Further debate was provoked by the film’s vivid portrayal of apparently pointless acts of violence (at a time when sensitivities about the Vietnam War were particularly acute), and for its depiction of villains as romantic heroes to be commended for taking the side of the impoverished victims of the corporate priorities of the banking system. The film suggests that neither protagonist is really involved in armed robbery for the money itself, but that both are instead caught up in a rebellious struggle against alienation and conformity, and motivated by a desire for freedom and respect. In order to strengthen this position of sympathy, the popular Robin Hood myth is referenced by making it clear that the primary targets of their attacks are the banks that are repossessing the homes and businesses of the poor farmers and their (black) workers. Meanwhile, the irreverent depiction of the authorities (the police in particular) as incompetent and cowardly, at one point turning back from a car chase when the gang cross into another county, prevents the audience from taking their side too easily. The vengeful Sheriff Hamer, desperate to regain respect after being taunted and tortured by the gang, comes under particular attack for his obsession with status and pride.
The film highlights a concern for the complexities of identity formation in several ways. The opening scene begins with close-ups of Bonnie pouting at and preening herself in the mirror, and she quickly and carefully reinvents herself as the gangster’s moll. Meanwhile, frequent references are made to the importance of photography in the modern world as a way of constructing and responding to a sense of self that is constructed largely by others. As Liora Moriel has suggested, this film is important not just for its approach to violence and society but also for its concerns with the ‘fluidity of social constructions such as identity, family and race’ (Friedman 2000: 148). The protagonists’ shared yearning for a strong family unit of their own elicits further sympathy for their situation. This is emphasised by the brotherly bond between Clyde and Buck (more a father figure), the warmth they show towards the youngest member of their gang, C. W. Moss (as if their child), and the touching scene during which Bonnie is briefly reunited with her beloved mother.
The film uses its articulation of violence as a means to develop the identities of its main characters. It takes quite a complex approach to the relationship between violence, gender and sexuality. For example, it highlights and then distorts the meaning of the quite obvious phallic symbols (matchstick, bottle, gun) that Clyde uses to seduce Bonnie when he first meets her, confusing her shortly afterwards by declaring himself to be useless as a ‘lover boy’ and hinting at an ambiguous sexuality. Throughout, Clyde seems desperate to prove his status as a macho man, and uses his gun to do so, but even his efforts to become the fearless armed robber are often thwarted in almost ridiculous ways.
Bonnie is also complex as the main female character: sexually provocative and aware of her own power over men, she is at the same time vulnerable, childlike and desperate to be loved. She appears deeply hurt by Clyde’s initial lack of interest in her sexually, and also by his reluctance to share any intimate moments with her. She is contrasted with Blanche, the shrill-voiced, self-righteous preacher’s daughter (Clyde’s sister-in-law), who is scared of everything and demands protection. Their differences are first made clear when Blanche shies away from being photographed, while Bonnie poses with excessive confidence in front of one of their stolen cars, holding a gun and pretending to smoke Clyde’s cigar. By the end, however, Bonnie has largely renounced her more ‘masculine’ traits. In the final scene, her fascination with a delicate porcelain figure distances her from the gun-toting criminal of old and instead ‘speaks to her growing domestication and desire for a new identity, one in accord with more traditional female roles’ (Friedman 2000: 72).
The film of Bonnie and Clyde both reflected and played its part in shaping the cultural, social and political unrest of the time. It crossed boundaries and broke new ground from a stylistic and an ideological point of view, forcing its spectator to question the usual patterns of identification with its murderous (anti-)heroes. While its sexual politics may resort to a position that reifies the structures of patriarchy, it is fair to assert that this film deserves its place in cinema history for changing the shape of Hollywood forever; as Carr reminds us, ‘Few movies since Bonnie and Clyde have had such a profound impact on [mainstream popular] culture or have generated as intense and passionate a debate’ (in Friedman 2000: 72).
1. When the genre system was first established and studios began to specialise in niche areas, Warner Brothers developed its reputation as a producer of high-quality, crowd-pleasing gangster movies, such as those starring James Cagney.
2. The film was first considered by both JeanLuc Godard and François Truffaut before being offered to Penn.
3. Geoff King does argue, however, that this is still very much a film in the Hollywood mould in which style, however innovative, is subordinate to narrative, and which draws on the old frontier mythology that was central to movies of the classical Western genre.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Warner Brothers. Director: Arthur Penn. Screenwriters: David Newman and Robert Benton. Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey. Music: Charles Strouse. Editor: Dede Allen. Cast: Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Michael J. Pollard (C. W. Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche Barrow), Denver Pyle (Sheriff Frank Hamer).]
Steven Alan Carr, ‘From “Fucking Cops!” to “Fucking Media!”: Bonnie and Clyde for a Sixties America’, in Lester D. Friedman, ed., Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 70–100.
Lester D. Friedman, Bonnie and Clyde, London, BFI, 2000.
Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2002.
Liora Moriel, ‘Erasure and Taboo: A Queer Reading of Bonnie and Clyde’, in Lester D. Friedman, ed., Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 148–76.
Linda Ruth Williams and Michael Hammond, eds, Contemporary American Cinema, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2006.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.