Friday, August 03, 2012

Savage Friday: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

In the last several weeks here for Savage Friday, I have characterized the “Savage Cinema” as a series of films that revolve, specifically, around the problem of violence in our culture.  One of the earliest and most potent films of this genre sub-type is Arthur Penn’s (1922 – 2010) landmark production, Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 

Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde is widely considered a cause celebre of the so-called “American New Wave,” or the “New Hollywood” movement that sprung-up in the mid-1960s.  What this categorization means is that films such as Penn’s speak to a more educated and younger audience.  Furthermore, unconventional editing and non-traditional narratives are featured in these films. 

And, of course, (happy) narrative closure is harder to come by in films of the American New Wave.

All such components are plain and abundant in Bonnie and Clyde, from Dede Allen’s (1923-2010) intimacy-provoking yet unconventional editing techniques to the film’s downbeat -- though unforgettable -- denouement.   Still, I always tag Bonnie and Clyde of major importance to the Savage Cinema because of the largely romantic way it speaks about violence; and because the film’s high-level of on-screen violence (and even gore), opened the door to films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Straw Dogs (1972), Deliverance (1972) and Last House on the Left (1972).   The film’s importance as “inspiration” for the Savage Cinema continues right up to 2005 and Rob Zombie’s tribute or variation on it, The Devil’s Rejects.

In Bonnie and Clyde, violence is, rather abundantly, a “thrill,” as the upbeat, rollicking soundtrack often reminds audiences.  But it is a special kind of thrill.  Specifically, violence -- gunplay in particular -- is a replacement for sex, and more than that, a brand of empowering tool in an era of extreme poverty and top-down, predatory capitalist practices.

Set during the Great Depression, bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde actually represent counter-culture “Robin Hood” figures because they steal cash from big banks, not from individuals or families.  While banks take homes and land away from struggling farmers and make a fortune in the process, Bonnie and Clyde prove a thorn in their corporate side, a fact which, in turns, brings about the duo’s blood demise.  The very question becomes -- as re-parsed recently in In Time (2011), another Bonnie and Clyde tribute -- this one: is armed robbery actually a pro-social response to the legal robbery conducted wide-scale by unaccountable, irresponsible, foreclosing banks and bankers?

By positioning violence as both sexual thrill and appropriate response to out-of-control, avaricious capitalism, the Penn film initiates the Savage Cinema in fine and, yes, provocative form.  The film’s immortal (not immoral) charm rests largely on the almost-innocent performances of young Beatty and Dunaway, a sense of moral righteousness about the characters’ brand of violence, and the intense, tragic, bloody ending, which is foreshadowed throughout the latter half of the movie.  

Go up against the Establishment suggests the film, and you may have your day as a local hero.  But you can’t beat City Hall -- or rather the banks -- for long.

“All I can say is, they did right by me -- and I'm bringing me a mess of flowers to their funeral.” 

In the 1930s -- at the height of the Great Depression -- a small-time crook, Clyde Barrow (Beatty) meets a local girl in West Dallas, Bonnie Parker (Dunaway).  She’s bored with her life, and highly frustrated by the narrow horizons she countenances.  When Barrow tells Bonnie he robs banks, she is tantalized, however, and joins him on the road for an on-going crime-spree.  Lessening the thrill, however, is the fact that Clyde is sexually impotent.

Bonnie and Clyde soon recruit a young kid who is good at repairing cars, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), to their gang, and then are joined on the road by Clyde’s dull-witted brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck’s shrill, obnoxious wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons).  One day, the gang manages to evade the police and also humiliate a Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) in the process, sending a photograph of the captured law enforcement official to the local newspaper.

As the legend of Bonnie and Clyde grows and the duo becomes national folk heroes, Hamer and the authorities conspire to end their crime spree permanently.  First Buck dies in a shoot-out, and then Blanch is captured.  Finally, Bonnie and Clyde seek sanctuary at C.W.’s home, unaware that his father (Dub Taylor) is making plans to sell them out…

“Your advertising's just dandy... folks would never guess you don't have a thing to sell.” 

Although the film is titled Bonnie and Clyde, I’ve always maintained that Penn actually depicts the story of Bonnie, mainly.  When the film opens, she is a young woman at loose ends in her small, country-house bedroom in West Texas.  We see Bonnie prowling -- like a caged tiger -- through the almost claustrophobic bedroom, a cage of both frustration and boredom. 

One memorable shot in this sequence literally positions Dunaway’s expressive face between two horizontal bars (on a bedpost), so that the implication of a caged or trapped animal is complete.

Then Clyde shows up in the front yard, and the coiled Bonnie, finally, is afforded a release from her boredom and her “small” life.  Clyde’s promise to Bonnie is an overtly sexual one, at least at first.  We watch as Bonnie and Clyde stroll down an avenue together, drinking colas from glass bottles…and the film’s phallic imagery arrives in full force. 

First, we are cued in to Bonnie’s “willingness” to have sex with Clyde by her sensuous drinking from the bottle, in close-up. As you can detect from the stills below, the scene rather deliberately mirrors the act of fellatio.

And then, Clyde goes further, upping the ante. He pulls out his pistol, and holds it down around his crotch.  Bonnie asks, quite simply, to touch it.  Again, in close-up insert shot, a phallic symbol – the gun -- connects violence and sex.  We watch Bonnie’s hand caress the barrel of the gun with excitement and anticipation.

And next…a sexual challenge. Bonnie notes to Clyde that he “wouldn’t have the gumption to use it,” meaning the pistol, apparently.  Thus, he proves her wrong, and their adventures in violence commence.  For Bonnie this provocative talk is all meant to be sexual foreplay, but then the bad news comes crashing down after the robbery.  Clyde may be good with an actual pistol, but he can’t make it in the bedroom.  He’s not a “lover boy,” he insists, a fact which leaves Bonnie -- again -- intensely frustrated.

But keeping company with Clyde is not a complete waste of time.

Rather, Clyde teaches the young woman how to use a gun, and thus Bonnie takes responsibility for her own pleasure.  She is liberated.  She soon becomes an accomplished shot, and participates in the robberies and shoot-outs herself.  Bonnie can achieve the thrills she desires -- such as they are -- without the help of another person, specifically a man.  In this sense, the film is really a feminist one.  It’s about a woman who thinks she needs a man to escape her dull, kept life, but then learns that she can make good on the escape, herself.  In Bonnie’s story, pent-up sexual frustration is released through the application of violence, by robbing banks. 

Unfortunately, the “high” that this violence provides does not last.

Soon, Bonnie is bored again, missing her mother, and feeling trapped by the family politics of the Barrow boys.  She and Clyde must re-connect and find something deeper together.  In the end, interestingly, the acts of violence perpetrated by Bonnie and Clyde are wiped clean when they do, at long last, consummate their sexual relationship.  It’s as if the act of sex makes them innocent again, and afterwards we don’t see them commit even one further crime or fire even a single weapon.  Before they die, we see them eating ice cream cones and flirting instead.  The closeness they have found in each other has healed them, and left their need as “adrenaline junkies” for the next high thoroughly sated.  Violence in the end, is not necessary for them anymore.  They've got something better in each other. 

The film does a terrific job of letting its soundtrack connect some of these points about sex and violence.  When Clyde robs his first store, the upbeat, honkytonk music begins and there’s a sense of an unfettered, good time.  That music comes to a crashing stop, however, when Clyde can’t perform, sexually, in the car afterwards. 

Then, the upbeat, honkytonk music recurs during the bank robbery scenes…for at least a while.  Finally, the movie turns somber after Buck’s death, and the upbeat, rollicking music isn’t re-introduced, finally, until after Bonnie and Clyde have sex together. It’s the last time in the film we hear it.

Trapped in her own frustration.

The promise of adventure...and escape.

She's willing.

He's equipped...

...but can't deliver.

So she learns to take control of the "thrill" for herself.

Accomplished gunfighter.

Bonnie and Clyde asks the rather incendiary question: is it okay to rob someone at gunpoint  who has robbed you, essentially, with the full backing and support of the law?  Bonnie and Clyde don’t steal or destroy property belonging to individuals, the film asserts (somewhat contrary to the historical facts).  On the contrary, they steal from banks.  “We rob banks,” is a rallying cry -- and a winning one -- with the regular people of America, who we see in the film living in poverty-stricken camps, out of their cars, and being forced to leave their foreclosed homes. 

For taking on the banks, Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes. “You ought to be protecting the rights of poor folks,” Clyde declares at one point, to the Establishment.  At another moment in the film, he shares the story of the poor gathering around him and Bonnie, and protecting them “with shotguns.”

When the Establishment won’t do anything to protect the good people, when the Banks make the rules and control the police, Bonnie and Clyde says, a little rebellion against the untouchable elite is not only necessary, but morally justified.   There’s a sense in Bonnie and Clyde (and indeed in today’s world), that the middle class and poor are totally screwed because the rich own the government and the law, and therefore can make and enforce laws that work exclusively for their benefit.  It's a circular trap from which there is no escape because the poor and middle-class control no levers of power.  In a case like this -- with your family home and your livelihood on the line -- it’s understandable that someone might rally to Robin Hood-like bank robbers who steal from the rich, and shoot up “foreclosure” signs as a matter of course. 

It is intriguing to note, however, that Bonnie and Clyde -- ostensibly the most mainstream of the Savage Cinema movies I’ve reviewed here so far --– adopts the most positive view of violence.  For most of the film, violence is characterized as sexual liberation, as fun, and as eminently  pro-social.  In the final analysis, violence against (against banks, not people...unless corporations are people) helps to right a societal wrong. 

Bank Foreclosure: The real evil in Bonnie and Clyde.

Of course, in the end, Bonnie and Clyde retreats from such a pro-violence stance, and the (depressing) realization strikes that there’s no way out of this life of crime for Bonnie and Clyde, except by their deaths.  At about the half-way point of the film, images and references to the inevitability of their (violent) demises begin to dominate the text.  Gene Wilder’s comic-relief character, Eugene, reveals that he is an undertaker during one amusing scene, and that revelation ends all banter and humor suddenly.  He is forcibly ejected from Bonnie and Clyde’s car; an acknowledgment that they will be seeing him, or someone like him, all too soon.

And then, there’s the haunting, gauzy sequence -- played out like a half-forgotten dream -- in which Bonnie visits her mother for a family reunion.  Yet everyone at the “reunion” is dressed entirely in black…for a funeral, not a happy gathering.  And then, adding punctuation to the affecting scene, a child playing cops and robbers falls down a sandy hill – in slow-motion -- pretending to be dead.  Bonnie, garbed in black, kneels beside him tenderly.  As audience members, we know what this imagery means, and we dread it.  Bonnie and Clyde are going to die.

"What did I say?" (Hint, he's an undertaker...).
A child plays dead. Bonnie wears black.
Once this scene of the Parker family “funeral” occurs, and the little boy plummets downward, playing dead, it’s all downhill, literally.  Bonnie and Clyde re-connect with one another and re-establish their innocence, but are mercilessly betrayed by a Judas.  They are gunned down in brutal, slow-motion.  This murder scene is incredibly brutal for the endless volley of bullets launched into their bodies, but more so because Bonnie and Clyde are unable to touch one another.  He stands outside the car, a few feet away.  She is behind the driver’s wheel.   They are separated. The cutting here is absolutely extraordinary, and heart-breaking.  We watch in longing close-up as their eyes meet for an extended moment.  And in that moment, we detect their love, their pain, and their knowledge that the game is all over.  Never to be together again... 

This moment of love, commitment, acknowledgment, innocence and farewell -- before the violence of the actual massacre -- makes for one of the greatest and most heart-breaking moments in the modern American cinema.  Bonnie and Clyde’s genius, even after forty-five years, is that its love story is so powerful that, in the end, we are willing to put aside our moral qualms about violence and the protagonists’ illegal actions and just mourn for them as human beings we care about.   This is quite the trick, oft-imitated in other great films (such as Natural Born Killers [1994] and The Devil’s Rejects), yet never entirely equaled, let alone surpassed.

He's over.

She knows too..



Before they meet their bloody fate, Clyde thanks Bonnie for writing a poem about them, for telling his whole story, and for making him someone that “people will remember.”

Impressively, Bonnie and Clyde accomplishes the same feat. The film has replaced in the culture’s imagination the real 1930s bank robbers with Penn’s star-crossed, eminently human, eminently lovable counterparts.  Today, if you discuss “Bonnie and Clyde,” you’re not merely describing an American New Wave movie of the 1960s, but a specific relationship dynamic, a quality of life that mixes the violent and the sexy with the heroic and the innocent, the tragic with the romantic.   Accordingly, this is one of my all-time favorite film.s  The Savage Cinema has never been more…beautiful.


  1. "Bonnie and Clyde" is a considerable film, no question, but I have this problem with it: The protagonists are too glamorous. I mean, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in 1967 are about as beautiful as human beings get, and they are very stylishly clothed and gotten up in the film. The real Bonnie and Clyde were completely ordinary-looking and unremarkable by comparison, and the physical environment of their lives was rough (as it was for so many people in the Thirties - almost all, by our standards).

    Since our answers to the questions that you correctly raise in your essay are extremely colored by our reactions to Bonnie and Clyde's visual presence, I think the Hollywoodization of their presentation is a whopping big skewing factor. Robert Altman handled this issue a heck of a lot better in "Thieves Like Us," in which everyone and everything looks hard-bitten, idiosyncratic and imperfect, and period-appropriate.

  2. This is a great transition period for actors, too. In New York, the theatre was moving from kitchen sink drama and Method acting to the highly experimental Living Theatre and Open Theatre and Performance Group (to name very few). And Hollywood was moving from the beautiful people of the '50s (Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Doris Day) to the Everyman of the '70s (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman). While "Bonnie and Clyde" isn't quite there yet (as a previous commenter said, Beatty and Dunaway are still of the beautiful era), it's starting to inch that way with it's supporting cast (Hackman, Pollard, and Parsons). And later in that same year, Hollywood finally gives Everyman the starring spot with Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." The late 1960s to mid-1970s was an exciting time to be an actor. A time that has yet to be duplicated.

  3. Inarguably one of my all time faves as well. Totally spot on review of an all time classic.

  4. Great, great examination of this seminal film, John. As someone who turned teen when this film arrived, this one meant a lot. I don't think I looked at movies the same way afterward. I and a friend just sat there... stunned... by the time the end credits arrived. Easily, we related with those up on the screen, and on the other side of the law. I think, for my generation, it must have like those who first took in Jean-Luc Godard's BREATHLESS. It hit home like that. I think your essay captured what we (well, at least, me) couldn't back then. Kudos, my friend. Thanks for this.

    p.s, and of course you know, you got a TMT pingback because of this.

  5. Interesting, I was not expecting this film. Trying to guess what you would review I was thinking maybe Romero's 'The Crazies' or maybe even Ferrara's 'Ms. 45', would not have guessed 'Bonnie & Clyde'. For me I did not see this film until the mid 80's on cassette, after I had seen films such as Depalma's 'Scarface' & Cameron's 'The Terminator', so the violence to me honestly, was quite quaint, at least that was my initial feeling. The film is a pioneer however and it is a worthy addition.

  6. Anonymous7:02 AM

    I am a huge fan of American history John.This review is fantastic.As a matter of fact,I have this movie in my collection,and after reading your review,I am going to watch it...AGAIN!Youre a brilliant writer,and I absolutely love your work.THANK YOU!!!


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