A violent yet romanticised account of the career of the notorious bank-robbing couple who meet and embark on their spree amidst the poverty of the Great Depression in 1920s USA.
When first released in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was a critical failure and achieved only mediocre box office sales. Even then, however, it appealed to those who embraced 1960s counter-culture in the wake of post-war social conformity and political unrest sparked by the conflict in Vietnam which cast a cloud over the entire decade. The following year, Penn’s film was reassessed for its aesthetic and thematic innovations, and went on to achieve great critical acclaim and commercial success. Reappraised by most as a work of groundbreaking importance, it was also nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning for best supporting actress (Parsons as Blanche) and best cinematography for Guffey. It is now widely regarded as one of a handful of films that marked a significant turning point in US cinema’s approach to form and content, at a time when the control of the Hollywood industry began to shift from producers to directors.
Working at a time of renewal in US narrative filmmaking, Penn was looked upon as one of those: “young, wilful and maverick [US] directors having their own way and making fresh pictures that entertained millions while whispering to them about the true state of the nation.” (David Thomson in Williams and Hammond 2006: 252) However, while Bonnie and Clyde is now valued for having heralded a ‘Renaissance’ (King 2002: 12) period for Hollywood cinema as an art form, harking back to the pre-studio days of innovation, it struggled in its initial stages to attract funding. Indeed, Warner Brothers – perhaps recognising its potential as a gangster movie – only came on board when Warren Beatty became involved as its star and producer.1
The film’s status as a gangster movie is worth considering as, like many belonging to that genre, it is loosely based on the true story of a villainous gang and used events of the past to set up a critique of the present. The real criminals were more brutal than their screen counterparts, but they became legendary nevertheless and much of the area where the film was shot was still known 30 years later as Barrow County. The gang became famous for rampaging through the Midwest, looting banks and causing havoc. The terrible effects of the Wall Street Crash (1929) and Great Depression that ensued were made more acute in this region by famine. Many families saw their homes and farms repossessed by banks, and the smaller banks were then forced to close. While the movie’s references to the 1930s are explicitly made, an investigation of similar concerns regarding the oppression by the establishment of the poor and otherwise marginalised of the 1960s is implied. Moreover, if the protagonists are taken as representing the romantic but doomed heroes who claim to act on behalf of all society’s outcasts, their tragic demise confirms the film’s ideological stance, indicating ‘a recognition of the dark forces that threaten the more utopian or idealistic aspirations of 1960s social movements’ (King 2002: 18).
Bonnie and Clyde perplexed some and delighted others for its constantly surprising shifts of tone, from light-hearted banter, domestic squabbles and intimate moments, to shocking and apparently heartless acts of intense and aestheticised violence. It fascinated many for daring to draw inspiration as much from the stylistic experimentation of European cinema as from its own Hollywood predecessors. The influence of the Italian neo-realist movement of the late 1940s and 1950s, for example, is confirmed by the choice of ‘real’ locations, the use of local people as cast members, a predilection for handheld camerawork and point-of-view shots, and an overall emphasis on manufacturing an ‘authentic’ look via naturalistic lighting strategies. Perhaps even more obvious is the impact of the French New Wave on this film, as Penn draws upon that movement’s innovations with shooting, editing and mise en scène. Indeed, an overt homage is paid early on to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s iconic character, Michel, from Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (1959) via the costume, posture and props adopted by Beatty as Clyde Barrow in his first main scene with Dunaway and Pollard at the gas station.2
The use of the jump cut device that was key to the New Wave style is noticeable from the very opening when Bonnie is introduced in her small and cluttered bedroom, preparing herself for yet another dull stint working as a waitress. Here, the fragmentary editing technique seems to suggest ‘restlessness, edginess and a palpable sense of sexual hunger or longing’ (King 2002: 12). Bonnie is clearly desperate to escape her humdrum life, and the frosted windows, bars on the bedstead, shadows across her face, all serve as symbols of the entrapment she feels.3 Later on, in particular during the adrenaline-fuelled shoot-out sequences between the Barrow gang and the police, an even more disruptive cutting style is used that is reminiscent of the Soviet montage techniques of the 1920s. With close-up shots of blood-sullied bespectacled victims, an explicit reference is made to Eisenstein’s powerful Battleship Potemkin (1925), another important film about resisting authoritarian oppression.
Thematically, the film offers a bold critique of the manipulation of reality by the mass media, alongside a concern for the dangers of celebrity culture. We see how the drama of their life on the run is heightened for Bonnie and Clyde by reading reports of their supposed deeds in newspapers. The pair, with their fellow misfits, are given new meaning and motivation when they see that they have been labelled the ‘Barrow gang’ by the press, and then feel it their duty to live up to that name. The tragedy of this situation is emphasised towards the end when Clyde shows genuine contentment after Bonnie has immortalised him through her poem about their adventures together, which is published by the papers.