Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
“They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people.”
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard
Synopsis: A somewhat romanticized account of the career of the notoriously violent bank robbing couple and their gang.
While Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is widely acknowledged as the movie that changed Hollywood cinema in terms of its depiction of violence, it’s also something of a throwback to the gangster pictures of the 1930s, not only in its subject matter but in the way it seeks to glamorise its leads. The casting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (The Thomas Crown Affair, Network) in the lead roles is forgivable as the real Bonnie and Clyde were good-looking youngsters, but to suggest they possessed any glimmer of sympathy for poor farmers at the mercy of the banks is to bestow upon them a level of social awareness and conscience that simply didn’t exist. In reality, Bonnie and Clyde were a pair of maladjusted misfits out for what they could get, and their success in evading the police for so long was due as much to their willingness to shoot it out with them irrespective of any danger in which they placed the public rather than because of the public’s implicit approval of their exploits. But then Hollywood wouldn’t be Hollywood if it didn’t bend the facts to suit its preferred vision of the truth…
Despite the tendency of the movie to glamorise its title characters and romanticise their relationship (even while saddling Barrow with a wholly fictional case of impotence), it does offer a compelling picture of life as a bank robber on the run that many gangster movies choose to gloss over. As you’d expect, the tone grows increasingly dark as the film unfolds, although not in the way we might anticipate. It’s not the inexorable tightening of a net as the law closes in that takes its toll so much as the soul-destroying grind of a life spent constantly on the run in a succession of grimy, anonymous motel rooms, isolated from both close family and the world at large. Only Bonnie and Clyde’s love for one another provides a refuge from the unrelenting pressures of such a life, and there’s something touching about their devotion to one another that is enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t revolve around sex. Nevertheless, even that depth of feeling shows signs of strain when Bonnie comes to realise that Clyde actually thrives on the life that is starting to drag her down, leaving us to dwell on just how long their relationship might have survived had it not been abruptly ended by their well-publicised deaths.
David Newman and Robert Benton’s original screenplay had Barrow enjoying a bizarre homosexual encounter with the couple’s sidekick, C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard – Roxanne). Thankfully, this departure from the truth was deleted from the shooting script, but was replaced instead by Barrow’s problem making love to Bonnie, which was also fictionalised, and which was presumably included to offer some kind of explanation for why such a likeable man leads an irredeemable life of violent crime. This rather simplistic explanation that the couple rob banks because Bonnie is bored and Clyde is impotent suggests that neither Newman or Benton (nor Robert Towne who doctored their script) ever unearthed or understood what deeper reasons other than financial gain motivated Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal deeds. Perhaps the truth, as it so often is, was more prosaic than Hollywood cared for.
The arrival of Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman — Unforgiven) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) proves to be the turning point in the story of Bonnie and Clyde. The once carefree lifestyle of the two lovers on the run is, for Bonnie at least, blighted by the presence of the highly-strung Blanche, who seems entirely unsuited for a life on the run. This surrogate family serves only to deepen Bonnie’s sense of isolation from her mother and we see her slowly becoming enveloped by the same kind of imprisonment from which she thought she’d escaped when she took up with Clyde.
Given that Bonnie and Clyde was produced by Beatty, it’s surprising how secondary his part is to Dunaway’s, irrespective of their screen time. His might be the nominally flashier role, but his problems largely serve merely as a contributing factor to Bonnie’s story. It’s a female perspective of a life on the run that takes the movie into areas from which more conventional gangster movies shy away, but which does so without emasculating the story being told. After all, Bonnie and Clyde contained more bloody violence than any movie of its — or any other — genre when it was released.
The other strength of Bonnie and Clyde is in the way that the quality of its writing distracts you from the over-romanticised depiction of two deeply flawed — and, by definition, unlikeable — characters, and the way it taps into our universal desire for a life less ordinary. It presents a life of crime amongst America’s rolling hills and flat plains as a fun kind of thing to do. We want to barrel along dusty roads with those two beautiful people, to cast off the social and moral constraints that keep us bound to our ordinary lives, and to revel in the admiration of those who lack our bravado. It’s what we wanted in the depths of the depression in 1932, in the midst of the Vietnam-inspired counter culture in 1967, and it’s what we still want now — provided we can bail when Blanche shows up…
(Reviewed 29th August 2014)