Bonnie & Clyde: Breaking Ground & Changing the Rules

by Gregster


With the premier of “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 American film was never the same. The culmination of a generation who came of age in art house screenings of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol; “Bonnie and Clyde” was a call to a new authenticity and style that was missing in American cinema.  The influence of the French New Wave and the golden age of Hollywood are apparent in the film, which is equal parts “Jules and Jim” as it is  “Gun Crazy”.

The film does what the great gangster films of the classic Warner Brothers era did you fall in love with the gangster. The film takes it one step further in mythologizing two notorious real life criminals and turning them into sexy, young and rebellious figures similar to Robin Hood, when the truth was anything but that. What makes it work for the audience is that the film is seen from the view of the gangster who just wants to be free and be left alone by the system. It’s this subtext that made for it to be a great allegory for the youth of the late 60’s, rebelling against society and being against the status quo. The scene that shows this best is in a scene between the protagonists and a farmer who lost his land to the bank, Clyde in a symbol of defiance shoots the bank owned sign and lets the farmer take a few shots as well and as the farmer leaves Clyde proudly says “we rob banks”. It is this unapologetic nature in being criminals is what gives the film such a power and caused critic Bosley Crowther to despise it. Crowther in his legendary review in which he proclaimed “It is 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 cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”  (Crowther)

Writer of the film Robert Benton recounts in Biskind that the juxtaposition between the bluegrass music and the graphic violence was what caused the backlash; “It was perceived to be a thumbing your nose attitude, a moral flipness, an arrogance, because nobody in the movie ever said, ‘ I’m sorry I’ve killed somebody’.” (Biskind 48)  The arrogance and unapologetic behavior is what makes the film honest however as true career criminals rarely have a moral quandary over what they do. By not making a moral judgment it allows the audience to not have feeling towards these characters.

The vision of director Arthur Penn on “Bonnie and Clyde” is the culmination of experimentation on previous films. The French New Wave influence of “Mickey One” is in the editing and shifts in tone, along with the cutting between camera speeds is the influence of “The Chase”. The aesthetics that Penn showed in “Bonnie and Clyde” made him truly come into his own as a director with an approach different from other American filmmakers at that time. Yet the film is not a singular achievement for Penn but to those he chose as his production team which included future Coppola collaborators production designer Dean Tavoularis, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle and Oscar winning cinematographer of “From Here to Eternity” Burnett Guffey brought an authenticity and a stylization in its presentation that had not been seen in American cinema and certainly not in the gangster film genre. Tavoularis design and eye for locations is authentic all props and pieces of set look like they existed in the 1930’s. Van Runkle’s costumes are stylish yet not anachronistic. Guffey’s photography particularly in the reunion between Bonnie and her family is astonishing and the fact he just put a piece of screen window between the camera and lens to create the beautiful almost ethereal light in the scene, which juxtaposes a beautiful image to a scene in which the protagonists realize they can not go home. However if anyone on Penn’s team deserves credit for the success of the film and its place in cinema history it is editor Dede Allen. While Penn had used New Wave inspired editing in “Mickey One” which came across as self indulgent it is  “the more cohesive, though arrhythmic style of Dede Allen, which depends on rapid and dynamic associations of image and movement within the image” (Kolfer 29) that gives the film its power.  While the legendary ending with Bonnie and Clyde going down in a hail of gunfire is analyzed over and over again, the cutting of the siege by the police best shows Penn’s abrupt shifts in tone from Keystone cops humor to horrific violence. The scene begins with Blanche running out of the house in very comedic hysteria all while the scene cuts back to gunfire and soon the humor is gone and bodies are falling and all the major characters are horrifically injured.  This sudden shift in tone is an influence of the French New Wave.

The tone of the film, which shifts between humorous camaraderie and violent action, causes the audience to stay emotionally distant. The film does not make you feel happy or sad its similar to what would happen in the films of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese in which the audience is filled with a sense of dread coming even in moments of humor. The scene that best shows this switch in tone is the scene with Gene Wilder in the car. In the middle of a very jovial comic scene Wilder is asked what he does for a living; Wilder proclaims he is an undertaker and in the next shot he is kicked out of the car as Bonnie sees him as a bad omen. The shifts in tone also cause the audience to remember that things are not going to end well for the protagonists. The film’s distancing effect is also in the characterization, which like the sudden switch in tone is an influence of the New Wave. The characterization of all the characters is very one-dimensional, starting with the opening we have the briefest knowledge of Bonnie and Clyde; we know Clyde was in jail and Bonnie is a waitress outside of that we know nothing of what makes them act the way they do.  If anything their immature behavior and shallowness best sum up everything they do and how they think. Bonnie is sex starved, Clyde is obsessed with publicity and the rest of the gang want nothing more than to eat, drink and wear the top styles of the day.  Image is also a major theme in the film with Clyde in one scene in a rage over a newspaper downplaying his and Bonnie’s criminal acts.

The film’s influence on later filmmakers is apparent in both taking a genre film and treating it as a device to make commentary on society and in portraying violence. Without this film Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would not have the same freedom in portraying violence simultaneously stark and heightened. Stone with a story by Tarantino took “Bonnie and Clyde” one-step further with his surrealistic satire on crime and the media in “Natural Born Killers”. Scorsese with films such as “Goodfellas”, “Casino” and “The Departed” shares the same lineage that goes from “Bonnie and Clyde” all the way back to William Wellman’s “Public Enemy” in its portrayal of crime and gangsters. Coppola perhaps more than anyone showed the influence of the film in  “The Godfather” with the tollgate sequence. “Bonnie and Clyde” is a film over 40 years after its release is still being discussed and analyzed. The great films are those that leave a lasting impact, in the case of “Bonnie and Clyde” it is the film that changed movies.