Bonnie and Clyde: Two Crazy Counter-Cultural Kids in Love
"They're young, they're in love, and they kill people." With this tagline, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) took America by storm, going on to become one of the most iconic road movies of all time. The film is original and unique for many reasons including its outstanding acting, a compelling love story with a countercultural subtext, and good cinematography.
Warren Beatty does an excellent job portraying Clyde Barrow as a flawed character. Like Kit in Badlands, Clyde is not a genius but he has the survival instincts of a predator. Beatty, known for his good looks, does a terrific job of portraying an ordinary looking low-level criminal whose exploits attract notoriety. Beatty plays against type in the film:
In an ironic contrast to his public image as playboy, Beatty would play Barrow as impotent - an audacious move which launches his sexual appeal to Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), in a film about 'stick-ups', while the yearning to connect with each other would become a core subtext to Bonnie and Clyde's drama, realised (sp) in the final poignant exchange of looks between the lovers in the final moment before they are murdered. (Lennon)"
Beatty's performance captures Barrow as more of an antihero who is emotionally troubled and whose love for the sexually aggressive Bonnie is hampered by his impotence.
Faye Dunaway really shines as Bonnie Parker. This film propelled Dunaway into the spotlight and it's easy to see why. While she may be a bit too good-looking for the part of the plain-Jane Bonnie, she captures Bonnie's love for Clyde and her love for adventure. This is seen early on in the film when she stands next to Clyde who tells her about armed robbery. When Clyde pulls out his revolver (clearly a phallic symbol), Bonnie eyes it seductively then strokes it. After Clyde robs a store and he and Bonnie escape in a stolen car, Bonnie is all over Clyde. Ms. Dunaway does a splendid job of showing how turned on she is by Clyde's criminal activities. She then does a great job changing emotions when she expresses shock after Clyde tells her to stop her amorous advances. Dunaway captures the depth of her character as Bonnie throughout the film such as when Bonnie tries to express her artistic side by reading a poem only to be frustrated by Buck's boorish comments, the time when Bonnie gets mad at Clyde and insults him about his impotence, or when she assures him later on that their love-making was perfect.
One of the elements of a road movie is the characters that the travelers encounter during their journey. As Bonnie and Clyde take to the road to escape society's stifling confines and the wrath of the law brought upon them by their actions, they meet interesting characters including C.W. Moss, Clyde's brother Buck, Buck's wife Blanche, and Eugene Grizzard and Velma Davis, a couple who find themselves taken for a ride by the outlaws. C.W. is a catalyst character whose error leads to Clyde having to take someone's life, thrusting Bonnie and Clyde on a road of no return. Buck and Blanche provide a family dynamic that shows Clyde's love of family and the challenge that Blanche's presence presents to Bonnie and Clyde's relationship along with their law-breaking activities. Finally, Eugene and Velma show Bonnie and Clyde's playful nature when they bring the couple along. They also show Bonnie and Clyde's mercurial nature when Bonnie demands the couple leave when she learns that Eugene is an undertaker. One of the things that makes Bonnie and Clyde so memorable are how its performers bring these characters that Bonnie and Clyde meet to life.
Gene Hackman's portrayal of Buck Barrow is typical of his ability to play any kind of character. Hackman plays Buck as someone caught up in the heat of the movement. Hackman captures Buck's genuine affection for his brother and the conflict caused when Blanche's behavior affects Buck's relationship with Clyde. Topping things off is Buck's death scene where he captures Buck's agonizingly slow death without turning it into an over-the-top performance.
Estelle Parson's award-winning performance as Blanche Barrow adds more realism to the story. Her character is annoying but she is supposed to be. Furthermore she is believable in showing how Blanche, someone unaccustomed to the criminal life, reacts to violent situations. One example is when the police raid the gang's hideout. While everyone else in the gang is shooting at the police, Blanche panics and begins screaming hysterically. Clearly, she is out of her element and she opts for the flight response, running out of the house and jeopardizing the rest of the gang. This shows how a normal person sometimes reacts in stressful situations and it makes the film more believable. Parson's acting captures Blanche's return to passivity when the reality of a criminal life sets in after Buck is mortally wounded and she is injured. Like Hackman, she knows how to show extreme emotion without overacting.
Michael J. Pollard's performance as C.W. Moss really wowed me. He does a great job capturing the sometimes bumbling, sometimes very capable Moss. Like Hackman's portrayal of Buck, Pollard's portrayal of C.W. was so good that he elevated a supporting character to a prominent role. When we first meet him at the gas station, he seems somewhat shy but he also shows a mischievous side when he brags of his time at the reformatory. Pollard projects the idea that like Bonnie and Clyde, C.W. Moss enjoys the wild side of life. Later on in the film he shows he is vulnerable and capable. He botches Bonnie and Clyde's getaway after a bank robbery, forcing Clyde to kill someone. Later on, Moss plays a pivotal role in their escape from the police, bravely taking out a police armored car with a hand grenade. Near the end of the film, Pollard shows C.W.'s weakness when he helps betray Bonnie and Clyde to the police.
The story of Bonnie and Clyde provides for a love story that deviated from traditional American cinema. That Bonnie and Clyde were looking for something beyond the doldrums of daily American life was nothing new. What was new was that Bonnie and Clyde encountered very realistic problems along their journey. First was Clyde's impotence. Bonnie and Clyde are clearly in love with one another but Clyde's inability to perform would be an obstacle in any relationship. At first, they substitute sex with the adventure they experience robbing banks and running away from the law. Finally, Clyde overcomes his impotence when Bonnie's poem about their criminal escapades is published, giving them eternal fame. Another novel approach is the interplay of family. Buck's brother and sister-in-law join his gang. This impacts on Bonnie's relationship with Clyde but she loves him so she does her best to fit in. Later on, Clyde takes Bonnie to see her family, despite the risk they are taking. The film shows that crime is not always easy. Clyde's first attempt to rob a bank fails when he learns the bank doesn't have any money. His attempt to steal food from a grocer fails when he underestimates the employees' desire to thwart the robbery. Unlike the gun-happy Annie Starr in Gun Crazy and the homicidal Kit in Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde kill out of self-defense, making them sympathetic criminals.
Bonnie and Clyde was more about acting and story than strong cinematography. Penn's directing focused more on telling the story through quality performances than on telling the tale cinematically (compared to Alfred Hitchcock who used the camera to tell his story and who said that actors should be treated like cattle). That is not to say that the film does not have its cinematic moments. One example is early on in the film where Bonnie sits behind her metal bedpost. The way Penn frames the shot makes Bonnie look like she is holding prison bars, an obvious reference to her dead-end life. The scene where the Barrow gang is caught in crossfire in the woods is well done with multiple shots of the posse shooting at the characters intercut with shots of the gang trying to escape in their car, circling inside the woods. This creates the look of both a merry-go-round and shooting gallery and that the gang has nowhere to go. Finally, there is the film's iconic death scene where Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down in a police ambush. Penn uses close-ups of Clyde and Bonnie looking at each other as they realize death is at hand, showing the couple's eternal love. Penn then films their death scene in slow motion as both Bonnie and Clyde are mercilessly gunned down. The scene is a brutal and shocking end to the film.
The film's depiction of violence brought film violence to a new level. While Penn was not the first director to use squibs to simulate blood exploding from a gunshot victim's body, his use of them was so effective that it would become commonplace from that point on. In this film, violence is not pretty. Buck dies a painfully long death after he is shot in the head. Blanche is blinded by exploding glass. Bonnie and Clyde are shot as they escape crossfire. Then there is the aforementioned death scene of Bonnie and Clyde.
Although the concept of a road movie would not be defined until Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde has the elements of one. Bonnie and Clyde are on the road escaping from society (the confines of a dull existence) and the law (for the crimes they commit during their trip). The road also becomes a transforming experience, helping Clyde to overcome his impotence once Bonnie helps him realize his self-worth. Unfortunately the road ends for disaster for them as the law catches up with them.
In the end, the strong performances in the film provide a solid foundation for Bonnie and Clyde. When you add an unorthodox love story, clever cinematography, and realistic violence, you have a complete product that still stands out as an excellent film and an iconic road movie.
Bonnie and Clyde. Dir. Arthur Penn. Perfs. Warren
Beatty, Faye Dunaway. 1967. DVD. Warner Home
Lennon, Elaine. "Riding the New Wave: The Case of
Bonnie and Clyde". Senses of Cinema 38 2006:
null. Senses of Cinema. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.