It is hard to believe that Bonnie and Clyde is now forty-one years old. It still seems like yesterday when it first opened and almost single-handedly changed the landscape of movie-making in this country. The real-life Texas outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow—whose crime and murder spree kept police departments throughout the Southwest busy from 1932 to 1934, when the pair was finally tracked down, ambushed, and killed in Arcadia, Louisiana—had been the loose inspiration for several previous movies (including two I’ll be mentioning in a bit), but none approached the freshness and originality of this one. In fact, Bonnie and Clyde simply didn’t play like any movie we’d seen before. Though not a documentary, it felt that way, thanks to art director Dean Tavoularis’ superb period sets and cinematographer Burnett Guffey’s loving nods to the Depression-era still photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Though not a foreign film, it felt that way, too—hip and young and genre-mingling like Truffaut or Godard, only so much harder-edged, so much more American than either. Funny and terrible and heartbreaking and evocative all at once, it was also far more explicitly violent and—at least at first—more flippant about its violence than any Hollywood movie that had preceded it. Later, it would make that violence hurt like no other film had done before and very few since, brutally punishing us for caring about Bonnie and Clyde by making us watch them die horrible, bloody deaths.
That we were made to feel any sympathy at all for the Barrow gang was a problem for some of the movie’s first audiences and critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times famously denounced B&C for treating “the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as jazz-age cutups.” It took a brilliant advertising campaign (“They’re young…they’re in love…they kill people”) organized by Warren Beatty, who not only starred in Bonnie and Clyde but also produced the film for Warner Brothers, and a brilliant, highly influential review by Pauline Kael, who cemented her reputation as America’s foremost film critic with a rave-up of B&C in The New Yorker (her first review for that magazine), to change the film’s fortunes after it initially flopped at the box office. It went on to become a huge commercial and critical success, garnering ten Oscar nominations and winning two Academy Awards (Estelle Parsons for Best Supporting Actress and Burnett Guffey for Best Cinematography).
To fully understand the electrifying effect that B&C had on (primarily younger) audiences—and why old-fogey critics like Crowther misunderstood it—you have to look back (those of you who are able) to 1967 and remember what was happening in this country and how the culture was reacting to it. Nineteen sixty-seven gave us the Summer of Love, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Grateful Dead, hippies with flowers in their hair, free love, the first widespread availability of acid, the much wider availability of grass, increasing draft resistance and anti-War demonstrations on campuses, larger and bolder peace marches (including huge gatherings in New York City and Washington, DC), terrible riots in Detroit, Newark, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, Senator Eugene McCarthy’s anti-War candidacy, Senator Bobby Kennedy’s anti-War candidacy, LBJ’s decision not to run for a second term, and a growing sense among young people that things were falling apart, that we were being lied to about the terrible violence that was happening halfway around the world in Vietnam (and the human toll that violence was taking), and that the old ways of doing things and thinking about things were, “in the parlance of the time” (to quote that great survivor from the Sixties, the Dude), irrelevant. Turning on, tuning in, dropping out was starting to be seen as a legitimate alternative—and for some would become the only alternative after the even more terrible events of 1968.
Partly by chance and partly by design, B&C tapped deeply into this zeitgeist. The script was written by two young Esquire magazine editors, Robert Benton and David Newman, as a kind of paean to French New Wave cinema (particularly the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim and the Godard of Breathless and Band of Outsiders) and was at one point offered as a project to Truffaut (who couldn’t take it on because he had committed to making Fahrenheit 451). Instead, it was given to New York stage director Arthur Penn, whom Beatty had worked with on Mickey One. Beatty instinctively felt that an American director—particularly one with the gift for violence Penn had shown in The Left Handed Gun—would bring a fresh perspective to a New Wave gangster story, and he was right. A few plot changes were made for domestic consumption. For instance, in the original script Clyde, Bonnie, and C.W. Moss were a ménage a trois and Clyde was overtly bisexual. Penn thought that this made Bonnie and Clyde too exotic for American audiences, so it was decided that instead of being bisexual Clyde would be sexually impotent, which was itself daring.
Although the ménage a trois was jettisoned, the sense of the Barrow gang as a band apart—living outside the law in some of the hardest times that the United States has known—was not, and, in 1967, this outlaw alienation was incredibly resonant. So was the admixture of Robin Hood-like idealism and social protest. (When Clyde, in the process of robbing a small grocery, is attacked by a huge clerk brandishing a meat cleaver, he is genuinely astonished. “We ain’t against them!” he says plaintively to Bonnie.) Most resonant of all, of course, with the sexual revolution burning in the foreground and Vietnam and America’s inner cities burning in the back was the yoking together of explicit sex (this may have been the first American film to depict fellatio) and even more explicit violence. When, at the very start of the film, Clyde first shows Bonnie his gun and she runs her fingers lightly along the barrel as if she is stroking him, the equation between kiss kiss and bang bang is sealed.
B&C was scarcely the first film to draw this parallel (think of Annie Laurie Starr and Bart Tare in Joseph H. Lewis’ 1950 film Gun Crazy), or the first to romanticize young lovers on the run from the law in Depression-era America (think of Keechie Mobley and Bowie Bowers in Nicholas Ray’s 1948 film, They Live By Night), although neither of these earlier films approaches the frankness of B&C and neither of them came out of an America in which love and death were so openly the topics of the day. That said, what really set Bonnie and Clyde apart—what made it so genuinely Sixties (and so genuinely New Wave)—wasn’t just its explicitness, or its compassion for the outcast and the uprooted, or even the way it made forbidden art out of a Depression-era crime spree, turning remorseless killers into sympathetic characters and their fate into a heartbreaking love story; it was also the film’s novel tone—its unprecedented mix of comic and tragic, romantic and realistic—that made it so hip and contemporaneous, so much like the country itself, divided between making love and making war.
Though combining farce and tragedy wasn’t new to European cinema (Jean Renoir did it famously well in Rules of the Game, and Truffaut and Godard did it as a matter of course), it was relatively new to American movies. Kubrick had tried a similar mix in his successful adaptation of Lolita in 1962 and, of course, his 1964 landmark Dr. Strangelove set the standard for laughter in the face of the unthinkable. But both of these films were fundamentally satiric; B&C was not. In any event, neither used comedy to intensify tragedy in the way that B&C did.
We get our first full taste of the film’s method with the Mineola bank robbery. It starts off like pure slapstick as C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Bonnie and Clyde’s neophyte driver, spots an empty parking place between two cars and, thinking himself brilliant, squeezes the getaway car into it while the robbery is taking place. When Bonnie and Clyde come high-footing it out of the bank—with alarms going off and the banker himself in hot pursuit—they can’t find the getaway car! It’s a nervously funny moment—mixing danger with laughter like so much that has preceded it. But what follows immediately afterwards isn’t funny at all. Because C.W. has to worm his way out of the parking space, the banker has enough time to catch up with the robbers, hopping on the running board of the car as Moss finally gets it out onto the street and into gear. Panicked, Clyde shoots the banker in the face through the side window—in a close-up that echoes the famous close-up of the protestor-in-glasses shot through the eye in the brutal Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Up until this moment, B&C has been mostly larkish and farcical—a cracked fairy tale about a couple of small-time would-be Robin Hoods who start off by trying to rob a bank that has failed, botch the stick-up of a small-town grocery store, and recruit a cuddly service station mechanic for a sidekick. The banker’s shocking murder is our first major hint (there will be many others) that Bonnie and Clyde isn’t just going to be a droll combination of period piece and romantic comedy. It’s going to turn ugly.
This brief glimpse into what lies ahead is quickly forgotten in the marvelous low comedy of the Barrow brothers’ family reunion, followed by the heroic excitement of the Joplin shootout (“Hey, hey! The laws are outside!”), with that iconic shot of Clyde firing pistols in both hands and the slapstick of Blanche Barrow’s screaming-banshee flight from the rented Joplin house. (The actual Blanche Barrow, who was still alive when Bonnie and Clyde was made, was apparently none too pleased by her depiction in the movie, sued Warner Brothers, and won an out-of-court settlement.) In short order, we get a much more professional robbery, a Keystone Kops car chase to the chipper bluegrass banjo and fiddle of Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the droll albeit fictitious “capture” of Texas Ranger/villainous bounty-hunter Frank Hamer (who was also alive at the time the movie came out and also successfully sued Warner), and the funny kidnapping of the bourgeois couple Vilma and Eugene, whose job as an undertaker upsets a melancholy Bonnie and sends her running home, signaling the end of the mostly comic first half of B&C.
To mark this transition unmistakably, the film changes pace and tone when Bonnie and the Barrows return to Texas to visit Bonnie’s mother and family. Shot in soft focus and heavily filtered to suggest dying afternoon light, the Parker-family reunion is a long, near-silent sequence of remarkable lyricism and dreamlike foreboding, filled with farewells and portents of what is to come (the haunting shot of the boy tumbling in slow motion down the sand dune, like a premonition of the slow-motion totentanz with which B&C finishes), and ending with a sobering judgment pronounced by Bonnie’s ancient mother, who bluntly tells her daughter and Clyde: “If you live near me, honey, you won’t live long. You best keep runnin’, Clyde Barrow, and you know it.” After this interlude, what small comedy there is is only for comic relief; the rest is dark, bloody, and relentless.
Pauline Kael, among others, argued that the intense, unremitting violence of the second half of Bonnie and Clyde was intended to punish us, quite literally, for our willing complicity in Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes in the first half of the film. Whether the movie aims for this quasi-Brechtian effect or whether it intends, in the spirit of the Sixties, to show us what we haven’t been permitted to see before on-screen or the TV news—the unadulterated and undisguised cost of real-life violence—or whether it means to do both, it is unquestionable that after encouraging us to laugh at and root for these killers, Penn and his screenwriters make us pay for our laughter and affection, starting with the death of the most likable of the supporting characters, Buck Barrow (played with leap-off-the-screen charisma by Gene Hackman).
As with so much else in Bonnie and Clyde, the police ambush in Platte City and its aftermath are like nothing else in previous movies. Penn makes the pain of Buck’s mortal wounding during the ambush almost unbearably realistic—first, in the scene in the getaway car with Buck, half his head blown away, groaning terribly in the back seat and Blanche shrieking and C.W. crying and Bonnie trying to keep it together as a blood-splattered Clyde desperately concentrates on the road ahead, and then in the camp scene that follows where Bonnie tells a hysterical Blanche that “Buck can’t be moved now, hon’” (Faye Dunaway’s line delivery is marvelous), as Buck, delirious and cradled in Clyde’s arms, raves in language that is as terse, poignant, and painful as his terrible wounding (“Can’t find my shoes, Clyde. I believe the dog’s got ’em.”). We long for a respite from this ordeal, but unlike the first half of B&C, Penn refuses to give us one. At first light, a posse surrounds the gang and traps it in a crossfire, shooting Clyde’s getaway car to pieces as it circles an open field like a cornered animal. Clyde is badly wounded, and as he and C.W. and Bonnie try to make their escape by fording a creek, Bonnie is horribly shot, too.
I will never forget how the audience, in 1967, went dead quiet after these scenes—appalled not just by the unprecedented violence but by the way that violence made us suffer. That dead silence continued right through the movie’s awful ending—for, by then, we knew it would end awfully, in pain and bloodshed we wouldn’t want to witness but wouldn’t be allowed to turn away from—that the line between the pity and terror we feel for the suffering of a fictional character and the pity and terror we feel for a suffering friend or loved one had been blurred by the merciless, almost-physically-felt horror of Buck’s bloody death. From this moment onward, Bonnie and Clyde moves quickly, deftly, with wonderful elegiac touches and a single moment of the sweetest comedy when Bonnie and Clyde finally consummate their affair, to its horrendous finish in an Arcadia, Louisiana, clearing.
Bonnie and Clyde launched the careers of almost everyone in it, save for Beatty who was already a star. For a time, it made a big (or bigger) star of Arthur Penn, who went on to direct one more ur-Sixties film (Alice’s Restaurant), one very good Seventies film (Little Big Man), one great Seventies film (Night Moves—again with Gene Hackman), one underappreciated one (The Missouri Breaks), and one sad Sixties elegy (Four Friends), before rather falling off the charts. But then he had no one to blame for this but himself—and Bonnie and Clyde. It’s hard to follow up on a masterpiece that changed the face of cinema.
Without the pathbreaking daring of B&C, we would not have had the great gangland films of the Seventies or the last great film of the Sixties, The Wild Bunch. We wouldn't have the looser, more New Wave telling of stories. We wouldn't have had the independent film (although B&C wasn't one; it felt like one and led the way to movies like Badlands). And yet…none of its distinguished successors manages to be fresher, more daring, more disturbing, and more touching than Bonnie and Clyde. But then none of them has golden-haired Faye Dunaway at her freshest and most appealing or impossibly handsome Warren Beatty at his sexiest and most vulnerable or Gene Hackman before anyone (but Beatty) knew just how incredibly gifted he was, or Michael J. Pollard, or Estelle Parsons, or Gene Wilder. Even forty years down the road, this great movie remains great—as surprising and funny and sad and lyrical and devastating as it was on the day I first saw it in April 1967. Jonathan Valin