There’s an unfortunate paradox at the heart of seminal films like Bonnie and Clyde: their magic evaporates over time. This is true of all movies that change the way films are made. Take, for instance, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a picture that essentially pioneered the ‘multiple viewpoints’ narrative technique in film. Critics applauded it as a breakthrough in storytelling, yet today it appears utterly unremarkable. Why? Because everybody does multiple viewpoints now; everybody apes Rashomon. Bonnie and Clyde essentially ushered in a new style of American filmmaking where violence was depicted candidly and without affect. The audience would now see blood and death explicitly. Such sights are more than commonplace today, but before Bonnie and Clyde’s release violence was essentially neutered. It was convention that gunshots created no wounds and spilled no blood; death in action films was overly theatrical, almost cartoonish, and rarely lingered on. That changed in 1967 with that famous scene where the two outlaws are garishly fired upon by what seems like a squadron of policemen, their car left riddled with bullet holes, their corpses shredded apart, appallingly robbed of life. That shocked audiences then. It’s all a bit plain now.
Put that way it sounds a little unfortunate, but it is in fact a compliment of the highest order, for Bonnie and Clyde’s influence on film has been monumental. Even the most conservative critics estimate that the film only inspired the entire action genre; some of the more vociferous commentators claim that Bonnie and Clyde had an impact across all genres, and not just in the United States. I have no real issue with either extreme. Certainly it is far simpler to draw a correlation between the Bonnie and Clyde and the action genre, but it’s also much more than that. It did interesting things with its cast, with both its major and minor players; it made tremendous use of subtext; and it not only broke ground with its depiction of violence, but also with its depiction of sex.
Though one might not expect it, shootouts in action scenes haven’t changed all that much in forty-five years. One particular sequence in Bonnie and Clyde, when the police ambush of Clyde Barrow’s family reunion results in a building-to-building brawl that lasts for several minutes, looks as if it came out of an episode of 24. It is the way the action is filmed that is remarkable. Director Arthur Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey combine a series of long shots that capture the scale of the action with medium shots of the protagonists taking cover and reaction shots of them as the police converge on their position. It sounds like what we’d see in a film today, and that’s precisely the point: there was no textbook guide on how to film such a large-scale shootout then. Watch an older film—say, fifty or sixty years old—and you might find the action difficult to follow; here it is fluid, totally logical. Most shootouts today are actually aping Bonnie and Clyde. And while we like to focus on the film’s final scene, Bonnie and Clyde is actually a violent film throughout. Its most brutal moment, arguably more striking than its conclusion, is when Clyde coolly shoots a man who’d been hanging onto his car. The bullet cracks through the window and goes straight into the man’s head, leaving us with the gruesome image of a bloody, ruined face distorted through the web-like pattern of broken glass. It’s a disturbingly modern sight, and one that instantly describes our leading man—namely that he is, in short, not a particularly good person. And that is putting it lightly.
Clyde (portrayed by Warren Beatty) is an interesting character, and not simply because he is cold and violent and debonair about it all. Perhaps the film’s greatest twist is that Clyde is impotent, or at the very least not interested in sex, neither from women or from men. The film stresses this—it’s unusual to see a dashing male protagonist be totally ineffective when it comes to laying down with women. Clyde is opposite the pretty Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), and while he is clearly attracted to her, and she to him, he can’t put a bow on the relationship, explaining simply that he’s “no lover boy”—an excuse that Bonnie, along with the audience for that matter, find unsatisfactory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she lusts after him. One oft-cited example of the film’s sexual suggestiveness is the way Bonnie strokes the barrel of a revolver, an overtly phallic symbol. Warren Beatty’s outlaw is weaker in another way: it’s clear from the outset of the film that he has no real purpose in life. Why does he execute heist after heist? He doesn’t ever achieve a life of luxury. He doesn’t seem to put his earnings to good use. Why does he do what he does? We never receive an answer, and he has none to offer us. It is only towards the film’s conclusion when Bonnie reads to him a poem she wrote about them, a poem that romanticizes their existence and predicts their fall, that he proclaims he’s found fulfillment.
The romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde is the only real issue I have with this picture. A few years ago I happened upon this (perhaps slightly conservative) article by Stephen Hunter protesting that Bonnie and Clyde are made out in the film to be heroes dying a tragic and maybe even unjust death. Since reading Hunter’s piece I’ve felt a little uneasy about the film. We’ve always had a love affair with gangsters in cinema, but while we adore the Italian Mafioso-type, partly because they’ve got some (albeit twisted) morals, strong family values, and a clear honor- and pride-based system that we find appealing, I’m not sure Bonnie and Clyde fall under that heading. The two outlaws are, at the risk of using a modern term, terrorists. They’re not attractive in any way, and as Hunter notes, almost all the people the outlaws killed in reality (as well as in the film) were policemen. In fact, the police are actually portrayed as villains in the film! But why? It’s never really made clear—is it only because they want to stop two murderous thugs from doing more damage to society?
It’s not that Bonnie and Clyde are Robin Hood types (though the film, with its 1960s-flavored Marxist bent, certainly tries to frame it that way). They make some mention of supporting the poor folk, but we never see it in practice. They certainly aren’t traditional heroes—actually, other than the fact that they are tragic characters, there’s nothing particularly heroic about them. Their death is foreshadowed brilliantly throughout the film, starting at the very beginning where Bonnie is filmed through the metal bars of her bedframe, symbolic of prison bars, a sure sign that she will not escape a terrible end. (This extends to everybody’s favorite symbol, where Bonnie and Clyde embrace in a field, and as they come together a cloud passes overhead, casting an ugly shadow down on them.) And yet they die a heroic death: gunned down brutally by policemen in one of the most iconic scenes in film. And that is, for me, Bonnie and Clyde’s greatest triumph: that it makes us side and sympathize with two utterly despicable creatures. We pity them because they are broken characters; we feel for them because they are weak and pathetic in their own way; we may even see some of ourselves reflected in them. The film exploits us just as it exploits the two outlaws, leaving us in a position where we actually lament their death. That is, in short, a storytelling feat, and this picture’s greatest achievement, even after all its breakthroughs for the medium.
One could reach fifty thousand words analyzing this film—some in fact have. That’s indicative of its special position in the history of film. Given the effect of time, as we noted at the top, the film’s importance may appear diminished. But even if it’s hidden, it will always be there. The number of people that have seen Citizen Kane today is probably much smaller than the number of people that have actually heard of it. And even fewer might be aware of how important Citizen Kane was to the medium. But that doesn’t take away from that masterpiece. I feel like I can say that same of Bonnie and Clyde: this film is important. That may very well be the greatest compliment we can pay to a movie.
Next week: The Fifth Element. It’s been fifteen years since the classic Bruce Willis flick hit our screens. Come back in seven for more anniversary films discussion.