My journey through The Great Movies – curated by the late Roger Ebert – brings me next to Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 film directed by Arthur Penn and written by David Newman and Robert Benton. The film follows the infamous criminal couple from their first meeting in 1931, to the inevitable conclusion of their crime spree. At the time it was an exercise not only in pushing the boundaries of appropriate content in film, but also the boundaries of the form.
From its opening shot, Bonnie and Clyde pushes the envelope of what was acceptable at the time. Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) traipses around her room, nude, clearly dissatisfied with the state of her life. That malaise does not last long, however, as she is quickly introduced to the man with whom she will forever be associated, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty). An ex-con, Clyde represents the excitement and danger that Bonnie is missing in her life; and in Bonnie, Clyde finds an admirer and a partner. Together the couple robs and shoots their way across Texas and the surrounding states, joined by an eager-to-impress wheelman, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck’s wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons).
The film closely follows the gang’s exploits, but at times Penn is far less interested in the crimes that are being committed than he is in the subtle humor and drama inherent to relationships. That is the movie’s greatest strength: portraying Bonnie and Clyde the people, rather than just Bonnie and Clyde the criminals. The gang does terrible things throughout the picture – within the first 10 minutes, Clyde has already robbed a general store – but Penn and his screenwriters don’t take the time to judge the characters for their actions. No one ever looks at the camera and says “That darn Bonnie and Clyde. Where are they gonna get theirs?” And in fact, the character most likely to do such a thing – Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) – is essentially the villain of the piece.
With this in mind, it is tempting to ask if Bonnie and Clyde glorifies it’s central characters. But that is kind of the point of the movie. As the Barrow Gang earns more fame and notoriety, their story becomes a myth. Clyde’s altruistic streak (which comes and goes, and is never actually too giving) earns them a Robin-Hood-esque reputation from the common man suffering through the Great Depression. And as the myth becomes legend, Bonnie and Clyde begin to buy into it as well. The filmmakers tempt the viewer with this impulse. And it is very nearly successful, though most viewers will come to their senses, even before the pair’s comeuppance in the final scene. Penn is telling a story about people – he won’t bother doing the moralizing for the audience. It is a technique that Martin Scorsese has gone on to use so effectively, most recently in last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
None of this would work if Beatty and Dunaway weren’t so good. Both actors have, from time to time, caught heat for maybe not being as good as their reputations would imply, but they are on point here. Even if some of the dialogue sounds a little stilted, the characters exists as fully formed physical manifestations from the very beginning. The rest of the cast is not to be ignored – indeed, the Academy Awards did not ignore Ms. Parsons that year – particularly early turns from Hackman and Gene Wilder.
Bonnie and Clyde is considered a turning point for American cinema. It is easy to see why it was so revolutionary at the time. Even in an age where violence and sexuality are the rule more than the exception, Bonnie and Clyde stands out as a sharp film that deftly avoids getting cut by its own edge.