Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
“When and how am I ever gonna get away from this?” It’s not as hard as you think. Given its reputation, you expect the story of the Barrow gang as told by director Arthur Penn to be a rather charged and sexy experience, but it’s neither — more than anything, it’s bittersweet and cautionary, aggressively debunking the romance of a life on the run, while also sympathizing on a shockingly deep human level with the title characters and their desperation, especially Bonnie Parker, to break out of a staid and suffocating society. That’s remembered as a distinctly ’60s impulse now, since this was one of the few films Hollywood ever produced that can justifiably be called revolutionary and important, but it’s in fact a universal, honest, sad truism. But so is the humiliated vengeance shown at the root of ostensibly protective law and order; so is the larger world impacted positively and negatively by acts of murder as well as acts of miniscule kindness that become mythologically elevated (letting the farm worker keep his money in some laughable fit of afterthought compassion); so is the gang’s infighting and restlessness. The film is less a crime drama than a parable about disappointment. It offers no traditional heroes and villains, only impulses bright and dark battling it out internally in its small cast of characters.
Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton have little interest in providing us with modern-day iconography. No one is meant to come away from Bonnie and Clyde wanting a poster of them on the wall; as much as we come to know them, we still crucially recognize their oafishness and misdirection. By the time of the climactic, bloody explosion, deliberately balletic and stylized and so graphic as to be free of mystery, the reversal of a myth is complete. The pair’s downfall is shown as wasteful, their rebuffing of society mostly a half-hearted put-on. They come to believe in their own myth, they are starring in their own movie, and now real life must intrude and destroy them. The bodies glistening in the sun are those of two movie stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, both making what now seem to be rather bold choices for their respective roles. Beatty winks an awful lot, chewing gum and talking smooth. Dunaway shows up with little of the in-control fervor of her typically enigmatic performances; she’s an on-the-table overgrown teenager who’s looking mostly for a bit of fun, though her domesticated impulses take over eventually, at which point her eventual frustration with Clyde, the frustration she’ll never have time to properly feel, becomes inevitable.
The characterization of the two central characters is nuanced and fascinating, highly rewarding of repeat viewings, but nevertheless, Gene Hackman steals the film with a dynamic, stunningly energetic performance as Clyde’s brother. He’s a boisterous loudmouth, the perfect counterpoint to Beatty’s thinly veiled angst laid against life-threatening hedonism. The moment Buck Barrow first appears in the film is the moment when it becomes a real work of art, rather than a work of documentary realism, which it isn’t anyway. Buck is full of bullshit, spewing it out constantly and repeating the same stupid joke to anyone who’ll listen, but there’s this magical moment when he and Clyde are egging each other on about how much fun they’re going to have, and they suddenly both sense the emptiness and inevitability of this situation, and there’s this long, uncomfortable silence… before another of Buck’s ridiculous guffaws breaks it and we’re back in defiantly unglamorous business.
Bonnie and Clyde‘s relationship with, well, Bonnie and Clyde is dubious at best — despite playing down some of their gathered legend, it still manipulates facts more than slightly to concoct both a simpler and a more narratively sophisticated story than real life would naturally allow. It’s fascinating, however, that the script sets up Clyde — the experienced con man — as the one who is worried, while crime newbie Bonnie seems to have been waiting her entire life to spread her legs and let the life on the run infiltrate her irrevocably. In a perfect cynical touch, the crooked life is even everything she hoped it would be. For a while, at least. Early on, Clyde warns her about how dangerous and difficult it’s all going to be. “You ain’t gonna have a minute’s peace,” he tells her. She smiles. “You promise?”
For all the resourceful use of blood and guns as suggestive symbols, the early dismissal of sex as a part of Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship is a stunner, the filmmakers having elected — with questionable judgement — to replace Barrow’s bisexuality with impotence. This choice, bold though it may be in a sense, is disappointing. The script can also occasionally feel excessive, particularly in regard to the protracted sitcom of Bonnie and Clyde’s sexless but nearly marital relationship (“Why can’t we ever be alone?” Dunaway asks; “I’m hungry,” replies Beatty) and annoyance at the in-laws, not to mention the shift near the end toward portraying the Barrow clan as innocent victims of a corrupt system, but even then it’s compelling — that scene of Texas ranger Frank Hamer confronting a blinded Blanche (Estelle Parsons, brilliantly irritating) is chilling. Director Penn handles all this with levity and grave seriousness in proper turns, and the movie is aesthetically striking, coming across as the innovative birth of modern narrative film that it truly is. And perhaps there’s something right about the contradiction in being both in awe and skeptical of the Robin Hood claims about the Barrows. That matches the film well with its audience, above all else.
That brings us to the end. one of the most famous, controversial, and revolutionary film sequences of the ’60s. Certainly you cannot make any claims that it’s a copout. Structurally, it’s perfect, because it gives you that all-important closing explosion that should be mandatory for all thrillers. And visually, it’s unforgettable, and probably as sexy as any shootout could possibly be, the use of blood as eroticism as radical now as then. (Note the quick, knowing smile flashed between Beatty and Dunaway just before they are killed, the most brilliant idea of the picture.) But in a moral sense, it adds to the skewed perspective of the police that begins to overtake the narrative late in the film. You simply cannot come away with any ambiguity about unarmed people, not posing an immediate threat, being not just murdered but murdered brutally, shot over and over and over again, literally riddled with bullets, while they just dance around in turmoil. This isn’t the way it happened, of course — they never left the car, which was loaded with weapons — and it doesn’t matter how many people they had killed; the audience knows that the movie version of Bonnie and Clyde didn’t deserve this, and therefore, the audience is now being unfairly manipulated, and that would be true even if this were not based on fact.
For all its weaknesses taken as a whole, Bonnie and Clyde boasts a number of fabulous sequences, both mundane (the terrors of parallel parking, a photo taken with a captured police officer, a scare involving the shadow of a farmer) and bursting with adrenaline (action-packed escape from the Missouri house). A bit with Gene Wilder as an undertaker out for a lay provides welcome levity, without violating the hypnotic sense of voyeurism, for which Penn will eventually punish us by having a character shot in the eye. Is it flippant to make all this Entertainment? Bonnie wouldn’t think so, the way she catches herself up in a Hollywood Revue picture in the middle of a crime spree. Few films are so full of ideas that they feel as dense as novels; there’s so much to study and discuss here, but more than anything there’s the sheer visceral impact of it all. I seldom use the word “important,” but this was one of the watershed moments that defined a you-are-with-us-or-against division in Hollywood filmmaking and criticism. It got Bosley Crowther fired from the New York Times, set Pauline Kael’s career for life, and quietly changed the course of the American film industry. It isn’t the best film of the ’60s, but it’s the one that matters most, the one that still ripples through the things we watch today.
[Expansion of a review originally posted in 2006.]