The 1967 crime drama/biopic “Bonnie and Clyde” wasn’t the easiest movie to get made. There were numerous squabbles between the film’s producer and star Warren Beatty and Warner Brothers over everything from budget and shooting locations to the size of the film’s release. Once it did hit theaters it faced a new wave of controversies mainly aimed at the films depiction of violence. “Bonnie and Clyde” is said to be one of the first mainstream American films to use graphic violence therefore opening the doors for the waves of cinematic bloodshed that would follow. At the time some critics railed on the film, but it would go on to be a box office hit and it’s now viewed as a true motion picture classic.
As with many movies like this several liberties were taken for dramatic reasons. A number of people contributed to the script but David Newman and Robert Benton did most of the heavy lifting. Their script strips down the true Bonnie and Clyde story while still creating a vivid and absorbing tale. There is no backstory at all. The film opens with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker sultrily moving about her upstairs room when she notices Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow attempting to steal her mother’s car. She confronts him but after a brief conversation they are on the road and story of Bonnie and Clyde has begun.
Now could the story have gone deeper into their backgrounds and motivations? Probably so, but I think the film gives us what’s necessary for the type of story it’s telling. We learn that Bonnie is a waitress who is unhappy with the seemingly meaningless life she lives. She waits tables, she gets occasional dates from passing truckers, then she goes home – rinse and repeat. But you also get the sense that she is wooed by Clyde’s charms and visions of grandeur. Of the two characters, Bonnie is the most intriguing. Throughout the film you get glimpses that she does want more in life. She has visions of what happiness should be yet she has no one to cling to but Clyde.
The two Depression-era outlaws take off on a crime spree that starts with a few smalltime holdups. They pickup a simpleton named C.W. Moss (Michael Pollard) and the three begin hitting banks. This is also when their crimes go from simple bank robberies to killing. Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his shrill and reluctant wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) joins up with them and the Barrow gang is formed. Amazingly every one of the cast members I’ve mentioned so far received Academy award nominations for their performances. Interestingly enough, Parsons (in what may be the lesser performance of the group) was the only one to win. It’s worth noting that, while he didn’t get an Oscar nomination, Gene Wilder shows up in what is his feature film debut.
“Bonnie and Clyde” toys around with several other interesting themes. There are several well-placed jabs focused on how the media manipulates news stories for their own interests. This goes hand-in-hand with law enforcement who began attributing bank robberies and killings to Bonnie and Clyde even though they had nothing to do with them. This interesting little twist asks the question of who is more responsible for the pair’s dubious rise to fame? As a result their mythos grew larger and larger from town to town and much of that is due to what was being put out in the papers and by law enforcement.
When writing about the film, the great Roger Ebert noted a particular scene where an upset Bonnie is walking through a wheat field and Clyde is chasing after her. The camera pulls back and gives us a longshot of the field just as a cloud is passing over the sun. In an eerie moment of foreboding, the cloud covers Bonnie and Clyde hinting at what lies ahead for them. This is the pre-CGI era and chances are it was a freak act of nature. Still it’s a tremendous example of Burnett Guffey’s brilliant Oscar-winning cinematography. The film looks amazing and I wasn’t surprised to read that it was influenced by the French New Wave. In fact one of my favorite directors Francois Truffaut was originally asked to direct the film but declined. Arthur Penn got the job and he incorporated that slick and stylish French influence.
“Bonnie and Clyde” was a cultural phenomenon upon its release and it has earned its ‘classic movie’ title. While the supporting cast is great, the cinematography is amazing, and the bluegrass score sets a perfect tone, it’s the two leads who anchor the film. Dunaway is skittish, hopeful, and beautiful and Beatty, an actor I can generally take or leave, is charismatic and completely believable. We buy into them from the start and that is why the journey we take with them is thrilling and unforgettable.