“I‘m Clyde Barrow. And this is Bonnie Parker. We rob banks.” This line comes early in Bonnie & Clyde, and though short, though obvious, it has a surprising amount to say about the film. Bonnie, impressed by Clyde’s impromptu hold-up of a general store, has agreed to accompany Clyde wherever he decides to go, and they’ve just spent the night in an abandoned farmhouse. The farm’s owner and his family have been foreclosed on, and they drive by to take a last look at the place. Clyde’s statement “we rob banks” is a direct response to the farmer’s frustration at losing his home to the bank. It’s technically untrue (they haven’t yet robbed any banks), and thus its placement becomes an attempt to tie the couple’s illegal activities to some larger purpose – a Robin Hood-type stealing from the rich (though, tellingly, without giving to the poor). That idea pops up again briefly when Clyde, mid-robbery, tells an ordinary man to keep his money, they’re only there for the bank’s money.
The line secondarily functions as part of Bonnie and Clyde’s sense of theatricality – throughout their career they constantly brag about their exploits, take breaks for photo-ops (including with law enforcement personnel), make sure everyone knows who they are, and enjoy the press they receive. The Robin Hood guise is really only part of that – it’s difficult to argue that Bonnie and Clyde truly care about anyone outside their gang and immediate family. They’re in it for fame mostly, fortune some, each other a fair amount, and very little else. Yet we’re drawn closely into their relationship and we care what happens to them, despite our knowledge that they are not good people.
That strange-yet-effective combination of emotional investment and distance is a direct inheritance from European film movements of the early 1960s, especially as exemplified by Cahiers du cinema critics/New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni. These filmmakers were interested, to one degree or another, in a) bringing genre stories and art styles together, b) bringing their insatiable love of film itself front and center through quotation and pastiche, and c) exploring sexual and social tensions from a sympathetic but uninvolved distance. Actor/producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn had attempted to bring New Wave sensibilities to an earlier film, 1965’s Mickey One, but though interesting, that film was ultimately unsuccessful at combining European emotional distance with American brashness.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, since the New Wave itself was based on bringing the freshness and vitality that the critics of Cahiers du cinema admired in American films into a distinctly French sensibility (and marrying it with the European art style pioneered by Italian neo-realism). With Bonnie & Clyde and the New Hollywood films that followed it in the 1970s, American filmmakers brought it full circle, combining quintessentially American stories with European art style and the expansive love of cinema inherited (directly or indirectly) from French cinephiles. Though many equate the beginning of New Hollywood with the devil-may-care, open-ended rebelliousness of Easy Rider and the raw vitality of the 1970s generation of filmmakers, I’d argue that Bonnie & Clyde is at least as worthy of the honor.
With the story of Bonnie and Clyde, Penn and Beatty are tapping into a uniquely American story, a legend of Depression-era larger-than-life bank robbers. In the tradition of gangster films both American and French, there’s a nobility to characters like these, a sense that they have the courage to do what most of us don’t in standing against restrictive society and corrupt institutions and making their own rules to live by. There’s a romanticism around them that Penn plays up by shooting Faye Dunaway in luminous closeup, her blonde hair and beret marking her as an American Brigitte Bardot (though her accent is pure rural southern – an initially jarring yet perfect combination). Their status as folk heroes is substantiated by the helpful treatment they receive from dust bowl farmers after getting ambushed by the law.
But these are also characters who fight constantly, who can’t resolve their sexual hangups for most of the film (it’s no accident that Clyde is only able to consummate their relationship after Bonnie immortalizes him with a poem, ensuring his lasting fame), and who can’t ever get anywhere because they’re always running away. They’re pursuing a twisted version of the American dream – getting out of the backwoods, leaving dead-end jobs, making something of themselves, but through criminal activity that ultimately is only destructive. We can’t write off or explain away the bad things they do, though, the way we can with Paul Muni’s I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang; there’s no indication that the Depression economy has done anything specific to hurt Bonnie or Clyde. It’s more of an excuse for essentially amoral people to indulge their criminal tendencies and create themselves as folk heroes while doing it. It’s almost a game for them until right at the end, just as the theft in Godard’s Bande à part is a game, until it isn’t.
And yet, and yet. We DO care about Bonnie and Clyde, and when the inevitable ending comes, it’s like a few dozen punches to the gut. Bonnie & Clyde is one of the very few films that I consider to be essentially perfect, and a large part of it is the way that Penn maintains both our emotional connection to Bonnie and Clyde as well as our emotional distance from what they do. It would’ve been much easier to either make them unlikable villains or give us some reason that explains their actions – abusive childhoods or mistreatment at the hands of societal institutions – but Bonnie & Clyde doesn’t let us off so easily. We must face the fact that we feel sympathy for characters who don’t deserve our sympathy, and live with the tension created by our simultaneous desire for them to escape and knowledge that they shouldn’t.
Penn also perfectly balances our knowledge of what must happen (the unavoidable end of Bonnie and Clyde due to both the historical reality and the narrative needs) with our shock when it does. Everything is perfectly done in this film: the conscious use of cinematic space, using extreme close-ups, mid-shots and long shots carefully and intentionally; the repetition and alteration of the Dueling Banjos Foggie Mountain Breakdown1 chase music so that what is jaunty and joyous during the gang’s early successes becomes a limping melody in a minor key when they start losing shootouts; the scene with Gene Wilder and his girlfriend that shows how sinister the Barrow gang is when juxtaposed with normality; the lovely picnic near the end that shows what might have been and yet what never could have been; the evocation of cinematic history from the quoted screening of Gold Diggers of 1933 to the more subtle echoes of Bande à part, Contempt and The Seven Samurai; the ending that stops right where it should, no denouement or lesson or follow-up. There’s never been another American film that succeeds so spectacularly on every level of cinema, and every time I rewatch it, that opinion is reinforced 100-fold.
1Thanks for the correction on the chase music go to Jerrel Swingle in the comments below.