Why I Love… #36: Bonnie And Clyde

Year: 1967

Director: Arthur Penn

Stars: Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Michael J Pollard (C.W. Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche)

Genre: Crime Drama / Biopic

When and how will I ever get away from this?”

You can see it in Bonnie Parker’s eyes, a thought rightfully divined by Clyde Barrow some ten-to-fifteen minutes later. Bonnie And Clyde opens with Faye Dunaway lost in her own world, compartmentalized in an upstairs bedroom. She is about to be shaken out of her revelry by the arrival of a man, a man who will take her on a journey of violence. Based on fact, but liberally massaged into something more sweeping, more romanticised, Bonnie And Clyde remains one of the best movies of its kind.

The opening sequence sets the tone. Dunaway is naked. Her modesty only barely concealed thanks to a series of props and teasing cuts, almost a familiar comedy act. Warren Beatty’s Clyde shows up outside her home and within just a few words has her rushing to the door to meet him. He’s a smooth talker. They’re both ridiculously good-looking. The film sizzles with the southern heat.

Set in the 30’s but imbued with the cultural crackle of the 60’s, Bonnie And Clyde is a rock’n’roll song of a film. A pop movie. Young, hip, fashionable. It travelled by word of mouth. Initially a limited release, Warner Bros only later realised the success they had on their hands when Bonnie And Clyde became ‘cool’. In the movie the couple gallivant across the country in stolen cars to jaunty banjo music. It’s fun. And after it’s release, sales of berets like the one worn by Dunaway sky-rocketed.

The film was cool for reasons other than style. Bonnie and Clyde’s bank robbing was seen by many as a finger to the establishment. It was 1967, and American counter-culture was blossoming, stepping out from the fringes and making itself heard. Vietnam was unpopular with the rising youth. These characters from American crime history were primed to become folk heroes, doing what the audience wanted to do. Pushing back against authority. Just look at the scene in which Clyde is caught trespassing by a landowner… only the man isn’t the landowner any more. It’s the Depression. The bank has taken the land. So Clyde and the man shoot holes in the windows together. Clyde shares his destructive presence. The man is the audience, invited to participate.

Penn’s film presents this story as pulpy fun. Some might say trivialising serious events. Six years later, Terrence Malick would tell a similar tale of outlaws on the run with the devastatingly poetic Badlands. And whilst Bonnie And Clyde feels more like an entertainment piece, it is shot through with a strange mix of ennui and black comedy. The couple’s initial exploits are bumbled. First Clyde attempts to rob a closed-down bank, then in their next attempt their new sidekick C.W. Moss parks the car during the robbery, leading to comedic chaos when the crime spills out onto the streets.

This comedy, however, is soured by the film’s first instance of explicit bloodshed; Clyde shoots a man in the face. A graphic landmark in American cinema, prefiguring Sam Peckinpah’s later carnage. The man’s face explodes with blood. It’s shocking. Later Clyde has to justify his actions. He had to. This see-sawing from comedy to drama recurs. The shoot-out that draws Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife Blanche into the action is madcap, but is followed by trauma and shed tears. Penn doesn’t let this get bogged down however, within minutes again the characters are laughing and joking, reading newspaper stories of their exploits. Becoming criminal celebrities. Later they actively participate in drafting their own myth; Bonnie submits an ode to their exploits which gets printed in the paper.

It wasn’t just the bloody violence in Bonnie And Clyde that was provocative. Clyde’s apparent impotence was a strikingly brave move, if another historical incongruence. The movie’s own folklore suggests Beatty compromised on this point, settling for impotency as opposed to bisexuality. Regardless of whether this story is true, the result is practically unheard of in 60’s cinema. A leading man’s masculinity curtailed on the screen. In an era of sex, here was sex without glamour. His failure with Bonnie is awkward, sad, a poignant clash with expectation. That he later brags of his conquest with Buck then adds further colour to Clyde. He is a man made out of his own legend. We see layers in the character that weren’t there previously. That charming grin on his face becomes a fixed grimace.

The inaccuracies in the story were not without repercussion. Lawsuits appeared out of the woodwork as the survivors or their relatives disputed how people’s lives and traits had been altered. Most of the crimes depicted in Bonnie And Clyde can actually be attributed to other outlaws from the time period. Penn and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were riffing with history freely, reshaping it in Hollywood’s image. Not that audiences cared. This was the movie equivalent of a dime store novel and it’s rollercoaster thrills brought home the box office.

This cavalier attitude toward the truth does the film little damage though. In fact, in only adds to the film’s charm in a strange sort of way. Bonnie And Clyde, decades on, still feels naughty. A rude upstart of a movie. It can be witnessed in the scene with Gene Wilder. He and his young sweetheart pursue the Barrow gang when they steal their car, but watch Wilder. The situation is serious, but Wilder doesn’t sell it. Inexperienced in film, he seems barely able to stop himself from corpsing. He smirks bashfully. So does the movie. It coyly invites the audience to stop caring and enjoy the ride.

The party can’t last though. When Wilder reveals himself to be an undertaker, it is a deathly omen. Bonnie can’t stand it and orders them out of the car. She herself runs across a corn field that is covered by a cloud. The bubble has burst. The movie is set on a darker tone. It is from here that it becomes even more romantic, tragically so. The romance of an inescapable fate. Fittingly for a film about legends in the making, even these fates are embellished.

True or not, here’s some classic American filmmaking, ground-breaking in it’s day and endlessly watchable now. Like the exploits of Jesse James, new fables of American crime were being woven, this time crafted out of celluloid. If you haven’t seen it, its one for the list.


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