The AFI Top 100 Films: Bonnie and Clyde (#27)

Entertainment 150Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons
Written by David Newman and Robert Benton
Directed by Arthur Penn

Bonnie and Clyde feels like a quintessential 70s movie. It has a complicated, somewhat unlikable set of anti-heroes in Clyde Barrow (Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Dunaway). It features them doing bad things that can’t be condoned even though you’re nominally rooting for them to succeed, as in, say, American Cowboy or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They get into an idea of what they’re going to do with big dreams but no clear plans, and for a while it works. Then, inevitably, things begin to go south. As the stresses pile up, relationships fray and alliances shift, and the war against the world becomes one of attrition. We know from history that things don’t end so well for Bonnie and Clyde, so the interesting part of the movie becomes how they face their end and what we can take from it.

Bonnie and Clyde travel through the mid-South, robbing banks along with their sidekicks — brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), his wife Blanche (Parsons) and gas station attendant-come-getaway driver C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard). They’re a pretty motley crew, all things told. Clyde is a temperamental man who somehow manages to keep people at a distance, while Bonnie is a wild woman attracted to just the wrong kind of man. Buck is exceedingly gregarious and good-natured, while his wife Blanche is almost the exact opposite — a worried woman who tends to voice those worries whenever possible. Meanwhile, C.W. is young and slow, ill-suited for his role in the operation. Still, they manage to make it work for a while; they pull off daring jobs in broad daylight, survive chases and shoot-outs with the cops and become the subject of breathless news articles in the papers.

But as their reputation grows, so does the persistence of the cops. Eventually they find themselves faced with night-time raids and relentless pursuers. This takes a toll, as you can imagine. The end of the gang is something of a surprise; it’s at once inevitable and sudden. It’s also one of the most violent scenes I’ve seen in cinema from that era; it’s hard not to feel for the titular pair once the last gunshot has been fired.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway give the criminal heroes a life beyond the screen. When Clyde meets Bonnie outside of her home, we take it for granted that we’re catching these two people in the middle of their own stories, and their pasts continue to influence them in the middle of this one. It’s interesting that they rarely talk about what’s shaped them before, even when it causes them problems with each other. Most of the time you simply wonder what made them what they are, why they make the choices they do.

The movie, however, doesn’t really concern itself with those questions. They make their choices, and that’s enough. Instead we watch them travel through a quasi-mythic version of small-town America in decay, where bankers are making money by breaking the backs of farmers and other salt-of-the-earth types. We’re shown that Bonnie and Clyde take great care to target their anti-social behavior on authority figures only; when they meet “regular folks” they’re more likely to encourage them to rebel against the system giving them such a raw deal too. This is how they give the Barrow gang a bit of a purpose beyond being a bunch of dumb kids doing whatever’s fun and dangerous.

Both Bonnie and Clyde love each other as well, in their own way. We’re shown that even though they argue there’s an acceptance of each other that’s generous, compassionate. This, I found, was their most endearing trait — the ability to recognize the flaws that each of them has and accept them. It’s rare that you see a couple in such a fast-moving relationship have such a deep commitment. They both have places where their partner can’t follow; when they go there, there’s little choice but for them but to wait patiently for their return. And they do.

Still, for all their good points they’re still a gang of people who robbed banks and killed a whole lot of police officers. While there are a lot of folks who find that admirable, I couldn’t help but find that a bit distancing for me. Maybe that’s a sign of my aging sensibilities, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for people who have such little regard for human life. For Bonnie and Clyde, cops were symbols of authority to be destroyed — not living, thinking human beings. It feels like director Arthur Penn wants us to play along with the conceit to really get the full enjoyment out of the movie, but that’s not something I felt comfortable with.

Reading up on the movie, it seems that its inclusion in the list is largely due to what it did for American cinema at the time. The Hollywood studio system was in serious trouble, and this was the first movie in a while to come out of it that mimicked the European sensibility that was catching on at the time. Bonnie and Clyde came out of practically nowhere to be a tremendous hit for Warner Bros. It introduced a slew of innovations for the movies that came after it, and set the stage for a more naturalistic style that seemed to be the hallmark of the 70s, at least to me. Not bad for a movie that was released in the late 60s.

Rating: 7/10.

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