It’s an easy temptation to imbue any cultural artifact produced during the late ’60s with the aura of a society-defining statement on the convulsions that were exploding and reshaping most every aspect of American society. Even the saddest, most routine pulp novel or rote TV drama could be seen — if looked at through a forgiving lens — as being a comment in some manner on the Vietnam War, race relations, the redefinition of sexual identities, or just about anything else you could slap a sociological sticker on. That way, when we revisit some of our more totemic films dimly remembered from the past, we can give them significance if the core material doesn’t hold up well in the scrutiny of our (if possible) even more jaded age.
That’s not the case with Bonnie and Clyde. At the time of the film’s release in 1967, the US was awakening to the reality of the situation in Vietnam, and seething with civil unrest. It was a time as ugly and uncertain as any that had been seen since the early 1930s and the Great Depression, when society had also been fraying at the edges and class warfare was in the wind. A film about stylish and reckless outlaws not caring a damn about tomorrow (one that polarized opinion across the nation in a way that film just can’t seem to manage anymore) serves pretty well as a clue into where the nation’s head was at in 1967. In no way was it an attractive picture.
While some of the film’s elements may initially seem rote today (because they’ve since been riffed on by everyone from Altman to Coppola to Tarantino), there remains a bedrock rebelliousness and shocking ugliness that firmly resonates today. The pair’s rocketing path across the Depression-era South and Midwest, devoid of any purpose save forward motion and action, is as potent a kick as any post-beatnik dream of individual discovery. The world the characters travel through seems not to care a whit for them until they break the law, and then it won’t let them go.
Guns litter the landscape. Bullets through the face. The outlaws kill not out of cool calculation or willful sadism, but out of thoughtless raging impulse. The police are a mostly faceless bunch, seemingly committed only to the upholding of a status quo of crushing poverty. Even Roosevelt’s face on those faded election posters seems as distant and authoritarian as that of L.B.J. Unlike some other films of the ’60s, there’s no rest or peace here, no countervailing worldview presented beyond that of the crushing mainstream. This is a world where there really is no escape, yet it’s a kick trying to find one.
David Newman and Robert Benton’s script for Bonnie and Clyde takes the bones of the real-life couple and tries to turn it into a French New Wave take on a classic American gangster saga. The story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker — Texas ne’er do wells who led a large and shifting interstate bank-robbing crew in a bloody media sensation of a crime spree in the early 1930s — was originally intended for Francois Truffaut, who turned it down. At the time, Truffaut was a long way from writing the ultimate (and possibly only real) New Wave gangster film, 1960’s Breathless. (Even that film’s more energetic director, Jean-Luc Godard, had long since moved on to more outré and anti-genre material.) Truffaut’s stiflingly slow take on Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451 (released in 1966) provides some clue to where he might have tried to go with Bonnie and Clyde.
So it’s fortunate that Warren Beatty (who was producing Newman and Benton’s script) had a good time with Penn on 1965’s Mickey One, and thus brought him on board. Even though Mickey One was a chilly and abstract goof that played far too hard at imitating the avant-garde European masters, Penn brought exactly the right kind of American Pop rebel attitude to Bonnie and Clyde, providing the right kind of jazz that a Truffaut just could never have managed.
From those first shots of a naked Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway, a sultry and Bardot-esque sex kitten) languorously lounging in her bedroom, the camera grabbing and zooming at her before she sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) lurking outside her window, to the final bullet-dance ballet of death, prefaced by those still-breathtaking last-minute flash-cuts between the lovers’ wide-open and gasping faces, Penn deploys a full battery of jittery New Wave tricks in the service of a classic American tragedy.
The rhythms are thrilling, but jarring. There’s a wide array of juicy effects to wow over — from Dunaway’s fashionable outfits to the numerous guns-blazing shootouts and car chases set to the now-iconic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” — but there’s always something spoiling the party. The two leads seem to have all the makings of red-hot lovers, but Barrow is almost completely impotent with Parker (in the original script, he was bisexual).
A comedic jaunt with a couple whom the Barrow Gang has kidnapped on a lark turns ominous when the man (Gene Wilder in his first film role) announces he’s an undertaker. A thrilling car chase ends with a Texas policeman drawling, “I ain’t risking my life in Oklahoma” and turning around after crossing the state line. Time after time, the beautiful Texas landscape turns into a hail of gunfire and screaming.
Luckily for Penn and Warren, the studio system was self-destructing in the mid-’60s and willing to take some chances. Given that Warner Bros. had almost patented the gangster film during the time period that charismatic criminals like Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde had also gripped the nation’s imagination, it seems appropriate that they would hand over the keys to this up-and-coming crew to refashion the genre for a new era. Over the years, the gangster film had become so stylized that the characters’ essential nihilism had almost been buffed into nonexistence.
A sign, perhaps, of the status that Bonnie & Clyde holds in not just film history (as one of the opening salvos of the coming autuerist revolution) but also as a cornerstone moment in many of its leads’ careers, can be seen in who showed up for the making-of documentaries. The special edition’s second disk has a string of three of these, focusing first on putting the crew together, then on actually creating a film out of the real-life gangster’s captivatingly strange odyssey, and lastly on its initial weak release and later rise to smash hit status. In a rare showing, all of the principals are there, from a loquacious Beatty (who as producer has plenty to say about everything) to Dunaway to director Arthur Penn and even Hackman, who revels in memories of the set’s fractious bonhomie. Although the short pieces argue, of course, for the film being a classic for all time, there are welcome doses of reality here and there.
Penn refreshingly elides the violence question by saying he honestly think they didn’t consider it much, while a sardonic Estlle Parson (who had done her research and knew more about the real Bonnie & Clyde than almost anyone on set) notes how little the finished film had to do with reality. There are also a couple deleted scenes, trailers, and a hackneyed History Channel documentary that’s best avoided.
For all that Benton and Newman’s script allowed viewers to have a vicarious thrill through Bonnie and Clyde’s robberies and escapes, it didn’t do much to explain away their essential callousness. Although it stands now as one of the earliest classic examples of the anti-hero in mainstream American film, Bonnie and Clyde doesn’t play it easy by making the anti-heroes’ pursuers be even more vicious than they (a common cop-out). These are everyday civilians and cops they’re killing, no better or worse than the protagonists, who are for the most part an uncontemplative and occasionally quite stupid lot. When Clyde Barrow tries to rob a grocery store and ends up pistol-whipping a clerk who tries to stop him, he’s shocked, shocked, by the attack.
In the same way that filmgoers supposedly inured to cinematic ultraviolence can still be stunned and sickened by The Wild Bunch — say what you will, Peckinpah’s savagery still has more punch than almost anything bloodletting on screens today, not always necessarily in a good way — those returning to Bonnie and Clyde with this well-deserved special edition (the digital remastering is particularly pristine) could well be shocked by how, well, shocking it is.
The filmmakers received a lot of flak at the time for supposedly glorifying violence, even cheapening it by leavening the film with humorous interludes. But it’s hard to imagine anybody but the dullest, most unreflective person watching Bonnie and Clyde and thinking that the protagonists’ frantically self-mythologizing and instantly doomed criminal jaunt is anything but a sad and desperate escape from a non-criminal life that was only slightly less sad and desperate. If that’s glorification, than glory isn’t what it used to be.