- Director: Arthur Penn
- Writers: David Newton and Robert Benton
- Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, and Gene Wilder
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 List (#42), 2 Oscars (Best Supporting Actress – Estelle Parsons, Best Cinematography), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Arthur Penn, Best Actor – Warren Beatty, Best Actress – Faye Dunaway, Best Supporting Actor – Gene Hackman, Best Supporting Actor – Michael J. Pollard, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costumes)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
I’ve seen Bonnie and Clyde a handful of times now, and each time I feel a bit differently about it. This time, it felt to me like a masterpiece. Bonnie & Clyde is one of the earliest movies that works just as well today as it did at the time, with no allowances and no caveats. When the movie came out in 1967, it drew a great deal of controversy for its frank depictions of both sexuality and violence. It became a countercultural touchstone at the time of its release because it showed kids who refused to live by society’s rules. More than one review excoriated the movie for glorifying its criminal heroes, for reveling in its violence. I don’t think I agree with those who think Bonnie and Clyde are martyrs, or with those who can’t stomach those that do.
In fact they are, as one tag line said, young, in love, and rob banks. Certainly the heroes of the movie want to be cool, but they rather emphatically are not. Every one of their escapades goes wrong in one way or another, even if they mostly get away from them until the end. Earlier in the movie, Clyde (Warren Beatty) tells Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) that she’ll “never have a moment’s peace” if she stays with him. “You promise?” she replies. But you watch, over the course of the movie, Bonnie gradually realizing that she was wrong about what she wanted. She wanted out, yes, because life in West Dallas, Texas in the Depression was definitely missing something, but not in a “never seeing her mother again” kind of way. You just have to watch the very first scene, where she catches him trying to steal her mother’s car from her upstairs window. For a long time, both of them are putting on a show, wanting to impress the other. When Clyde robs the grocery store of chump change to impress her, he isn’t some assured criminal mastermind. He looks genuinely nervous.
Moreso than the violence, what I find striking today is the way Bonnie and Clyde undercuts its central premise, that its central couple are just so in love they can’t help themselves, once they get in the bedroom. A slightly lesser movie would show them having hot sex, being a bad influence on each other. But Clyde is impotent, and at first avoids having sex with Bonnie however he can and then drastically fails to perform. Can you imagine most modern leading men playing a character whose failure to get it up is a major plot point? The Rock and Vin Diesel couldn’t even agree on one of them winning a fight, they had to tie. Then we watch Bonnie quickly lose it once she gets introduced to Clyde’s brother (Gene Hackman) and his annoying wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). She’s in this because she craves sophistication and excitement, not because she wanted to hang with “hicks” just like the people she wanted to run away from. But then, at the end, Clyde finally performs, so to speak, after Bonnie reads him a poem she’s written. In his own way, Clyde was craving something different from his life, too, he’s just not as self-aware.
Even at the time, Bonnie and Clyde seems to have felt like a major turning point. When it first came out, many critics panned it, and it came and went from theaters. But a few critics championed it, and it was those critics, among them Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, who became the new vanguard of American thinking about movies. Kael was hired as the permanent critic for The New Yorker after writing a freelance essay praising the film, while long-time New York Times institution Bosley Crowther ended up losing his job not very long after he called the movie “a cheap piece of bald-faced, slapstick comedy” and the lead couple “sleazy morons.” Ebert, on the other hand, wrote that it was “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life.”
So how did two different, apparently intelligent people, get those two things out of the same movie? Well, that’s what makes great movies great, for me. Of the reasons this movie came like such as a bolt out of the blue is that its influences were less the American cinematic tradition as what was happening overseas, particularly the French New Wave. The writers, after shopping their script for years, even tried pitching it to Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Godard even was set to direct at one point, but the legend goes that he didn’t understand why he couldn’t use New Jersey in winter to stand in for Depression-era Texas and ended up quitting. But Truffaut told Warren Beatty about the script, and he turned out to have dreams of becoming a Hollywood mogul instead of just an actor. Beatty bought the script and decided that it had to have an American director. After offering the script to everyone in town, he came back to Arthur Penn, who he had worked with a few years earlier on another vaguely New Wave movie, Mickey One. Penn has had other hits over the years, but Bonnie & Clyde has remained by far his most watched and enduring work. For his part, Beatty did get to become a mogul. He is the only person to receive Oscar nominations for producing, directing, writing, and acting in the same movie, a feat he ended up achieving twice (for Heaven Can Wait and Reds).
It’s perhaps surprising, considering how modern this movie feels, to think about the fact that this movie is depicting events that only took place maybe 30 years earlier. So something set that long ago today would be set in just 1990. I mention this because at least some of the people involved (obviously not all) were still very much alive, and would tell anyone who listened how different parts of this movie were from what actually happened. Blanche Barrow in particular criticized Estelle Parsons’ portrayal of her as basically just being a useless, screaming dummy. Modern viewers will probably not pick Parsons out as the one member of the cast who won an Oscar, and some of that might have been the competition, but I do think Parsons does a good job of investing what seems like it might have been a completely irredeemable character on the page with a basic humanity. Parsons’ Blanche isn’t cut out for being a bank robber, not is she a wannabe poet or movie star like Bonnie, but she is very insistent that this doesn’t make her somehow less than in any way. She never sits back and takes Bonnie’s abuse. But she also goes very broad in scenes like the infamous shootout where she just screams her head off the whole time.
Bonnie & Clyde pulls off a pretty good trick by both being extremely episodic and by feeling like it doesn’t lose track of the overarching narrative. It’s a series of memorable scenes that, put together, add up to an emotional whole. There’s the bit where the naive getaway driver C.W. (Michael J. Pollard) parallel parks the car during the robbery and then finds that he can’t get out of the space. There’s the part where a Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) happens upon the group while they have lunch next to a lake, they capture him, and Bonnie convinces everyone to take their pictures with him. Or when the group’s car breaks down and they happen to steal the car of a random local rich dude (Gene Wilder, in his first movie role), who they end up going for burgers with and then leaving in the middle of nowhere.
Though a period piece, the success of this movie is often attributed to it managing to tap into a vein of youthful, countercultural discontentment in the 1967 zeitgeist. Bonnie and Clyde, and everyone else, seem to rob banks mostly because they can’t quite figure out what else to do. In one famous scene, the owner of a foreclosed house the couple is squatting in comes back and points out that it’s the bank’s house now. Clyde hands the man his gun and lets him take potshots at the sign the bank put up claiming ownership. But the movie’s feelings about the prior generation are not limited to economic anxiety. For me it’s most starkly shown in the late scene in the movie when the surviving members of the gang take shelter at the home of C.W.’s father (Dub Taylor). The father is obsequious toward his guests, but abusive toward his own son. Bizarrely, he seems more concerned about C.W. getting a tattoo than he is about the fact that his son has shown up on his doorstep with two bleeding and wounded bank robbers, a detail that feels very real to me.
Really, the reason Bonnie & Clyde still feels so relevant is not because of its modern treatment of sex and violence (it is thought to be the first prominent on-screen use of “squibs” to portray gunshot wounds, a nearly universal practice today), but because it considers every one of its characters a real person. Relatively rare, unfortunately, is the movie that seems to really understand that all of its characters are real people, and even rarer is the ostensible action movie with that outlook. There’s an early scene where, with the group out of money, Clyde attempts to rob a grocery store and ends up being attacked by an angry butcher with a meat cleaver. “I didn’t have nothing against him!” Clyde keeps repeating as Bonnie drives away. A lesser movie would just have played the scene for comedy, but both Clyde and the movie understand that the random guy in the background of the grocery scene is a real person who doesn’t deserve to be injured just because Clyde walked into his store.