Bonnie and Clyde: 55 years later
1967 was a watershed year for American cinema, though few working in the industry at the time were fully aware of it. The major studios continued to pump resources into the kind of films that were assuredly successful during the era: James Bond extravaganzas, big budget musicals like Doctor Dolittle, and middling star vehicles such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Mainstream Hollywood output was mediocre, to say the least, but despite this overarching conservatism, studios realized there was a hunger for bold and bracingly honest depictions of American sex and violence. The previous year’s overhaul of the MPAA’s outdated Hays Code set the stage for a perfect storm.
Enter the brazenly rebellious and inventively adventurous Bonnie and Clyde, which perfectly embodied the zeitgeist’s innate desire to critique, analyze, and meaningfully comment on the nation’s socio-political fabric. Yet, this new cinematic era didn’t commence with a look at the present or the near future, but with a glimpse into the past, towards two of America’s most iconic and definitive purveyors of unadulterated violence, sexual irregularity, and devilish passion. In the end, what’s more American than an odyssey centering on loveable killers?
In retrospect, it’s only fitting that the “New Hollywood” movement began with this wildly entertaining and unabashedly provocative depression-era crime caper. Arthur Penn’s magnum opus confidently tapped into the non-conformity of a generation disillusioned by The Vietnam War, and the elite who callously subsidized it- effectively reformulating a period piece into a contemporary lesson, rife with a commentary on the blatant violence, social inequities, and hypocrisy of sixties America. Hence, the titular couple’s robberies are not only steeped in a desire to “make it big” but beholden to a rebellious spirit that wishes to liberate itself from a repressive system too comfortable with the status quo.
Bonnie and Clyde begins with a prologue, a series of old photographs depicting the eponymous duet’s childhoods. These innocent depictions of rudimentary American life indirectly lay bare a dissatisfaction with the nation’s social and cultural norms, as much like the Great Depression, the counterculture of the sixties was similarly rooted in a distinct cynicism that would ultimately pierce the traditionally sleek cloak of American (and Hollywood) exceptionalism.
It then boldly opens with an evocative close-up of Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) lip-sticked visage. Penn wastes no time getting right to the heart of this story, and its rendition of the red-blooded American enterprise of brutality. Bonnie and Clyde is a riotous showcase for how irrevocably tied violence and sex are to the mythos of American history and identity. In a sense, violence is arguably the nation’s greatest cultural export. Even Clyde’s cool pistol, itself, becomes a stark symbol of carnal impulses, and later, sexual impotency that can only be overcome through repeated bloodshed.
Warren Beatty’s Clyde is the living embodiment of the contemporary American man, embittered with his lot in life, and made impotent by the glaring restrictions and hypocrisy of the land he calls home. It’s no surprise violence and criminality are the only outlets with which he can fully express himself. Dunaway’s Bonnie becomes his rational (and destructive) voice, guiding his hand as they journey across the heartland, exemplifying the free-love and social abnormalities of the flower children who challenged the core principles of American life during the mid-to-late sixties.
Yet, despite this piercing social commentary, Bonnie and Clyde is far from a dreary experience, instead reveling in a playful vigor that embraces the lunacy of two-bit outlaws on the run. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a “hoot”, as it creatively integrates French New Wave editing flourishes to great effect, elevating its more slapstick elements into high art.
The studio, Warner Brothers, was ostensibly blind to the riches of the New Hollywood Movement but gave Penn and Beatty leeway to control both the production, choosing to shoot on location in Texas (like their European counterparts), and its cast, filling it with unknown stage talents like Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons (who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). These decisions would become staples of this budding movement, catalyzing a cultural widening of the American cinematic form.
Jack Warner, the aged head of the studio, hated the final cut, as would mainstream critics who dismissed the film as a cheap glorification of dimwitted murderers. But flourishing voices like Pauline kael (in a nine-thousand-word review) marked the film as a turning point in American cinema, linking it with other greats like Citizen Kane as a trailblazer for the medium. The film would go on to garner ten Academy Award nominations and a sizable box-office return, demonstrating how utterly out of touch the studios were with the public consciousness.
Burnett Guffey would also nab an Oscar for his cinematography, which exquisitely blended the old with the new in each graceful close-up and wide shot. The film cemented Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as bonafide stars whose cinematic personas would continue to spearhead the movement with celebrated turns in films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Chinatown respectively.
Bonnie and Clyde ends with a legendary shootout, as the ambushed lovers are rendered rag dolls by a torrent of gunfire riddling every part of their bodies. It’s famous not only for its gruesome bloodshed but its effective and heart-wrenching editing, which beautifully immortalizes the look of two people locking eyes before the worst has come to pass. It set the stage for how movies would be watched from then on, with Hollywood’s most influential auteurs like Martin Scorcese, Brian De Palma, and Robert Altman owing something to its inherent bravado. With it concluding on a harsh cut to black, it’s not hard to imagine the first group of audiences leaving the theatre thinking “cinema wouldn’t be the same”. And it wasn’t.
- Prabhjot Bains