A movie about two gangsters and, accidentally, the end of a nation’s innocence.
Bored waitress Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meets wandering ex-con Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) one Texas morning and commits armed robbery with him by lunch. This dalliance with delinquency puts the lovers on the run, and their desperation results in more robberies and even murder. As the manhunt mounts, Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes and attract disciples, including driver CW Moss, Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck’s wife, Blanche, but their fate is inevitable. The police kill Buck, Blanche turns traitor, and Moss’s father conspires with a Texas Ranger to execute a gruesome finale for the pair.
Bonnie and Clyde is famously the first major American movie to adopt the French New Wave aesthetic, but the film was very nearly French by birth. David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay was special enough to be shopped to names like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the latter declaring that he’d shoot the film in a single week. Investors balked, however, and the script fell into the well-tailored lap of Warren Beatty, who knew a director who might fit: Arthur Penn, who had shot the ambitious flop Mickey One with Beatty years before.
Once on board, Penn ordered script tweaks to alter the dynamic between the outlaws. The final film is frank in its sexuality, but the script was even more so, depicting Bonnie and Clyde as sex-crazed thrill-killers, and CW Moss as their thick boy toy. Under Penn’s watch, Moss morphed into a childlike innocent, and Clyde became impotent, grounding the couple’s relationship in need and kinship rather than superficial lust.
Penn’s every decision became a home run. Originally conceived as black and white, Penn shot the film in romantic color, and the bloody violence became more present and shocking as a result. Penn also hired non-professionals for his supporting roles, and gave his charismatic leads room to improvise, resulting in less-calculated, messier footage. The result was a film unlike anything Warner Bros. had ever produced.
They weren’t happy about it. One Warner executive (rumored to be Jack Warner himself) notoriously called the film a piece of shit. Penn’s movie didn’t waddle or quack like a typical Hollywood gangster picture, and so it was unceremoniously dumped after the first (uniformly bad) reviews. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was particularly spiteful, slinging his poison ink in an all-out assault against the film and its violence.
But the tables began to turn. The film found success with teens on the drive-in circuit, prompting Beatty to beg successfully (allegedly on his knees) for a re-release. Suddenly, major critics revisited the film and some revised their bad reviews—most notably Pauline Kael, whose Bonnie and Clyde review is one of the most famous in film history. Crowther, on the other hand, dug in deeper, waging war against his readers and continually attacking the film in his column. The seige forced the Times to accept that Crowther had grown out of touch with modern movies, and so the paper relieved Crowther in 1968 after 27 years of service.
Take your pick. Bonnie and Clyde skewers capitalism by showing how two poor yokels became folk heroes by attacking banks during the Great Depression, but it also takes a jab at the media for helping to canonize murderers in the first place. Additionally, the film reflects the late 60s and the bloody conflict in Vietnam served up as infotainment at the nation’s dinner table.
The film’s insanely famous ending, parodied and imitated to death, and yet as powerful as ever. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first major films to use squibs for bullet effects, and there’s not many who ever did it better. (Dunaway, in particular, looks as if she’s being ripped apart.) It’s easy to see why this left an impact on audiences who, just a few years earlier, weren’t allowed to watch so much as a fired gun on the same screen as its victim.
Note: I can’t find a single clip of this scene that will allow me to embed, but I promise that it’s worth the extra click. 3 minutes long and insanely awesome.
Here we are at last. End of the line. If you figured from the very beginning that Bonnie and Clyde would be the #1 film on this countdown then you, my friend, get the no-prize. Excelsior!
For months, I’ve been leading to this review, but now that it’s arrived, what am I supposed to say? Bonnie and Clyde is a great film. Pack your shit, everybody, let’s go home. The movie’s status was assured long before I got here. The film doesn’t need me to wax poetically about its greatness, because literally entire books have been written on that topic. Bonnie and Clyde is so well-covered that it would be silly and redundant for me to spend the next page of our collective time explaining to you that it’s a classic. It just is.
But why? Why this film, at this moment in history? Great movies come and go all the time, initially ignored and discovered much later (The Shawshank Redemption and about a thousand others), but this one changed everything while it was still in theatres. Why did Mickey One, full of the same passion and ideas, flop so spectacularly while Bonnie and Clyde became a boulder rolling downhill?
The last question is the easiest to answer—the violence, of course. Americans have always been partial to life and death stakes. (Hell, so has everybody. The French New Wave was a fairly artsy-fartsy film movement, but almost completely inspired by American gangster films.) The same formula that made Bonnie and Clyde a success has worked many, many times since, most recently with the films of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction and Bonnie and Clyde share the same DNA, blending comedy with chaos and mirth with mayhem. Tarantino also wrote the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a film that owes Bonnie and Clyde its very life.
The violence in Bonnie and Clyde is shocking, brutal, and occasionally fun, and so it’s easy to understand why teens embraced it. Bonnie and Clyde’s story has always been about wish-fulfillment. (It certainly wasn’t about the bank robbing; they were notoriously bad at that.) Depression-era readers thrilled to the idea of sticking it to the suits taking their homes, of riding out on the plains with a gun on their lap and a tank full of stolen gas. America’s love of the outlaw is tied to our love of the car and the freedom it represents, the freedom to drop everything and simply drive to a new life. Bonnie and Clyde were heroes of the 30s—Penn recalled seeing them in the paper as a child—but the youth of the 60s were in a similar mood to cast off authority and go fucking crazy. That the film is also about love (with the woman as the sexual aggressor, no less!) was equally appealing. It was a smart bomb of cultural impact, and it influenced everything from youth fashion to the oncoming wave of psychedelic road pictures, beginning with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.
However, there’s more to the film than simply appealing to the youth’s taste for outlaw violence. Another developing idea in the late 60s was that to truly be free, one had to abandon the traditional family structure and seek out others like you and form a new community. It’s a theme we’ve seen again and again in Penn’s films, most notably in Alice’s Restaurant and Four Friends, and it happens here once again. There is no tradition that can suit people like Bonnie, Clyde, or Moss. Buck and Blanche have married, but Buck still craves the outlaw life. The group forms their own family where they can each seem normal, playing house in loft apartments with Clyde and Buck as the two patriarchs, Bonnie and Blanche as the competing wives, and CW Moss as their surrogate child. That their family is based on crime and violence is irrelevant; all that truly matters is that they’ve made a choice. They’ve rejected the expected, and that’s a very appealing message for baby boomers discovering their power not as individuals, but as a unit, separate from their parents and from anyone who expects them to fall in line.
We can go still deeper. I mentioned the violence in Vietnam pumping through the nation’s TVs, but it bears repeating. Nothing like that had ever been seen in American media, ever. America is a unique place in that wars typically happen somewhere else, over there. For generations, Americans had desensitized and disconnected to the reality of war by describing it in black & white terms. We must defeat fascism, we must find the commies, and so on. (World War II provided a big boost in that department because the coalitions politely formed up on clear moral lines.) Vietnam was something else altogether, a murky conflict, hazily justified, but not altogether wrong. With that uncertainty came the violence on the screen, the first major televised American conflict, and no matter how heavily the footage was edited, it shocked. Adults who had formed their identities on the idea of American superheroism were able to rationalize it as part of the greater good. The boomers, still forming their identities and conveniently locked into that prime window of instinctual teenage rebellion, were not. The shock of that violence and the perceived dissonance between America’s corporate motto and our government’s action led to a population in need of catharsis. Along comes Bonnie and Clyde, the right movie at the right time. In a color film, blood is the same red of reality, and the film allowed the boomers to compartmentalize the violence, face it, and reconcile it. By watching the outlaws turn violence on authority, audiences could get a handle on it, understand it, and feel as if they could control it. Bonnie and Clyde was a touchstone, psychologically, and angry, confused audiences grabbed it.
Maybe these layers weren’t intended, but maybe they were. Arthur Penn was well-educated, and his movie is very, very smart, carefully layered and constructed to achieve maximum impact in the final violent ballet of bullets. Like his later Little Big Man, Penn suckers the audience in with warm, sunny colors and a lighthearted tone. We laugh at CW Moss’s silly grin or at Buck’s cow joke. This is the film debut of Gene Wilder, after all, playing a hostage who warms to the gang and rides around with them eating hamburgers.
But Wilder’s character is an undertaker, and only Bonnie seems to realize that he’s an omen. Only she seems to realize that her gang doesn’t control the violence, that nobody can. Like audiences must have secretly expected by 1967, conflicts this bloody cannot end well, not for anyone. A bad end is coming for them. Eventually the violence must consume them, because that’s what violence does. It eats and eats, and it craves legends most of all.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
9. Inside (1996)
8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
7. The Chase (1966)
6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)
4. Mickey One (1965)
3. The Miracle Worker (1962)
2. Little Big Man (1970)
1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Next: Final thoughts on Arthur Penn and a look at one of the
greatest goodest film franchises in history.