“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker and I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob Banks!” – Warren Beatty
The first time I saw Arthur Penn’s now iconic Bonnie and Clyde was soon after its release in 1967. It was at a Manhattan theater and the audience, including me, was at times unsure how to respond to what we saw on the screen. In the language of the sixties – it was mind blowing! New York Times critic Bosley Crowther didn’t think so. When his scalding review came out, there was no doubt where he stood. He disliked the film immensely. He wrote calling it in part, “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” In fairness, Crowther wasn’t the only critic of the day to knock the film. The studio faced with the negative reviews pulled the film from circulation.
Then something happened. Some critics wrote second reviews like Joe Morgenstern (Time magazine) reversing his first negative review. Pauline Kael highly praised the film from the beginning. Other critics came on board. That is except for Bosley Crowther who wrote two additional articles in which he continued to attack the movie. Crowther represented the old guard. His days as a critic for the New York Times were numbered. A new American Cinema was being born with the likes of The Graduate, Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde leading the way.
The end of the 1920s brought in a new era in America. The Stock Market crashed, and The Great Depression began: Hoovervilles, Shanty Towns, Bread Lines, and the Dust Bowl became the norm in America. A new kind of outlaw also arrived a criminal to some, an anti-hero of sorts to others. Men like John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, The Barker Gang, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Harry Pierpont were just a few of the better-known criminals. Then there was Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Though set in the 1930s, Arthur Penn, screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton, presented the film as a social statement on the violence erupting in the 1960s; most prominently in the ever growing unpopular Vietnam War, the protest at home over the war and the civil rights movement. The film was shocking at the time. The director pitted the visual violence on screen against a gleeful soundtrack that included songs (Foggy Mountain Breakdown) by Flatt and Scruggs. Add to this, the then bold look at sex and Bonnie and Clyde became one of the most famous and infamous films of the decade.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in the film and apparently in real life, were not good bank robbers. They were an inept group of small-time outlaws who barely were able to stay one step ahead of the law. According to John Gruen in his excellent book Go Down gether: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde they were incompetent as criminals, and it was the news media that made them famous. Many of the bank robberies were a complete bust or resulted in little money. A well-known story is that Clyde chopped off one of his toes to get out of a work detail while in prison. He didn’t have to go to such lengths since a few days later, he was released. What they were good at was killing people who got in their way.
After Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) is released from prison, he meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), a gum-chewing waitress when she catches him attempting to steal her mother’s car. He impresses her with his ‘gun,’ and the bored Bonnie decides to take off with him. Together, they fall in love, become partners in crime, robbing banks and killing people. They meet up with the not too bright C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a mechanic who is impressed with the daring duo and teams up with them as their getaway driver. One of the film’s most infamous and violent scenes happens after a botched bank robbery when the bank manager jumps on the running board of the gang’s getaway car and won’t get off until Clyde shoots him in the face. It was the kind of violent scene not seen on the movie screen before and unsettling for the audiences of the day.
The shootings throughout the film were not the nice clean, small bullet holes moviegoers were used to at the time. Here we see blood splattering, bullets ripping into skin and bones. The people shot are visually in severe pain before they die. The Barrow Gang is completed when they’re joined by Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman) and his preacher’s daughter wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). The cast also includes Gene Wilder in his first big screen role. Wilder plays Eugene Grizzard, who along with his girlfriend, Velma (Evans Evans) are taken hostage by the Barrow gang. In the beginning, they relax and are having a good time with the outlaws. Sitting in the backseat with Buck and Blanche all are having laughs. Wilder’s comedic skill goes into full display when Bonnie asked Velma how old she is and she reveals that she’s thirty-three. You can tell by the look on Wilder’s face this is news to him! No words are needed, it’s a priceless comedic expression. Soon after they’re eating hamburgers and fries still having a fun time, Clyde even jokingly telling the two they should join up with them. When Bonnie then asked Eugene what he does for a living, he reveals he’s an undertaker. It’s a line that sends chills down Bonnie’s spine, an omen of their dire future. She demands Clyde pull over and dump Eugene and Velma out of the car. In theses scenes, humor and death are delicately balanced keeping the audience off kilter.
For Faye Dunaway, it was a star-making role, and for Beatty, it moved him into the stratosphere of actors and producers. He became an icon of the new Hollywood. Bonnie Parker’s outfits influenced fashions of the day. Director Arthur Penn brought a French New Wave style that would impact other films over the years. Notably, early on, screenwriters Newman and Benton wanted French directors Francois Truffaut or Jean Luc Goddard as the director.
There is not a weak performance in the cast: Beatty received a nomination for Best Actor, Dunaway for Best Actress, Estelle Parsons for Best Supporting Actress, and both Hackman and Pollard received a Best Supporting Actor nod. Arthur Penn and the screenwriters both received nominations. The film was nominated for Best Picture: ten nominations in all with two wins, one for Estelle Parsons and one for Cinematography (Burnett Guffey). Bonnie and Clyde had no chance of winning Best Picture. Of the five films nominated, two represented the old Hollywood guard fighting to survive with Dr. Doolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In addition to Bonnie and Clyde, the New Hollywood was represented by The Graduate. In the middle, was the fifth nominee and winner, In the Heat of the Night.
The saddest part about the film’s legacy is not only how it presented a violent view of America in the 1960s, but sadly it forecast the future and where we are at today. Bonnie and Clyde does not pack the same cultural impact at it did back in 1967. Many films since over the years, two years later came Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, have presented more bloody on-screen violence than Bonnie and Clyde. Americans fascination with violence has continued to increase, negating the impact of Penn’s classic. What remains though is a classic gangster film, a bright light in the Warner Brothers hierarchy of legendary screen gangster movies, a landmark in American cinema that helped open the door for Hollywood last classic period in film,