Criminality has always had a certain innate sex appeal, especially on screen. After all, isn’t that fact the whole reason behind the success of film noir, heist movies, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s entire relationship? There’s darkness and danger and raw, fiery passion. It’s no wonder, then, that the mythos around Bonnie and Clyde plays it up to the nth degree. The duo is remembered as a young, beautiful, and violent match made in heaven in no small part thanks to the 1967 film.
But when you actually watch the film, what stands out is not so much the sexual relationship between Bonnie and Clyde, but the lack thereof. From their very first encounter, Clyde announces to Bonnie that he “ain’t no lover boy” and suggests that if that’s what she wants, then he doesn’t need her and she should move along now.
His refusal of her wild advances is so stern it’s not only jarring, it’s completely at odds with the persisting image of the young couple: two kids wildly in love as they throw all caution to the wind on their criminal rampage. In the scene, which takes place after their first robbery together, Bonnie is completely enthralled, she’s high on the thrill of it and as Clyde makes their getaway she kisses him passionately as they drive. It’s exactly the kind of scene you’d expect. But Clyde immediately flips the script, tossing Bonnie aside as he tells her that’s simply not who he is.
Her disappointment is clear, and yet she stays with him adding a new layer of complexity to a relationship we thought we already understood. The film continues to explore and develop that relationship, all while never pretending that Bonnie doesn’t want something more.
So why does she stay with him if she’s unsatisfied? Part of the answer lies in the very argument that Bonnie and Clyde have when he rejects her. After pushing off an incredibly confused Bonnie who’s now demanding to go home, Clyde angrily shouts, “If all you want's stud service, then get on back to West Dallas and stay there the rest of your life!”
This clearly has an impact on her. Even with the little we’ve seen of her life, we know she’s desperate to escape it. The thought of staying in Texas forever is clearly painful to her. But Clyde goes on:
“But you're worth more'n that, a lot more, and you know it, and that's why you come along with me. You could find a lover boy on every corner in town and it doesn't make a damn to them whether you're waiting on tables or picking cotton, so long as you cooperate. But it does make a damn to me!”
When Bonnie asks why, his answer seems to solidify her decision to stay with him. He tells her that she’s different and he knows it and has known it since the first time he laid eyes on her.
Suddenly, their relationship is no longer one of sexual passion. It’s no longer what we’ve ever assumed it to be. It’s something much more intense than that, something longer lasting, more intimate, and ultimately more important.
Because another point worth keeping in mind is that Clyde’s impotency is purely the creation of Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn. There’s no basis in historical record for it and in fact, the impotency was a compromise. In the original version of the script, Clyde was written as bisexual (another invention of the screenwriters), but it was decided that that would be a bridge too far for the censors of the day. They also feared that sexual “deviancy” (as opposed to sexual dysfunction) would read in the minds of a 1960s audience as a sign of moral and mental deficiency. Basically, they didn’t want audiences to assume Clyde’s criminality was born out of some taboo mental disorder.
What Bonnie and Clyde creates, then, is a uniquely liberated portrayal of a relationship seemingly made for the pulp paperback. Bonnie isn’t vilified for her sexual desires and ultimately, in the last act of the film, she and Clyde finally do consummate their relationship. But their sexual relationship isn’t prioritized, either. Their love becomes separate from sexual attraction and centered on their deep personal connection to one another. Clyde is repeatedly shown desperate to protect and defend Bonnie, whether from a hail of gunfire or a spit in the face. His love for her in unquestionable.
In some ways, this makes the violence born out of their connection all the more unsettling. Two young kids obsessed with sex and driven only by impulse that kill and steal is a much more simplistic portrait that’s much easier to understand. But Bonnie and Clyde makes them more human. They’re not violent caricatures. They’re a couple in love that wants more out of life than Depression-era America could ever hope to give them. They’re violent toward authority and institutions and the world that made them, and because of this complexity, it’s a lot harder to write them off or merely idolize them. Bonnie and Clyde turns Bonnie and Clyde into flesh and blood, and perhaps that’s the real reason why their violent deaths still resonate on screen 50 years later.