I’ve been thinking recently about Arthur Penn’s 1967 brushfire of a film Bonnie and Clyde. I wrote about the film some here in preparation for leading a screening and discussion of the film as part of the Third Floor Film Series, but there is so much more to this movie than just its place in film history, its influence on other films, and the films it was influenced by.
In the final scene the car the notorious duo have been fleeing in is riddled with bullet holes, puncturing the gas tank and causing an eruption of flame. The car doesn’t blow sky high the way it would in a modern action film, but that petroleum-fueled bloom of fire is a shock of sunset orange and red against the barren tan color palate of the film’s final act. It’s a suitable image for the film itself, periodic eruptions of extravagance setting it apart from motion pictures that had dealt with similar themes before it.
When we look at films before Bonnie and Clyde (a somewhat arbitrary division, I know), we talk mostly about the moral restrictions of the Code era. I think one of the changes I notice more than morality is the emotional restriction of pre-New Hollywood films. This is not a critique of pre-method acting, nor is it a claim that Code era films didn’t express deep emotion – nothing could be further from the truth. But an element of broken realism creeps into the emotional palates of films with the advent of New Hollywood that is on plain display in Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker are messed up. Crime suits them as a vocation because where else would they fit? The shirking of the moral requirements of the nearly dead Hays Code did something much more profound than allow this couple’s story to be told accurately from a standpoint of criminality and morality – it allowed the emotional realities underpinning those acts to be displayed unapologetically. This was the real crime of the Code – not false morality, but false humanity.
The top layer of the screenplay would lead us to believe Bonnie and Clyde fear nothing but death, as registered by their sudden shift in expression after mortality is mentioned by their car mates in this hilarious scene with Gene Wilder:
But it’s not death they fear most. It might be the height of cliche, but what they fear most is themselves, their own inner fractures they cover with gusto, bravado, and, increasingly as the movie progresses toward its inevitable ending, their genuine love and need for each other. Bonnie and Clyde work so well as a metaphor because their driving impulses are so relatable – they are running from what they fear they really are: boring, ordinary, like their parents, unspecial. Like every teenager and young adult in America, perhaps like America itself in its younger days, eager to prove itself. The metaphor gets continued in Badlands, The Ragman’s Daughter, L’enfant, and countless other stories of young pairs glued by fear and passion and acting out their angst not with immorality, but amorality.
Sex is certainly present between Bonnie and Clyde, but it is present for some time only as a foil. Clyde is presumably impotent, and they don’t sexually consummate their relationship until most of the way through the film. They consummate the relationship with guns and murder, which might be an old Hollywood trick (see Gun Crazy for the archetype here), but works devilishly well. They are sexually frustrated, but not as much as you might think, because guns and crime are a hell of a high. Still, the frustration is a bit on the nose at points, as when Bonnie cuddles longingly with a loaded pistol after their first coital failure:
Bonnie has only ever been noticed in her deadend town for her looks, and when she and Clyde fail at intercourse in this scene the frustration is twofold for her: plain old desire for release, yes, but also frustration at not succeeding in the one way she’s always been able to – turning a man on. Clyde’s is what you might expect but beautifully rendered here by Beatty: loss of masculine self-image, failure. The film handles Clyde’s problem so gently, and it is the tenderness and time granted between these two characters that allows us to see they aren’t just using each other. There is growing love and affection and need.
When they are finally able to have successful intercourse, we discover possibly the root of Clyde’s driving fear. The act occurs immediately after Bonnie has written a poem telling their story, bonding them together in immortality. Clyde wants to send the rather weak poetic effort to a newspaper. He is absolutely tickled Bonnie has told his story, which he says no one has ever done before. He fears being forgotten, being nobody, but he also fears not being seen, not being noticed. Bonnie has seen him, noticed him, and now she is making sure others will remember him. Immediately after this they have sex for the first time, and the afterglow is sweet and childlike:
Bonnie and Clyde are ultimately happy. They didn’t ask for the rules they set about breaking; they didn’t ask for the need to break them. That both exist in their lives is an unfortunate truth they respond to the only way that makes sense to them.
Beatty and Dunaway are perfect for these roles, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing to these characters the fiery, broken confidence, the sexual energy mated with childlike neediness, the feral intensity these two are able to. That the movie features a fantastic early Gene Hackman performance as Clyde’s brother and an overlooked great performance by Michael J. Pollard as an accomplice is icing on the cake.
Let’s take a minute to admire how visually beautiful this film is. The wide open spaces of Depression-era Texas are rendered in sweeping wide shots and the entire film carries the melancholy hues of autumn, though it takes place across several years.
That last shot is the most heartwrenching of the film. Bonnie’s been shot. The law is closing in, and the fairytale is almost over. These two grown children are about to lose the only joy either has ever lived: each other, together, alive. Their is deep sadness in the conclusion of this criminal love affair.
Let’s also take a moment to appreciate gorgeous early-30s automobiles so lovingly celebrated in this film. Gone are the polished motor carriages of the roaring twenties. These are workhorses, but such beautiful workhorses, and they’re allowed to get out and stretch their legs in this movie made at the height of the late sixties muscle car frenzy:
Bonnie and Clyde is a wonderful film, exciting and emotionally rich, aggressive yet deeply tender. If you live in the Greenville area, please consider coming to the screening and discussion I’ll be leading on Thursday, March 26, at 7 pm at GPL. We’ll unpack these themes and see what else we can find. For now, I leave you with our star posing heroically for Clyde’s brother’s fancy new camera, living large before dying larger.