Bonnie and Clyde has become known as a complete game changer for Hollywood. Its release signified the end of the old and the start of the New Hollywood—a film era that allowed filmmakers to take visual risks and tell stories outside the norm. Arthur Penn is a strange figure to shepherd in this era, as a director mostly known for television and The Miracle Worker up to this point, he doesn’t seem to quite fit the mold of the 1970s rebel filmmaker. But what better film to establish this period than one literally about characters who gleefully break all the rules? And for the 50th anniversary of its initial release, this is the perfect time to talk about it.
Bonnie and Clyde is stuck between three eras: the depression-era 30s in which it is set, the rebellious 60s signified by the conflict in Vietnam, and the time of the American West outlaws. I was struck by how much Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are influenced by and how much the film views them as mythic figures only seen in the Wild West. The famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes to mind: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The real-life outlaws became an American sensation as their adventures became daily fodder for the press—none of their exploits were inherently history worthy, but once they became mythologized in the culture, they became something bigger. Clyde remarks at one point that the papers all exaggerate; that if they really pulled off everything they said they have, they’d be millionaires. The film does its own fair share of myth-making of these characters, especially in the famous hyper-artificial death scene that is both horrific and legendary. Bonnie even verbalizes their link to the folk heroes of the West in her poem at the end of the film, equating their story with Jesse James.
This hero worship plays directly into the film’s setting. Here, the police may be chasing Bonnie and Clyde, but the bank is the enemy. Because of the Great Depression period, when thousands were losing their homes and businesses because they couldn’t pay the banks, Bonnie and Clyde were the people who could stay up to them. When they come across one unlucky chap at the very start of their rampage, this idea becomes a bit of a revenge fantasy, with the old man shooting a gun at the repossession notice. Clyde’s credo throughout the film is extremely important. He identifies themselves by saying “We rob banks,” not “We rob general stores and gas stations” even though they do that, too. By saying “We rob banks” he is saying “I’m on your side.” The bank is a special place that signifies what is wrong with the world, so when they directly take on the banks, the masses who have come to hate this institution can’t help but rejoice.
And even still, Bonnie and Clyde is a crime film made about the ultimate rebels during America’s most rebellious time. The pair not only hate the banks, but all institutions, including the police. They don’t see eye-to-eye with the police because they are outlaws on the run, sure, but they seem to revel in making the police look bad. This attitude fits right in with anti-Vietnam sentiment. They might not be flower children, but if these characters lived in the late 1960s, they would probably do everything they could to dodge the war. Not because they could verbalize their philosophical differences for fighting in Vietnam but just because. It’s not a mistake that they finally meet their end only after [and so soon after] they become more of a normal couple by finally consummating their relationship and start talking about marriage as a possibility. Just as soon as they lose their rebelliousness, their status in this world is broken.
Bonnie and Clyde is a truly a landmark film, made complex by its crossing of eras. It isn’t a difficult film to read, but there are so many ways to read the film, which makes it a perfect film to cover over an entire week. Have I mentioned that it is also incredibly entertaining? My biggest takeaway, though, is that crime films would be changed from this point out, becoming more sinister and violent, with criminals capable of much more. Criminals are rarely the James Cagney-type heart-of-gold hero any more, instead the anti-hero, pushing the boundaries further than ever before. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are the perfect stewards for that change.