BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967, Director Arthur Penn)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Set in the early 1930s, Bonnie and Clyde tells the story of Depression-era outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) and thus recalls such earlier “outlaw-couple” films as Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948, and Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950). But Bonnie and Clyde is very much a film of the 1960s, and its anti-establishment tone ultimately derives less from the economic hardships of the Depression than prevailing cultural attitudes at the time the film was made. Indeed, Robert Kolker goes so far as to describe the film as “an allegory of sixties’ youth culture” (58). While numerous aspects of the film carefully place it in its proper historical context (as when Bonnie and Clyde attend a screening of Gold Diggers of 1933), much of the film is shot in richly splendid colors that seem more suggestive of 1960s affluence than 1930s poverty. In the film, Bonnie and Clyde are portrayed as largely sympathetic figures, their crimes almost taking on the aspect of a Robin Hood-like quest for social justice through robbery (even though they don’t really re-distributed their takings to the poor). But they are mostly presented simply as two young people in love, battling against the restraints placed on their pursuit of pleasure by society and its authoritarian rules. The film’s success in reflecting the mores of late-1960s American society can be seen in its tremendous take at the box office and in its powerful influence on subsequent Hollywood films. In addition, the film appealed to contemporary critical taste well enough to gain ten Academy Award nominations, including most of the major categories, though it won only two awards, in the categories of best supporting actress (Estelle Parsons) and best cinematography[1].

One of the reasons why Bonnie and Clyde seems so different from its predecessors in Hollywood film is that it was heavily influenced by the work of French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, each of whom contributed to the development of the project and was at one time or another considered as a possible director for the film. Indeed, Robert Ray calls Bonnie and Clyde a sort of “pastiche of New Wave effects” (289). In any case, the film clearly draws upon the films of the French New Wave while breaking some distinctly new aesthetic ground, perhaps marking the point (at least in retrospect) that something genuinely new was beginning to happen in Hollywood film. Ultimately, the film’s flaunting of Hollywood convention reinforces its antiauthoritarianism and is to that extent effective. On the other hand, the film at times seems overly taken with its own stylistic play, which may enhance its overt celebration of nonconformism, but which tends to diminish its latent anticapitalist political message.

Another reason why Bonnie and Clyde was such a landmark film is that its production history differed so dramatically from that of the typical Hollywood film in the studio era. Though eventually sold to Warner Bros., it began life essentially in the mode of today’s independent films. The early history of the film was driven not by a studio but by its screenwriters, David Newman and Robert Benton, who shopped their script to several directors (including Truffaut and Godard), rather than to studios. What really drove the film to production, though, was the enthusiastic support of Beatty, who bought the rights to the project and signed on to produce the film even before he decided to play the lead role[2]. Penn eventually agreed to direct after initially declining, while legendary screenwriter Robert Towne did a bit of script doctoring. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. (makers of the most prominent of the gangster films of the 1930s) gave the film very little support. Beatty had to battle the studio to even get a wide release for the film, a battle he ultimately won, something no actor could have done in the studio era. Eventually, the film became a major box-office hit, partly due to the strong support of critics such as Pauline Kael. Meanwhile, Beatty (accidentally) became the highest paid actor in Hollywood history. Assuming the film would flop badly, Warner Bros. offered him 40% of the box office gross as his principal payment. That ultimately came to more than $20 million, at a time when actors seldom made as much as $1 million for a film. Never again would the Hollywood studios exercise the kind of control over American film as they once had[3].

Bonnie and Clyde begins with an opening-credit sequence punctuated by stark, Depression-era photographs of the poor to establish the historical setting, while on-screen text also gives a capsule summary of the careers of the real-world Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. In the first moments of the film, Clyde, freshly out of prison on an armed-robbery charge, meets Bonnie in the dusty Texas town of West Dallas, then takes her away from her boring life as a waitress to join him in a more exciting life of crime. These early scenes are filled with a charge that is more about sex than about crime—though the film as a whole will ultimately suggest that the two are inseparable. The film proper opens as we see Bonnie in her bedroom in her mother’s house, posing naked in front of a mirror and clearly bored and frustrated out of her skull. Dunaway’s nudity is more implied than actually shown, but there is a clear suggestion that Bonnie is a very passionate woman whose needs are not being met by her current life as a Texas waitress—as when she falls naked upon her bed, and then looks through its metal frame in a mode that is clerly reminiscent of looking through prison bars. The focus in these first few seconds is on Dunaway’s remarkable face, beginning with a closeup of her sensuous lips, then the camera moves to her mirror as she admires herself, seeming to be attempting to look as sensual as possible. The camera loves that face, whose sultry eyes and prominent cheekbones seem designed to be photographed: there is a reason why this film made Dunaway into a major Hollywood star. Indeed, Matthew Bernstein is probably correct when he argues that these first few shots set the tone for the entire film, with its emphasis on style, but also with its positioning of Bonnie as “the emotional core of the film” (108).[4]

The film begins with a dissolve from a picture of Clyde Barrow to a close-up of Bonnie’s lips.
Bonnie’s initial sense of entrapment.

In the next shot, the real action of the film begins as Bonnie looks out her second-storey window to see a young man examining her mother’s automobile, which she quickly (and correctly) surmises he is considering stealing. She clearly finds this exciting, rather than appalling. She calls to man (addressing him as “Boy”), then throws on a dress and rushes down to confront him. The sexual chemistry is palpable; though it is quickly established that Clyde is “not much of a lover boy,” the bored young woman clearly finds this bad boy very stimulating. When she expresses a teasing doubt that he is really a robber, Clyde shows her his gun, which she looks at and then strokes in a manner that is undeniable sexual, while the matchstick he holds between his teeth tilts upward in a sort of symbolic erection[5]. Within moments, in order to impress her further, he will have robbed a grocery store and stolen a car, in which they drive away in the first of their many daring escapes during the movie. Moreover, in one of the film’s most memorable touches, they drive away to the strains of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” by the famed bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. This upbeat, joyful tune was written by Scruggs in 1949, but it nevertheless has the feel of the roots music of earlier times and so fits the early 1930s setting of the film quite well[6]. It also helps to set the tone of the film, aligning Bonnie and Clyde with the folk culture of the common people. Meanwhile, this song (which accompanies several of their getaways) makes them seem more like free-spirited, fun-loving scamps than like desperate criminals, helping to encourage audiences to root for the duo, despite their crimes.

Bonnie strokes Clyde’s gun in a moment with clear sexual intonations.
Clyde’s response.

The film also establishes a positive view of the crimes of Bonnie and Clyde in an early scene in which the two lovers take refuge in an abandoned farmhouse that has been claimed by a local bank in a foreclosure. The two then help the dispossessed farmer shoot up the house (and the bank sign in front of it), clearly marking banks as enemies of the poor, while Bonnie and Clyde are identified as defenders of the poor and enemies of the rich. The two then begin their crime spree, though it goes poorly at first, with Bonnie and Clyde portrayed as bumbling amateurs rather than professional criminals, suggesting their fundamental innocence. Nevertheless, the two finally manage to conduct a successful series of robberies and to become notorious bandits. Meanwhile, their gang is joined by young mechanic C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), then by Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), accompanied by his frumpy and hysterical wife, Blanche (Parsons). Building their gang, though, is not part of some criminal master plan; it essentially happens by accident. Indeed, throughout the film Bonnie and Clyde continue to be depicted as naifs, young people who have literally fallen into their notorious status. As Clyde notes at one point, they have no particular destination that they are headed toward; they are merely running away from those who are chasing them. Unlike the organized crime that drives the gangster films with which Bonnie and Clyde has often been compared, the Barrow Gang represents the epitome of disorganized crime.

Crime in this film is a matter not of careful planning and organization, but of passion. Indeed, crime will continue to substitute for sex in the relationship between Bonnie and Clyde throughout most of the film. At one point just over a half hour into the film, the couple again attempt to have sex, but Clyde remains clumsy and reticent (and presumably impotent), eventually turning away altogether. Bonnie, then, is left alone, sadly snuggling to a handgun that once again serves as a rather obvious phallic substitute. The couple will not, in fact, successfully have sex until just before the film’s shocking end, when Clyde is finally able to perform—presumably because of the comfort and confidence he has gained through the bond he has established with Bonnie in the course of the film. He then reacts with an innocent, boyish glee when Bonnie assures him that his performance had been “perfect.” It’s a very Hollywood moment, even though it would have been banned in Hollywood film through most of its history to this time. Meanwhile, this idyllic moment (they make love in the middle of a field, surrounded by nature) helps to set up the ambush scene that occurs soon afterward, which—in comparison—becomes all the more shocking. The couple are torn apart by bullets just after they had finally managed to be fully together.

Bonnie snuggles with Clyde’s gun as a sexual surrogate.

The film and its love story thus finally come to an end when the police finally catch up with the lovers. After all, the gang spends far more time in the film fleeing from police than committing actual robberies, a situation that tends to make them look more sympathetic. Moreover, it soon becomes clear that their exploits have been greatly exaggerated by the press, with the result that they become central targets of law enforcement from Texas to Missouri, hunted even for crimes they could not possibly have committed. Thus, though they have committed a number of armed robberies and even murders, there is a way in which they stand unjustly accused. These inflated accounts of their crimes against banks and other corporate entities also help Bonnie and Clyde to become heroes to the poor and disenfranchised, who imagine the outlaw couple living out their own fantasies of resistance to authority. The police, meanwhile, are essentially depicted as bloodthirsty killers determined to murder the gang no matter what.

This depiction of the heroization of Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang via the press is historically accurate, at least in its vague outlines. After photos of the duo were found by police in the wake of a close escape from capture, the real-world Bonnie and Clyde became heroes in the national press—and especially in the press in the Southwest. And press coverage of their exploits—including attributing far more (and far greater) crimes to them than they actually committed—vastly inflated their importance, putting them on a level (in terms of fame) with contemporary gangsters such as John Dillinger, who were actually far more important figures in the world of crime.

Bonnie and Clyde draws upon this history in one scene in which Bonnie and Clyde pose for precisely the photos that made them famous in real-world newspapers, including one that closely reproduces the most notorious of the photos, which shows Bonnie jauntily posed with her foot on the bumper of a car, a gun dangling from one hand and a stogie dangling from her lips. The film also incorporates the badly crafted but oddly affecting poetry that the real-world Bonnie Parker was known for writing, providing another link to the elements that made the duo seem such a romantic pair of outlaws in the 1930s.

Photo of the real Bonnie Parker.
The film’s Bonnie Parker reproduces a famous photo.

Of course, the overblown press coverage of the Barrow gang answered to a real contemporary hunger on the part of an impoverished general population that was badly in need of heroes and that saw as a potential champion anyone who went up against some of the corporate forces that they blamed for their own misfortunes. Readers of early 1930s newspapers were also in need of any sort of feel-good personal stories they could find, and the romanticized version of the love story between Bonnie and Clyde—of two lovers against the world—made for very good reading. Such stories, of course, are also among the central ingredients of Hollywood film, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the film, even as it points out the ways in which the press exaggerated and romanticized the story of Bonnie and Clyde, performs some of the same exaggeration and romanticization itself.

This romanticization, of course, begins with the casting of glamorous Hollywood actors such as Beatty and Dunaway in the title roles[7]. Further, both Beatty and (especially) Dunaway are lovingly lit and shot in ways that emphasize their glamor, while many shots are composed to suggest a genuine bond between them, encouraging viewers to root for the two of them somehow to wind up together, even though logic tells us that they are doomed, especially if we remember historical reality. Meanwhile, Beatty and Dunaway are surrounded in the film by a cast of rather ordinary (if not downright unattractive) actors, making them stand apart, almost as if they have carved out a romantic cocoon of their own that contrasts strongly with the faded world that surrounds that bubble. Meanwhile, everything in this enchanted cocoon, everything that is touched by the magic of Bonnie and Clyde, not only looks better than the rest of the world of the film, but also surely looks better than the corresponding items in the real world of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow would have. In addition, the film does not entirely undermine the 1930s press accounts implying that the Barrow gang were highly successful bank robbers, striking blows against the corporate entities who were tormenting the poor and the downtrodden in the Depression era. In point of fact, the real Barrow gang specialized in robbing small stores and other businesses generally owned by individuals who were hardly wealthy in their own right, a fact that the film vaguely acknowledges, while still leaving open the vision of the two lovers as daring bank robbers. In reality, then, Bonnie and Clyde were not quite the Robin Hood figures the film sometimes implies that they might be, nor were they quite as formidable as robbers.

In the latter part of the film, though, the gang commits few crimes and is shown mostly as the prey of murderous police and Texas Rangers. Eventually, after a series of narrow escapes, Buck is shot and killed, while Blanche is blinded and captured. C. W. takes Bonnie and Clyde (both of whom are wounded) to refuge in the home of C. W.’s father, Ivan Moss (Dub Taylor), where they begin to recuperate from their wounds. But the elder Moss turns them in to the police in return for lenient treatment for his son. Moss then sets up an ambush in which Bonnie and Clyde are shot to ribbons by deputies in a slow-motion “ballet of death,” one of the most memorable scenes of 1960s cinema—and one of the most violent scenes in American film to that time, though it in fact does not exceed the spectacular violence with which the real Bonnie and Clyde ambushed by police. (This real-world ambush was also set up by a gang member seeking lenient treatment from the law, one Henry Methvin, who is essentially replaced by Moss in the film, though Moss is a composite figure of Methvin and another gang member.)

The shocking scene of the death of Bonnie and Clyde is one of the most memorable moments in the history of American cinema, not only because of the violent and visceral nature of the scene itself but also because the very fact that this scene could be shown at all was a key watershed in the evolution of screen violence—and a key marker of the demise of the Hollywood Production Code, a demise that was itself crucial to the subsequent rise of the New Hollywood movement. Much of the sexual content of the film would surely have been banned by the Production Code as well. Indeed, Bonnie and Clyde appeared during a brief historical sweet spot during which the Production Code had collapsed (after a final attempt at revision in 1966) and the MPAA ratings system (which went into effect in 1968) had yet to go into effect as its replacement. As Louis Menand puts it in The New Yorker, “Two years earlier, the movie would not have been approved by the M.P.A.A. Two years later, it would have been rated X.”

The collapse of the Code meant that it was possible to show such violence on the screen. Moreover, as Stephen Prince notes, this violence also responded to a growing awareness on the part of general public that extreme violence can be a part of life in the world. “It was no coincidence,” writes Prince, “that American films became bloodier than ever at the same time as the nation was waging an unpopular war in Southeast Asia and confronting a domestic scene marked by urban riots, campus protests against the war, and recurrent political assassinations” (128). It is probably difficult for audiences in the twenty-first century fully to appreciate how shocking the final death scene of Bonnie and Clyde must have been to audiences at the time, who were not accustomed to seeing anything like this sort of violence on the big screen. In previous films, for example, while characters might have been shown being killed by gunfire, it was rare to see any sort of actual physical damage being done to their bodies by the bullets. There were, in fact, very few American films before Bonnie and Clyde in which blood could be shown at all, while this film, especially in that last scene, is extremely bloody, making pioneering use of the squibs that would become a key part of the filmmaker’s toolkit in subsequent years.

Bonnie and Clyde also appeared at a time when its almost archetypal story of youthful rebellion against authority struck a particular political chord. As Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner note, the film resonated with the 1960 spirit of rebellion, if only because it offered rule-breaking as an “alternative to passive suffering.” At the same time, they suggest that the political potency of the film suffers from some of the same limitations that hampered the oppositional political movements of the 1960s by focusing on individual rebellion rather than concerted political action that might lead to genuine systemic change. “Just as it is the nature of this picaresque narrative style never to be able to terminate in any image of success (thus to become a domestic melodrama), so also it is in the nature of the social alternative of picaresque decoding never to be capable of offering the suffering ‘Okies’ or displaced farmers of the Depression anything but a transient image of folk heroism” (23).

In this sense, of course, Bonnie and Clyde is a very American narrative. Indeed, it veers dangerously close to cliché at a number of points, checking all the boxes of American individualist ideology and aligning itself quite closely with the mainstream values of American culture even as it seeks to position itself as a countercultural narrative. After all, there is a reason why narratives about outlaws and gangsters have long been so popular in American culture. Among other things, the fat that Bonnie and Clyde seems so much in tune with the countercultural movements of the 1960s suggests that those movements themselves were not as countercultural as most of their adherents thought them to be. Particularly relevant here is the argument by Thomas Frank that the supposedly subversive counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s was not diametrically opposed to the ethos of consumer capitalism but was actually created—or at the very least substantially encouraged and enhanced—by corporate marketing strategies designed to help create markets for new, hipper consumer products as capitalism itself evolved into a new phase moving beyond the boom years of the 1950s. This phenomenon, for Frank, then led to “a new species of hip consumerism, a cultural perpetual motion machine in which disgust with the falseness, shoddiness, and everyday oppressions of consumer society could be enlisted to drive the ever-accelerating wheels of consumption” (31).

The phenomenon described by Frank, of course, has by now led to a world in which consumerism has spread around the globe and in which culture itself (including the film industry) is more in the grip of commodification than ever. Indeed, in the years since Bonnie and Clyde was released, a new sort of American hero has emerged—one who works within the basic framework of capitalism but finds daring new ways to do so, creating completely new industries and completely new business models. With entrepreneurs such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Apple’s Steve Jobs, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos leading the way, American capitalism has been transformed, while romantic narratives have been constructed around the exploits of these individualist heroes. Yet these individual innovators have also built corporate structures that are far bigger and richer than anything built by previous generations of more conventional capitalists, virtually collapsing the boundary between rule-makers and rule-breakers. Viewed in today’s context, then, Bonnie and Clyde might be seen as a pair of paradigm-busting entrepreneurs, breaking rules in order to build their business, but finding themselves opposed at every turn by government regulators and conservative businessmen who refuse to accept innovation. That Bonnie and Clyde ultimately (and inevitably) fail, suggests the limitations in their historical context and should also perhaps serve as an object lesson in the limitations of individual achievement in general: no individual, no matter how brilliant and innovative, can succeed with the support of a system that makes this success possibly—and also without the help of a large number of other individuals, who both produce and consume innovative products. Moreover, just as Bonnie and Clyde literally build their business on stealing from others, the capital that is accumulated by today’s megacorporations is not created out of thin air but must be taken from the labor of employees, the expenditures of customers, and the demise of defeated competitors. Ultimately, then, the real outlaw hero of Bonnie and Clyde is not its central protagonists, but the film itself, which did indeed strike lasting blows against the status quo, even if Bonnie and Clyde themselves did not.

WORKS CITED

Bernstein, Matthew. “Model Criminals: Visual Style in Bonnie and Clyde.” Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Ed. Lester D. Friedman. Cambridge University Press, 2000, 101–126.

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Cawelti, John. “The Artistic Power of Bonnie and Clyde.” Focus on Bonnie and Clyde. Ed. John Cawelti. Prentice-Hall, 1973, 40-84.

Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness. 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Menand, Louis. “Bonnie and Clyde, Fifty Years After.” The New Yorker (August 14, 2017). https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/bonnie-and-clyde-fifty-years-after. Accessed November 25, 2019.

Prince, Stephen. “The Hemorrhaging of American Cinema: Bonnie and Clyde’s Legacy of Cinematic Violence.” Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Ed. Lester D. Friedman. Cambridge University Press, 2000, 127–147.

Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1980. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Indiana University Press, 1988.

NOTES


[1] Beatty and Dunaway gained Oscar nominations in the lead acting categories, but neither won. Later, however, Dunaway would win a Best Actress Oscar for Network (1976). Beatty, despite a major career, would never win a Best Actor Oscar, though he did win an Oscar for Best Director for Reds (1981). In 2000, he won an Irving G. Thalberg Award for his body of work as a producer.

[2] Beatty’s sister, the prominent actress Shirley MacLaine, was a leading candidate to play Bonnie. However, when he decided to play Clyde, it seemed advisable to find someone else to play Bonnie.

[3] For an extensive account of the complex production and distribution history of the film, see Biskind (26–40).

[4] In even stronger terms, John Cawelti has argued that Bonnie’s point of view is the central one in the film, noting that “her increasing awareness and depth, in contrast to the comic limitations of the other characters, make her the true center of the film” (48).

[5] The consistent representation of guns as sexually charged objects in Bonnie and Clyde is especially reminiscent of the same motif in Gun Crazy. Gun Crazy, however, made during the Code era, is forced to suggest this connection much more subtly and indirectly.

[6] According to Peter Biskind, Benton and Newman often listened to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” while they were working on the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde.

[7] It should be noted, though, that Dunaway was a virtual unknown at the time she was cast in Bonnie and Clyde, while Beatty was not yet a major star, his most prominent starring role having been in Penn’s Mickey One (1965), a film that has drawn considerable critical interest over the years but that was not a big box-office hit.