There is a moment in "Bonnie and Clyde" when Bonnie,
frightened and angry, runs away from Clyde through a field of wheat, and as he
pursues her, a cloud sweeps across the field and shadows them. Seen in a high,
wide-angle shot, it is one of those moments of serendipity given to few movies.
Today the cloud could be generated by computers; on the day the scene was
filmed in Texas, it was a perfectly timed accident of nature.
The cloud carries foreboding; Bonnie and Clyde are doomed, and
uneasily realize it. Not long after that scene, Bonnie has a final reunion with
her mother. By then Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren
Beatty) are famous outlaws, celebrated in the press as populist bank robbers in
an America gripped by the Depression. Bonnie speaks wistfully of marrying Clyde
and moving in next door to her mother. "You live within a mile of me,
honey, and you'll be dead,” her mother flatly pronounces.
They would indeed die, in a hail of bullets that permanently
changed the way the movies depicted violence. But their lives provided a
template that would be used time and again in later films; as the ads put it,
"They're young ... they're in love ... and they kill people.” From
"Bonnie and Clyde" descended "Badlands," "Days of Heaven,"
"Thelma and Louise," "Drugstore Cowboy," "Natural Born Killers" and countless other movies in which ordinary people were
transformed by sudden violence into legend.
"Bonnie and Clyde," made in 1967, was called "the
first modern American film” by critic Patrick Goldstein, in an essay on its
30th anniversary. Certainly it felt like that at the time. The movie opened
like a slap in the face. American filmgoers had never seen anything like it. In
tone and freedom it descended from the French new wave, particularly Francois
Truffaut's own film about doomed lovers, "Jules and Jim.” Indeed, it was
Truffaut who first embraced the original screenplay by David Newman and Robert
Benton, and called it to the attention of Warren Beatty, who was determined to
The legend of the film's production has become almost as famous
as its heroes. Stories are told about how Beatty knelt at the feet of studio
boss Jack Warner, begging for the right to make the film. How Warner saw the
original cut and hated it. How the movie premiered at the Montreal film
festival, and was roasted by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. How Warner
Bros. determined to dump it in a chain of Texas drive-ins, and how Beatty
implored the studio to give it a chance.
How it opened and quickly closed in the autumn of 1967, panned
by the critics, receiving only one ecstatic opening-day newspaper review.
(Modesty be damned: It was my own, calling it "a milestone in the history
of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance" and predicting
"years from now it is quite possible that 'Bonnie and Clyde' will be seen
as the definitive film of the 1960s.")
The movie closed, but would not go away. The soundtrack,
bluegrass by Flatt and Scruggs, went to the top of the charts. Theodora Van
Runkle's berets and maxiskirts for Dunaway started a global fashion craze.
Newsweek critic Joseph Morgenstern famously wrote that his original negative
review had been mistaken. The movie reopened, went on to become one of Warner
Bros.' biggest hits and won 10 nominations (with Oscars for supporting actress
Estelle Parsons and cinematographer Burnett Guffey).
But that is only the success story. More important was the
impact the film had on the American movie industry. Beatty's willingness to
play a violent character with sexual dysfunction was unusual for a traditional
1960s leading man. In a famous Esquire profile by Rex Reed, which appeared as
the movie was opening, he was dismissed as a has-been pretty boy. "Bonnie
and Clyde" put him permanently on the Hollywood map.
Beatty and director Arthur Penn cast the movie mostly with
unknown stage actors--so successfully that all the major players (Dunaway,
Parsons, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Wilder) became stars on the
basis of this film. Behind the camera, the movie launched the careers not only
of Van Runkle, but also of editor Dede Allen (a New Yorker breaking into a
closed shop) and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who went on to work on
Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now." And the cinematography of Guffey launched a whole new wave of its
own, of films shot and edited in the more impressionistic French style.
It was a film in which all of the unlikely pieces were assembled
at the right time. And more than anything else, it was a masterpiece of tone,
in which the actors and filmmakers were all in sync as they moved the material
back and forth between comedy and tragedy.
The opening scenes are lighthearted, starting with Clyde's
bravado after Bonnie catches him trying to steal her mother's car. She senses
in him, instantly, the means of her escape from a boring west Texas town. What
he essentially supplies--for her, for the hero-worshipping gang member C.W.
Moss (Pollard) and for the hungry newspaper readers -- is the possibility of
glamour in lives of drab poverty. "We're the Barrow Gang," Clyde
says, introducing them at the beginning of a bank robbery so they'll be sure to
get credit. And one of the movie's great moments comes as Clyde lends his gun
to a dispossessed black sharecropper so he could shoot at a bank's foreclosure
If Clyde offers glamour, Bonnie offers publicity. She writes
"The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde" and sends it to a newspaper, and she
poses for photos holding a machinegun and a cigar. Clyde's brother Buck
(Hackman) is more level-headed, more concerned with bank jobs than newspaper
headlines. He comes attached to Blanche (Parsons), whose whiny complaints get
on Bonnie's nerves (when agents surround one of their hideouts, she runs
screaming across the lawn, still holding the spatula she was using to cook
Penn directs the film as a series of set-pieces, which remain in
the memory, focused and clear. The Okie camp where homeless farmers, tractored
off their lands by the banks, hunch over campfires. Bonnie's sad, overcast,
foggy family reunion. The bank robbery that goes all wrong when C.W. stupidly
parks the getaway car. The way laughter turns blindingly to violence, as when a
stickup ends with a meat cleaver and a sack of flour, or when a getaway ends
with a bullet in a bank man's face. The run-in with a state trooper (Denver
Pyle) who is made to pose with Bonnie and Clyde, and then unwisely released.
The scene where C.W., a gas station attendant, leaves his job and runs off with
the gang that's just robbed him. The scene where C.W.'s father effortlessly
browbeats his wimpy son for getting a tattoo. And then the slow-motion ballet
of the final execution.
Today, the freshness of "Bonnie and Clyde" has been
absorbed in countless other films, and it's hard to see how fresh and original
it felt in 1967 -- just as the impact of "Citizen Kane," in 1941, may
not be obvious to those raised in the shadow of its influence.
When I saw it, I had been a film critic for less than six
months, and it was the first masterpiece I had seen on the job. I felt an
exhilaration beyond describing. I did not suspect how long it would be between
such experiences, but at least I learned that they were possible.