BONNIE & CLYDE: A Ride from Happiness to Hell

Working on a review of a western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,  that was influenced by this movie (or at least its way of storytelling), I thought it was a good idea to have a look Arthur Penn‘s classic Bonnie and Clyde too. A new version of the exploits of the famous gangster couple – a two-part miniseries – was another reason to revisit this groundbreaking movie.

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First confession: It has never been a special favorite of mine. What has always prevented me from getting into it, really getting into it, was exactly this way of storytelling – mixing comedy with melodrama, vitriolic social comment and extreme violence. Second confession: I never saw the movie when it was first released (or shortly after) because it had an 18 rating in my country and I wasn’t allowed to see it. I forgot about it (and don’t remember any theatrical re-release in the next decade) and must have seen the movie for the first time in the eighties, probably on VHS, and felt rather disappointed. Was this the great movie Bonnie & Clyde? It felt very sixties, once hip, but so hip anymore.

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The movie tells the story of two of America’s most notorious gangsters, Clyde Barrow (1909-1934) and Bonnie Parker (1910-1934) who left a trail of mayhem across the Southern States in the early 1930s with a series of bank robberies, killing fourteen people in the process. The movie follows the duo until May 23, when their car was riddled with bullets by the police in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Their fame as notorious gangsters is somewhat controversial. The yellow press had romanticized their exploits, making them national celebrities, but surprisingly their biggest haul was only a little more than $15,000. As some have noted, their escapes were more spectacular than their robberies, which were often rather ill-considered. Clyde was a spectacular runaway driver, absolutely crazy about fast cars. His favorite car was the Ford V-8; he was so impressed with it that he even wrote a letter to Henry Ford, saying:

“I will tell you what a dandy car you make (…). For sustained speed and freedom for trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned.”

bonnie and clyde

Played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the Bonnie & Clyde from the screen have definitely more class and style than the two historic gangsters, and director Arthur Penn was indeed accused of glorifying their violent way of life. Most of the violence in the film is not directed at society but at the members of the Barrow gang. The gang members usually shoot out of self-defense (when they’re cornered by the police) or because one them is panicking. In the movie Bonnie & Clyde are as much victims as perpetrators. The movie is ‘very Sixties’ indeed.

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Bonnie and Clyde is one of those cultural events that helped define a decade, and the decade – whether you like it or not – is one of the crucial reference points of our cultural history. The Sixties were a decade of changes and Bonnie and Clyde is often called a pivotal movie, the first of a new Hollywood era. It broke taboos and reshuffled some of Hollywood traditions by presenting them in a new light. It was one of the first major movies to feature squibs, those small explosive charges, filled with fake blood, used to suggest bullet hits. Much of the film’s impact, notably during the bloody ambush scene, is caused by the use of them. But Bonnie and Clyde was a pivotal film in more ways than one.

Arthur Penn belonged to a group of post-war film makers (some of the others were Nicholas Ray, Martin Ritt and Sam Peckinpah) who were inherited to the Hollywood traditions and forms of classical Hollywood cinema, but were, at the same time, often associated with modernist tendencies, in the case of Penn French New Wave (Bonnie & Clyde was by the way offered to both Truffaut and Godard first). Penn’s various influences are strongly reflected in the movie: The comedy is often reminiscent of the screwball comedies from the fifties, some chase scenes are shot in the style of the Keystone Cops, and the romantic moments vaguely echo the work of a Douglas Sirk or Frank Capra. At the same time the editing is often edgy, almost jumpy, as in some of Godard’s movies, and a light-hearted or romantic scene may all of sudden shift into a depiction of graphic violence.

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The idea behind the movie, is best illustrated by comparing it to Penn’s own The Left-Handed Gun, made a decade earlier, in 1958. The left-Handed Gun turns the western antihero Billy the Kid into an angry young man, the prototype of the fifties’ rebel; Bonnie and Clyde turns the two titular gangsters into almost frivolous outcasts who simply decide to reject all things society had in mind for them. They’re outlaws, but without real premeditation: Clyde undertakes his first hold-up on impulse (in a reaction to Bonnie’s half-serious provocations) and Bonnie thinks Clyde is the coolest guy she ever met. They’re not angry, they’re having a good time.

Bonnie and Clyde was immensely successful, both at home and abroad, became popular among the younger generations, who had no problem at all with the presentation of the gangster duo as folk heroes: to them the pair were natural born rebels, living on instinct, revolting against a cold material world and hitting it were it hurt most. The bloody ending was read by most viewers as the end of a dream, of the innocence of living day by day – albeit as gangsters.

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I feel a lot more positive about Bonnie and Clyde today, but I still have some reservations. The acting – screwball style – in the more lighthearted scenes looks very old-fashioned now; it says a lot that Estelle Parsons was awarded an Oscar for her performance as Blanche – today many will have the idea that she’s the weakest link in the entire cast. The story of the duo also seemed a bit too complex for a movie of about 105 minutes: We advance by leaps and bounds and the backgrounds of both protagonists remain underexposed. Bonnie had already a failed marriage behind her when she met Clyde (she had married a classmate at the age of sixteen) and Clyde had a history of car theft and petty crime when he met the love of his life. In the movie the idea to lead a criminal life, seems to come out of the blue. But these are all minor complaints: Bonnie and Clyde is clever, colorful and exciting, a great ride from happiness to hell.

Buy the BluRay on Amazon.com

Miscellaneous:

  • The lawmen who killed Bonnie and Clyde fired a total of 130 rounds, they were temporarily deafened by the noise of the shots. Clyde Barrow was hit 17 times, Bonnie Parker no less than 26 times, both suffered multiple head wounds and were more probably killed almost instantly.
  • The Bonnie and Clyde getaway car riddled with bullets is on display in Primm, near Las Vegas: http://www.vegas.com/attractions/near-las-vegas/bonnie-clyde-car/
  • Bonnie Parker became known as a cigar-smoking gangster moll, but the reputation grew out of a snapshot taken for fun. She was a chain-smoker, but smoked cigarettes and according to those who have known her, she had never smoked a cigar in her life.
  • The Studio had little faith in the movie and offered its star (and producer) Warren Beatty a 40% share of the gross instead of a fee. Beatty accepted the offer and … it made him one of the wealthiest persons in the business. The film grossed $50 million at home, $70 million abroad.

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Simon Gelten

One of the most active contributers and senior reviewers of the Spaghetti Western Database (SWDB), Simon saw all Leones and several of the Corbuccis in cinema, most of the time in Eindhoven, the city where he was born. Currently Simon is living in Turnhout, Belgium.

1 Response

  1. mm Peter says:

    Fantastic article Simon! Love this movie. Very happy you covered it for FC. I haven’t watched the new miniseries yet.

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