Revisiting Bonnie and Clyde

“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker and I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob Banks!” – Warren Beatty.

     I first saw Arthur Penn’s now iconic Bonnie and Clyde soon after its release in 1967. It was at a Manhattan theater (Loew’s 34th Street) and watching the film, you could tell the audience was unsure how to respond to what they saw on the screen. In the language of the sixties, it was mind blowing! However, the 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. Warner Brothers faced with the negative reviews pulled the film from circulation.

      Then something happened. 

     A few critics wrote second reviews like Joe Morgenstern (Time magazine), reversing his first negative review. Pauline Kael praised the film highly from the beginning. Other critics came on board. Many, 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 now 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, director Arthur Penn 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 could stay one step ahead of the law. According to John Gruen in his excellent book Go Down Together: 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 Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow 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 who catches him attempting to steal her mother’s car. He impresses her with his ‘gun,’ and the bored Bonnie takes off with him. They fall in love, and 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 a 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 violence not seen on the movie screen before and unsettling for the audiences of the day. The killings in the film were not the nice clean, small bullet holes moviegoers were used to. 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. 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 is 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. It all changes when Bonnie asked Eugene what he does for a living and 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 these 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, Bonnie and Clyde 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 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. Besides Bonnie and Clyde, the New Hollywood was represented by The Graduate. In the middle, 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 as it did back in 1967. Many films since have presented more bloody on-screen violence than Bonnie and Clyde. American 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’s last classic period in film.

This is my contribution to CLASSIC MOVIE BLOG ASSOCIATIONS’ MOVIES ARE MURDER blogathon. Check out other contributions here!

Arthur Penn 1922-2010

In memory of Arthur Penn I am posting these  two photos I took in 1981 during the filming of FOUR FRIENDS.

Arthur Penn on the set. 


This photo of Jodi Thelen was also taken the same day on the location set. 


photos by John Greco

The Left Handed Gun (1958) Arthur Penn

Arthur Penn’s “The Left Handed Gun” is a James Dean film without James Dean. The angst, tormented, misunderstood youth Dean portrayed in “Rebel without a Cause” and “East of Eden” is all here.  This role was originally scheduled for James Dean who died in the well-documented car crash on September 11, 1955. Paul Newman who at this point in his career was looked at as a Marlon Brando/James Dean wanna be was selected to replace Dean as his previously did in “Somebody up There Likes Me”.  Based on a television play by Gore Vidal, Newman play’s Billy the Kid as a tormented misunderstood, inarticulate, hot headed, and resentful youth whose one father figure, the English cattleman John Tunstall, was gun-down in cold blood by a crooked sheriff and his deputies. This was the start of the famed Lincoln County war.  While based on fact this is a highly fictionalized version of the conflict, one example is Tunstall who is portrayed as an older man so he could represent a father figure to Billy was less than a month shy of twenty-five when he was killed.

    Billy is hell bent on revenge, one by one taking the life of each of the four men who killed John Tunstall in cold blood. Along the way, he meets Pat Garrett (John Dehner) who befriends Billy but warns him against seeking revenge against the killers especially after an amnesty was issued by the governor for all the killing during the Lincoln County War. However, Billy has a narrow vision and even after promising Pat Garrett that he would not cause any trouble on his Wedding day, guns down the last of Tunstall’s killers. 

    Penn already displays some of the themes that would be prevalent in his later work, the outlaw as a sympathetic anti-authority figure, the breakdown of myths and sudden unexpected violence breaking out causing pandemonium. Also, notable is the use of actor Denver Pyle who portrayed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in “Bonnie & Clyde” and here plays a deputy sheriff, who kills one of Billy’s gang (James Best) before being shot gunned to death himself by Billy.  Penn loves outsiders and continued to portray them throughout his career in films  like “Bonnie and Clyde“, “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Little Big Man .” He has also taken film genres and given them a revisionist look , The P.I. in “Night Moves”, the gangster film in “Bonnie and Clyde” and of course the western in “Little Big Man”, “The Missouri Breaks” and “The Left Handed Gun.”   

     Paul Newman’s portrays Billy as inarticulate, uneducated with a boyish charm (Newman charm to be more accurate). He is sometime over the top and actually gave a better performance as the inarticulate, uneducated with boyish charm, Rocky Graziano in the 1956 film “Somebody up There Likes Me.” Newman was just becoming a major star at this time and would go on to become an even bigger star and a better actor as his career progressed.  John Dehner is okay as Pat Garrett, though I did find both James Best and James Congdon as Billy’s two gang members unconvincing.  

    “The Left Handed Gun” is a flawed film that is more interesting than most successful works, unique in its vision in a decade known for its bland conformity.