Bonnie and Clyde
Screenplay : David Newman and Robert Benton
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1967
Stars : Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Michael J. Pollard (C.W. Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche), Denver Pyle (Frank Hamer)
"Bonnie and Clyde" is one of those quintessential American films that has firmly established itself in the realms of cinematic lore. It is a film that took considerable risks, but somehow or another, all the gears clicked at the right time, and director Arthur Penn wound up with a national masterpiece he was never able to equal.
The film is not so much about fact as it is about legend. Yes, there were two young people named Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who robbed banks across Texas and the Midwest during the Great Depression. Yes, they killed many people and were eventually killed themselves. But that's where the similarities end.
"Bonnie and Clyde" is not a factual retelling of their lives -- it's a celebration of their outlaw spirit. When you think about it, it's not so strange that a movie about Southern outlaws in 1931 caught on with the beat youth generation in 1967. Bonnie and Clyde had a lot in common with John and Yoko -- they were rebels who bucked the establishment, gaining both a fanatical following of outsiders and a vilified hatred from the establishment.
As a film, "Bonnie and Clyde" is often unsettling because it sways wildly from medium to medium. It has an upbeat, catchy banjo score playing over exciting car chases and gun fights, interspersed with melodramatic subplots and slapstick humor. Overall, it's a romanticized version of outlaw life, with the young and beautiful duo (played with outstanding vibrance by the handsome Warren Beatty and the gorgeous Faye Dunaway) teaming up with Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman), his hysterical wife Blanche (Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons) and a somewhat dim young mechanic named C.W. (Michael J. Pollard).
The Barrow Gang skips from town to town, stealing cars, hiding in the woods, knocking off banks and killing people when forced, while gaining an overblown reputation heralded in newspapers across the country. Penn never hides that they are killers, but he makes them into terribly appealing killers we wouldn't mind joining. The film keeps you on their side, especially in the way it portrays them as discriminating criminals, not willing to steal from poor farmers, buy always willing to take from established, greedy banks. In some ways this is crass and manipulative, but it is also essential for this film to be effective. "Bonnie and Clyde" was certainly not the first film to take sides with outlaws, but it was the first to do it so boldly. Killing never looked like so much fun.
Or did it?
I will concede that "Bonnie and Clyde" is romanticized gunplay right up until the last two minutes. It is here, in the shocking and somewhat unexpected ending, that the film took a sharp left turn, and walked into the annals of cinema history. In its graphic depiction of the vicious machine-gunning of Bonnie and Clyde, the film drops all its glamorous convictions, and leaves the audience stunned with the beautiful heroes meeting a gory and nihilistic end. Set up by a simple farmer, Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down in their car, not even given a chance to defend themselves. With its quick and brutal display of death, this brilliantly edited scene redefined the way violence was displayed in the movies. But, more importantly, it gave a worldly and unquestionably realistic ending to an otherwise pulpy film. There is nothing glamorous or enviable about the death of Bonnie and Clyde.
In this way, "Bonnie and Clyde" is an frustrating enigma. But, it is also a fascinating and complex experience, as well as an entertaining bit of excitement. It draws the viewer into its stylized web, then hits him over the head with its final realism. Arthur Penn fashioned a brave new film, one that is still being imitated today . At once simple and complicated, "Bonnie and Clyde" will always have a firm seat in American cinematic lore. A great movie experience.
©1997 James Kendrick