this that it takes little persuasion from Clyde to convince her to abandon her tedious existence as a waitress and follow him on a life of driving cool cars, taking what they need without asking, and being wildly in love. Not that the last part works as Bonnie hoped: in a major point of the film, Clyde turns out to be impotent, and the external violence leashed out mirrors the characters’ inner frustration.
Bonnie and Clyde is very clearly divided into three acts, each ending in violence: in the first part, the titular characters meet and set out on their life of crime. Their play-acting at being gangsters definitively ends when, during a bungled bank robbery, Clyde shoots a bank employee to make possible their escape. The second act chronicles the crime spree of the Barrow Gang, consisting beside Bonnie and Clyde of the latter’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman), Buck’s wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), who is drawn into the gang by accident and loyalty to her husband, and the simple-minded mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard). The Barrow Gang’s aimless life of robbing banks and stealing cars comes to an end when they are cornered by police in the film’s hardest-hitting gunfight. In the third act, Bonnie and Clyde are in hiding, hoping for a fresh start, but we know it is not to be.
If that sounds like I’ve just given away large parts of the plot, fear not: the fact that it will not all end happily is quite clear from early on. Clyde’s shooting of the bank employee is the point of no return: from there on, the lovers have blood on their hands and must atone for it in the end. Nor is their journey really represented as a romantic road trip, although it is clear that the characters would very much like to think they’re living wild and free outside societal restrictions. In her poem about their lives together, Bonnie frames their ‘adventure’ as a modern Robin Hood story. She recounts Clyde’s experience of being kept down by the Man: ‘Then he said to me, “I’ll never be free, so I’ll meet a few of them in hell”.’ But in an early attempted stick-up, Clyde is assaulted by the desperate shop owner, evidently unaware that he is robbing not the rich, but hard-working average Americans.
The obsession with image is one of the most pervasive themes of the film. It is no coincidence that Bonnie and Clyde begins with photographs and a reflection in a mirror while the very final frame of the movie is seen through a window. Bonnie in particular grasps the possibility the media afford. She constructs the image of the gang as dashing outlaws posing with guns and cigars by taking pictures with a captured policeman (Denver Pyle) and sending them to the newspapers. If Bonnie projects an image outwards, Clyde creates illusions within their relationship, cultivating hopes of a romantic life that will plainly not materialise. He tells Bonnie’s mother that when he and Bonnie settle down, they will live no more than three miles from her. ‘You try to live three miles from me and you won’t live long, honey’, Mother Parker tells her daughter in one of the best scenes of the film. ‘You best keep running, Clyde Barrow. And you know it.’
This rejection at his lover’s hands reveals Clyde’s weakness. From the first, he is not in the dominant position in the relationship a Hollywood lead might be expected to be in. He commits the first robbery of the film in his desperation to impress Bonnie and is visibly the more nervous of the two in their early crimes. Bonnie, the clear protagonist in the film’s first act before fading somewhat in the second, takes easily and naturally to a life that liberates her from the cage she knew before. Where Clyde is inarticulate, insecure (constantly driven by the need to impress his girlfriend and keep up with his older brother) and fails in the bedroom, she is vocal, confident and sexually voracious. Indeed, it is difficult to resist the early impression that she is something of a hellcat, a temptress leading weak-willed Clyde down the path of iniquity. That this is not so becomes clear when the rigours of their run from law enforcement reveal Bonnie’s frailty.
If I’ve now made the film doom-laden and laborious, I’ve given you a very wrong impression. For starters, the entire thing is hilarious. Penn switches between action, comedy and tragedy very quickly. One of Clyde’s early attempts at bank robbery fails when the bank he has chosen is revealed to be abandoned, whereupon he drags the sole remaining cashier outside to explain the situation to Bonnie for fear of embarrassing himself: this is a good example of using humour to further the plot (in this case, showing Clyde’s insecurity). And if not for the humour, let’s face it: Bonnie and Clyde is also great at showing attractive young people posing with guns (which, wrong and reactionary though it may be, are decidedly awesome) and wearing fantastic fashion. Here’s what I mean:
Yeah. Faye Dunaway is decidedly central to the film not only in being absurdly well-dressed, but also in exuding sex appeal (no-one can drink a bottle of Coke like Bonnie Parker). Even if little is explicit, Dunaway is so sensual that it would be astonishing if every moral conservative in America hadn’t been appalled. This brings us to the major criticism the film received then: namely, the accusation that it romanticised violent crime. As I pointed out above, the reality is rather more complex than that, but there’s no denying that young people being in love and robbing banks are cool (unless it’s Malick’s Badlands). And of course the policemen gunned down along the way are more or less faceless goons. So the film has it both ways: it foregrounds the characters’ self-delusion while also letting the viewer feel their appeal.
I am as usual ill-equipped to discuss technical aspects, so let’s do it. Penn’s direction is self-consciously flashy: it works to draw attention to itself, but since it’s excellent, that’s all to the good. A character’s death is filmed with an unsteady zoom from a high angle, an unflinching eye on human suffering. In what is probably the film’s most famous scene, Penn uses rapid cutting to devastating effect. His filming of violence is almost nauseatingly visceral, far more real than what moviegoers in 1967 were used to. No accusation is more wrong-headed than that Penn made violence look glamorous. Instead, he made you feel it. At the height of the Vietnam War, that was a political statement, and one just as relevant today.