Fifty years on and Bonnie and Clyde remains a cultural landmark as the harbinger proclaiming a new American movie had arrived on the scene. As a cinematic artifact, it is indebted as much to the 60s themselves as it is the Depression Era where its mythical crime story finds its roots.
The spark of an idea came from screenwriter Robert Benton’s own knowledge of his father’s fascination in real crime novels, which even led the elder Benton to attend the actual funerals of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It’s youth rebellion and a free love revolution by way of the 1930s mythology.
Formalistically, Bonnie and Clyde was an effort by producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn, collaborating with their screenwriters, to channel the French New Wave. It’s true that at a time, two of the movements titans, Francois Truffaut and then Jean Luc Godard, were both attached to the project. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out but the spirit they’re pictures were imbued with remain even as this effort is undeniably American.
Bringing the exciting and at times challenging art pictures of Europe to the American mainstream with a jolt of new blood, squibs included free of charge. Even if everyone didn’t realize it at the time, it signaled a rebirth of a style and philosophy that was fully alive. It only took generations of new film school filmmakers to run with it and in subsequent generations eventually, kill it.
For now, we had the fateful meet-cute, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) scantily clad, bored out of her mind, and spying the boy trying to nab her mama’s car. She catcalls him and he welcomes her — nay, challenges her — to join him. He’s Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) a small-time criminal who did a stint in prison and has two missing toes to prove it (It was his gag to get off a work detail a few days before he was paroled). They share a drink over Coca-Cola in the noonday sun. He’s intent on being a big shot and she’s disillusioned by her waitressing gig.
In a moment, he brandishes a gun to exert his manhood and he’s further coaxed on by Bonnie to rob the cash register in her quaint town. She doesn’t believe he has the gumption. A minute later he rushes out with the wad of cash and they’re on their way to a giddy life of crime so thrilling, at first, with its bouncy jangle of banjo strings. This is only the beginning. They aren’t big name criminals yet. That notoriety is born out of three words: We Rob Banks!
Yes, they do. They bring on slow-witted but able mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to keep their gears constantly turning so they can handily outrun the police and dot their native Texas with bank job after bank job. Clyde kills his first man after Moss botches their getaway and the papers start to document their harrowing exploits on the wrong side of the law.
A family reunion follows for Barrow as his older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s quibbling wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the daughter of a preacher, join their merry company. It should be noted the ladies take an immediate disliking to each other. Bonnie’s not agreeable to the domesticated lifestyle and she’s wary of Blanche, a woman she deems has no guts. It’s a perceptive observation.
As their reputation grows, so do the prices riding on all of their heads. First, the cops look to ambush them on their holiday in Missouri. Then it’s a lone Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) who winds up getting his picture taken to be plastered all throughout the newspapers. He’s not one to forget the humiliation and he’s aiming to make them pay.
Each and every time they take to the road again, starting up their rampage across the countryside a new, casing bank after bank, while gaining a bit of mystique with the common folk. Along the way, they pick up some extra passengers (Gene Wilder and Evans Evans) to terrorize and then make a pilgrimage to the Parker home due to Bonnie’s homesickness.
But even this move is extremely dangerous and soon another police ambush follows on their latest residence that is deadlier still. It’s a downward spiral with an ever larger target being pinned on their backs. Soon they’re picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery with Buck being mortally wounded and Blanche subsequently goes hysterical and spills her guts to the authorities all but sealing the fate of our antiheroes. Bonnie was right about her.
The other three escape by the skin of their teeth though badly battered. With nowhere else to turn, they seek asylum with C.W.’s father who extends some southern hospitality. Although, behind closed doors, he isn’t too keen about his son’s new lifestyle with tattoos and all.
We know the story must end even as Bonnie has successfully canonized their legend nationwide with a poem she penned subsequently published around the country. And they are as in love as they ever were promising to get married and dreaming of a different life where they could settle down and be normal folks. They take what they can get and love each other while they can. Because justice is swift and it comes with a vengeance.
The old mores are upheld but utilizing a new language that was aberrant and gratuitous in comparison to the traditions of the past. But that was just it. Bonnie and Clyde was somehow the perfect vehicle of antiestablishment both in form and function. It was like the perfect storm of a cultural revolution and a medium to reflect the angst of a generation.
There’s a madcap raggedness to their crime spree that’s almost comical and Penn plays it like a comedy at first. A bunch of hicks out on a road comedy caper, only it’s underscored by graphic blood-spattered violence like the industry had never witnessed before. It’s like putting the frenetic zaniness of the Keystone Kops with the violent gunplay out of the gangster tradition and it creates a disconcerting dissonance ripping apart the standards of Classical Hollywood. Because the industry had showcased degenerate criminals before — the Cagneys, Robinsons, and Bogarts — but they were always hard-bitten figures and, of course, they got their comeuppance.
Up to that point, there was arguably no characterization quite like this where our leads were young and desirable — a new kind of antihero who forged an anarchic path between Gun Crazy, Breathless, and Pierrot Le Fou.
Arthur Penn pointed out at a later date, and you could easily make the argument, for the first time film was being more accurate by showing the actual impact of a bullet on a human body. There was no cutaway. There was no inference or use of the wizardry of editing to imply the results. They were right there in from of us in all their gory reality. That was indeed groundbreaking.
Its final scene ranks right up there with Psycho‘s shower sequence for how it completely shatters everything we knew to be convention. At that point, there’s no going back. You cannot unsee it. It stays with you. Both instances brutal in their meshing of image, sound, editing, and the myriad pieces at the disposal of filmmakers to make us see something deeply manipulating.
Bonnie and Clyde would bear many of the progeny that have challenged me; films that brazenly dabble in violence, comedy, and the darkness of the human heart in almost inconceivable ways. Mixing tones, emotions, and content in a manner that is incompatible at best and deeply perturbing in their most volatile forms.
Surely, we cannot laugh at something and an instant later be subjected to the blackness of death? People cannot be villains and cast as heroes in the same breath. Everything passed down from our traditions tells us this is not the way it works. After Bonnie and Clyde, it was a whole new landscape. No question.