The story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has made its mark in crime history. Then, in 1967, their tumultuous story became even more of an icon in the movie Bonnie and Clyde.
Directed by Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde retells the story of 1930’s crime sensations Bonnie Parker, played by Faye Dunaway and Clyde Barrow played by Warren Beatty. Clyde himself captures the plot with the famous line, “We rob banks.” Together the two go on a cross-country crime spree while captivating the nation.
Before I go any deeper into my thoughts, a little history to give some context. During the late 1960’s, younger filmmakers were looking to break away from the long-standing traditions of the studio era. This lead to a period called The Hollywood Renaissance or New Hollywood. These filmmakers were inspired by the French New Wave and sought to create more provocative films. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the films to usher in this new period of filmmaking, which ended around 1975. Arthur Penn began to introduce ideas that would push filmmakers in new direction.
These ideas are what make Bonnie and Clyde so interesting. I have seen a few films from the Hollywood Renaissance and this one was on my list for a considerable amount of time. Seeing this movie was like watching an experiment in motion. Penn was testing ideas that would become more polished in other films. However, that does not mean that Penn wasn’t successful with this film. It was a rougher synthesis of past French films that will become more prevalent as the era progressed. This is shown with the structure of the plot. The French New Wave wanted to create cinema that was indicative of life. A story would have a protagonist, but would seamlessly drift over to another character for a while or focus on moments of little significance to the plot. While Bonnie and Clyde didn’t drift as seamlessly as the films of the French New Wave, the film broke into a series of moments during the pair’s spree. For instance, Bonnie and Clyde interact with a group of people, then we cut to a transition scene, which follows to a moment with Bonnie’s family. However, these small vignettes are like pieces in a mosaic that create the dynamic of Bonnie and Clyde. The film opens with Bonnie meeting Clyde and walking down the street. Everything between the two is simple and love feels genuine. After escaping a petty crime and meeting a stranger who gives them the idea to rob banks, the vignette changes to Bonnie and Clyde robbing their first bank. Penn creates more structure and lets us seen more of an evolution and a picture of these two criminals.
A non-technical aspect of the film that I enjoyed was the use of the antihero archetype. Antiheroes are nothing new in Hollywood, many of our favorite characters today are some blend of antihero. In the Hollywood Renaissance, characters were beginning to diverge from the norm. Directors were beginning to create characters that were more ambiguous, with their goals and morals. Antiheroes are so interesting to watch because they reflect an aspect of human nature that we choose not to recognize or keep hidden. For Bonnie and Clyde, their vice is ambition and thrill seeking. Throughout the film, they are involved in many car chases and when we cut into the car with the Barrow gang, they are laughing and enjoying their time. These times I felt so conflicted. I wanted them to face justice for their crimes and I also wanted them to get away from the police. It was also interesting just how human they could be. For instance, during their crime spree, Bonnie suddenly gets homesick and wants to see her mother. It was so interesting and off in this moment. It continues when Bonnie gets her wish. Her interactions with her mother are so normal, I half expected something bad to happen in the meantime. But it was a refreshing pause from the intensity of their crimes.
What I found particularly fascinating about Bonnie and Clyde was its connection to the 1960s, while staying true to the 1930s. When watching historical films, you can typically feel immersed in the period depicted onscreen. For example, when I watch James Cameron’s Titanic, I feel as if I’m in 1912. Every detail is crafted to take me to that place. Not so much with Bonnie and Clyde. This movie had the feel of the 1960s, from Bonnie’s design to the filming techniques. First, Bonnie’s hairstyle is vastly different than other women in the film. This is such a small detail, yet it makes her different especially if you compare her to Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche. She just doesn’t belong in this world. This is subtle, yet it isolates her from the world around her, reflecting the period the film came out.
Bonnie and Clyde’s spree could be analogous to the rebellion of youth. Much like successor film Easy Rider, the end of the film sees an annihilation of the rebellious figures and seeks to return to the status quo. While Easy Rider is more explicit with their views on rebellion, Bonnie and Clyde chooses to express its message subtly. Well, about as subtle as the ending of Bonnie and Clyde could be. Where Easy Rider chose to discuss these issues, Bonnie and Clyde opted to let the story and ultimate tragedy of these star-crossed, blood-spattered lovers speak for itself.
Bonnie and Clyde is a successful foray into the Hollywood Renaissance, experimenting with techniques and introducing ideas that will define a slew of movies. I would personally give this film a B+.
If you, like me, are interested in this movement of film, I would start with this movie and continue forward.
If you’ve seen it, what did you think of Bonnie and Clyde? What are your favorite Hollywood Renaissance movies? Comment below!