Forty-one years after the fact, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to fully appreciate the impact Bonnie and Clyde had on moviegoers in 1967. Even if you’re old enough to have seen Arthur Penn’s violent folk ballad during its initial theatrical release, more than four decades’ worth of subsequent cinematic slaughter has very likely immunized you against the shock value of this film’s groundbreaking bloody mayhem.
To be sure, Bonnie and Clyde can still make you flinch, particularly when Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow shoots a bank employee in the face during the panicky chaos of a high-speed getaway. (Clyde’s horror is palpable: This is the first time he’s ever actually had to kill anyone.) The extended slow-motion carnage of the famously bloody finale, which has Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and her partner riddled with dozens of bullets in a police ambush, is all the more devastating because of the empathy we inevitably feel for these Depression-era desperadoes.
But violence is no longer the most provocative element of this must-see movie, newly reissued by Warner Home Video in a two-disc collector’s edition. Rather, it is the period drama’s audacious commingling of style and substance that continues to amaze and unsettle viewers.
When it first hit theaters in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was condemned by some outraged reviewers as a grotesquely comical treatment of dead-serious subject matter. (A Newsweek critic originally roasted the movie in a brief, brutally dismissive review—only to later announce an unprecedented change of heart in a cover story rave.) Worse, according to the most disapproving pundits, the moviemakers appeared to glorify the murderous antics of their title characters. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther went so far as to condemn Bonnie and 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.”
Bonnie and Clyde was never that simple, and seems even more complex today. There’s a long tradition of Hollywood dramas about lovers on the run who turn to crime—and, in the process, turn each other on—only to wind up being force-fed their just desserts. But director Penn and screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman were among the first post-modernist moviemakers to view such outlaws as neither cunningly sinister nor tragically misguided, but rather as absurdly self-deluded.
The Bonnie and Clyde of Penn’s film are not quite evil, and not entirely dimwitted. They turn to crime primarily because there’s nothing else to do to dispel the soul-dimming boredom of small-town life in Depression-era Texas. (Also, it’s a good way for Clyde to compensate for his impotence.) Once they decide to become criminals—impulsively, as they do everything else—they want to be superstars in their field. Early on, when Clyde meets a farmer whose home has been foreclosed on by a bank, he introduces Bonnie and himself with a bold claim: “We rob banks.” In point of fact, neither has done anything quite so serious up to that point. But after Clyde boasts so heartily in front of Bonnie, it’s only a matter of time before he must make good on his promise.
Bonnie and Clyde is a comedy of sorts, but the humor is midnight dark and the punchlines are real killers. Joined by Clyde’s bumptious brother (Gene Hackman) and whiny sister-in-law (Estelle Parsons), and a dim-bulb driver (Michael J. Pollard) who inadvertently causes the movie’s first serious bloodshed, Bonnie and Clyde conduct a crime spree throughout the Southwest, always mindful of their own newspaper coverage and sometimes willing to supply what might be described as publicity stills. Long after they get in way over their heads, they fail to realize they’re drowning.
Bonnie has a glimmer or two of what’s in store for them—note the tragic ending for her self-aggrandizing poem—but Clyde remains ludicrously unaware and unapologetic. Near the end, when Bonnie wistfully asks what he’d do if, by magic, they could somehow start over, Clyde blithely responds that he would take pains to never rob a bank in a state they would call home.
Penn firmly places his characters in the context of their time, and gives a strong sense of the fear, loathing and star worship they inspired among their contemporaries. Yet Bonnie and Clyde remains remarkably timeless in its double-edged view of ordinary folks who achieve extraordinary notoriety—who romanticize themselves as outlaws, even revolutionaries, but remain as banal and smaller-than-life as a stereotypical dysfunctional family. Unlike most subsequent movies that have used it as a template, this New Hollywood masterwork never makes the fatal mistake of reducing everything to cartoonish excess or ironic posturing. Bonnie and Clyde may be foolhardy killers, but they are also recognizably human. We are not asked to excuse or forgive them, but we cannot help caring as they suffer, bleed and die without fully comprehending who they are and what they’ve done.
Read Joe Leydon’s full appreciation of Bonnie and Clyde—including an interview with Arthur Penn—in MovieMaker Magazine’s Spring 2008 edition, on newsstands in April. If you’re not already a subscriber, sign up today at the discounted rate of $9.95 for one year—available to MovieMaker.com readers only at https://www.moviemaker.com/subscribe/online_only.
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