Bonnie & Clyde is one of my “staple films.” A staple film being any movie that tops my acquisition list whenever technological advancements make it necessary for me to restock my film library. Back in the dark ages, when I got my first VCR machine, Bonnie & Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, and Midnight Cowboy were the first VHS movies I ever purchased. These same films also became the first DVDs I ever owned when video cassettes became obsolete. It wasn’t particularly planned that way, they were just the three films I was most excited about owning in disc format. As of yet, I haven’t jumped on the Blu-ray bandwagon, but if and when I ultimately make that leap, it’s a sure bet which three films will be essential to have...again.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde is a film that has arguably become as legendary and folkloric as its real-life subjects. Released at the height of the hippie movement (ironically enough, in August of the Summer of Love) Bonnie & Clyde, in its myth-making depiction of two small-time Depression-era outlaws, managed to hit America right between the eyes.
What captured our imaginations about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1967 is most likely what captured the nation’s imagination in the 1930s. They were young (he was 21, she 19); women in crime were rare; as opposed to being a “gang,” Bonnie and Clyde were perceived as a “couple” and as such, suitable for romantic projection; and lastly, but perhaps most significantly, they were famous. Indeed, they are among the earliest American “celebrity” criminals: self-aware and image-conscious; knowledgeable of and taking delight in the notoriety and fame their criminal activity brought them.
Had Arthur Penn’s film been less artful, say, a Roger Corman exploitationer or an American-International cheapie like1958s The Bonnie Parker Story (an absolutely must-see howler starring Dorothy Provine), no one would likely have batted an eye on its release. But Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde comingled French New Wave arthouse stylization with America’s romanticism of rebellion, preoccupation with violence, and attraction to mythmaking, and in doing so captured the absolute essence of a particular moment in time. Not America in the 1930s, but America in the late 1960s.
|Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow
|Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker
|Michael J. Pollard as C.W. Moss
|Gene Hackman as Buck Barrow
|Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow
(I literally had no business being in the theater at that age, but precocious kids who make it their business to see movies too mature for their age can’t really complain about the subsequent nightmares and kindertrauma.) *I now own a framed Bonnie & Clyde poster which hangs where I can see it as I write. No longer a terrifying image, it inspires me and reminds me of the time when I thought movies were art and magic combined.
As embodied by the impossibly (implausibly?) beautiful and stylish duo of Beatty and Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde are a pair of unsophisticated social misfits dreaming of a better life beyond the dustbowl Texas poverty that surrounds them. Warren Beatty’s Clyde is a kind of guileless, career-criminal with malice towards none (the film casts the Great Depression as the ultimate villain) who sees in Bonnie a yearning soul, not unlike his own. The film seems to allude that, possibly with education or opportunity, this pair might have made something useful of their lives. But lacking either and left with nothing but a nagging sense of the pent-up hopelessness of their lives, they made the choice of antisocial rebellion.
A pretty nice name for a murderous crime spree.
And therein lay the cornerstone of the controversy surrounding Bonnie & Clyde when it was first released. Critics and audiences alike didn’t know what to make of a film that not only intentionally altered (some might say manipulated) historical fact for the purpose of dramatic effect, but cast its anti-heroes in a decidedly heroic, romantic light that to some negated the very real pain and suffering this real-life couple brought to others.
Instead, Penn asserts that he intended Bonnie & Clyde as a kind of post - Kennedy assassination / Vietnam war–era take on the death of the American Dream as manifest in the nation’s fascination with violence and mythmaking, and the resultant anti-authority/anti-social rebellion.
So if turning a couple of remorseless murderers into a pair of sympathetic, glamorous, near-mythic tragic lovers was seen by some as amoral, young '60s audiences didn’t seem to care. While critics like The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther pilloried Bonnie & Clyde as “…a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie,” young people across the country responded (as they would two years later to Easy Rider’s motorcycle-riding drug dealers) to the rebellious, anti-establishment spirit at the film’s core.
|Disenfranchised '60s youth - targeted for the draft, denied the vote, lacking a social presence - identified with the Barrow Gang's attempt to create for themselves a non-traditional family
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Putting aside arguments of amorality, I really admire how Bonnie & Clyde captures something I find to be very true about human nature: that the villains and monsters of the world don’t necessarily perceive themselves to be such. Movies and pulp literature have taught us that bad guys are well aware of how evil they are; literally reveling in their wickedness and lack of conscience (to believe so is reassuring when you find yourself rooting for their demise). Yet life experience and election-year observations have led me to conclude that some of the most heinous people in our culture actually seem to maintain a perception of themselves as being basically good and “just folks.”
It makes perfect sense to me that neither Bonnie nor Clyde would ever see themselves as bad guys. Dunaway and Beatty’s scenes together depict the two as marginalized loners—zeroes in the eyes of the world—whose dead-end lives converge and create a kind of pitiful, doomed hope. They are a sadsack Romeo & Juliet made stronger and more significant in their union than they could ever be on their own.
In some ways, the channeling of a specific, defined persona into role after role is the essence of what being a movie star (as opposed to an actor) is all about. Diane Keaton trademarked the lovable, semi-inarticulate ditz; Robert Redford the sensitive All-American jock; and Warren Beatty always seemed to play some variation on the not-very-bright, overgrown boy with big ideas (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Only Game in Town, Shampoo). Notwithstanding Beatty’s appealingly debauched beauty as a man, his screen persona has often left me wanting. Not so in Bonnie & Clyde. Here he mines the mother lode of his star charisma and is marvelously alive and interesting. Especially in the scenes where Clyde explodes into violent rages that erupt into a terrifyingly real physicality. Beatty playing aw-shucks humble has always been a little boring. Beatty as a temperamental nutjob (Bugsy) is a sight to behold.
|Impotent Clyde seduces Bonnie with a phallic substitute
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
While the sympathetic light Bonnie and Clyde are presented in represents an insurmountable hurdle for some (personally, I don’t see it as sympathetic so much as human. A moral imperative overrides everything that happens in the film), I find myself grateful for being allowed to take in the events of the story without being forced by the script to adopt an attitude about the pair until I’m ready.
One good example of this is the scene where Clyde says to a poor farmer whose house has been foreclosed upon, “We rob banks!” And in that split second, we see an aimless man giving his life purpose. A few scenes later Bonnie says these same words to gas attendant C.W. Moss, and in her delivery, we see that she at last has discovered an identity for herself, as well.
These two moments of empowerment for Bonnie and Clyde are perhaps pathetic and delusional to us, the viewer, but they are defining moments for the characters. What seems like the film striking an amoral stance is actually, I believe, the film merely establishing its point of view. The film presumes we are adult enough to be shown Bonnie and Clyde’s self-serving view of the world and themselves (misjudged folk heroes like Robin & Maid Marian) without insisting we accept it.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Or rather, the stuff of nightmares. In this, I’m referring to Bonnie & Clyde’s groundbreaking, much-discussed, heavily-debated, then-unprecedented depiction of violence. Modern audiences may find it tame (me, I still have a hard time watching the final ambush scene) but everything you’ve read about it is true when it comes to how it affected audiences on its initial release. I still can remember how ear-shatteringly loud the shots sounded in the theater, and how deadly quiet the theater was when the film was over. People walked out of the film like they were in a daze. Nobody knew quite how to take what they had seen. There were the obvious few, made so nervous that they had to start saying ANYTHING quick, but I remember my family and me leaving the theater and actually feeling afraid to say anything. As if in opening our mouths we weren’t sure what would come out…a cry or a scream.
|Bonnie & Clyde: Laughing and dying
"The killing gets less impersonal and, consequently, less funny." Arthur Penn
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2012