Bonnie and Clyde were real bandits that travelled around America in the great depression conducting robberies of small stores. Their legacy is heavily printed into pop culture. The Bonnie Parker Story was released in 1958. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was released and has become so revered that in 2019, Queen & Slim marketed itself as “the black Bonnie and Clyde” (something Thomasine & Bushrod similarly did in 1974).
As timeless as their legacy has become, Arthur Penn’s 1967 tale is definitely a product of its time. Penn didn’t make a movie about the real 30’s duo, but rather used them as a symbol to capture the energy that was lingering in the 60’s anti-establishment zeitgeist. 1967 was both the ‘summer of love’ and the first time the majority of Americans felt the Vietnam War was a mistake. His movie was made for the youth involved in the counter-culture change. It challenged the notions of traditional masculinity that sent young men to war and used the open road as an outlet for their desire to live a life of freedom.
Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) is a bored youngster that desires something new to live for. The opening sequence that starts with an extreme close up of her bright read lips and ends with her desperate eyes trapped between a bed frame, over the non-diegetic sound of a ticking clock, lets us into her soul. Once she hears Clyde (Warren Beatty), who oozes cool, stealing her Mother’s car, she finds that something new. This is a man who tells you his toes are mangled and still, you want to see them.
The actors seduce us with their chemistry, which frees Penn to explore his character’s imperfections. His focus is on masculinity and what was (is) expected of men, using sex and violence as symbols for the masculine desire to provide. The guns act as motifs for the pair’s pent up aggression and as the gender roles reverse (Bonnie provides for Clyde) there is a liberation, letting Clyde relax enough to take their romance to the next level.
This “us against the world” romanticism for the outlaws juxtaposes their first robberies. At first, we stay outside with Bonnie as the camera holds wide. The second plays like a 30’s screwball comedy. These small set pieces tie together in a gleefully disjointed fashion with a score that feels like if tumbleweed were a tune.
The romanticism ends as the gang descend into paranoia, echoing the darker half of the 60’s. Penn shoots down the Hays Code with stylised hyperrealism (leading the way for The Wild Bunch and The Godfather). He replaces the tumbleweed-tune joy ride with maniac-like machine gun blasts. Where the camera previously held wide, now it closes in, lingering in slow motion, freezing photos into our minds.
With the work of filmmakers like Tarantino, the violence in Bonnie and Clyde no longer feels revolutionary. Just last year I cheered as he therapeutically attacked a disturbed set of real-life outlaws from 1969. But in 1967, the American cinemagoer was forced into siding with the outlaw, and it is for this reason why Penn’s violence still hurts. Penn’s devotion to making us believe these characters of fiction were once the real Bonnie and Clyde makes the excessive gunshots feel unnecessary, even tragic. It forces us to look inwards and ask: does anyone deserve to die like this?