Bonnie and Clyde: Robbing Banks and Stealing Our Hearts

         Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn and released in 1967, received ten Academy Award nominations. Though it was based on events, which occurred in the 1930s, the film seemed less about this era and seemed to focus on the morality of violent dissent against oppressive social order within the 1960s. When the movie was first released, critics bashed this film, claiming that it was a gratuitously bloody, violent gangster film. Time magazine later printed a retraction and ran a long story of the virtues of the film’s plot, characters, and hailed its success.

         Based on the story of real life criminals Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), the film tells the story of the infamous small-time bank robbers. Bonnie and Clyde fell in love during the Great Depression and go on a spree of bank robberies and killings. Along the way they are joined by a younger boy (Michael J. Pollard) and Clyde’s brother and his wife (Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons). Their targets were not the common working man but rather authority and “the system.” During one bank robbery Clyde asks a man inside the bank if it is his money or the bank’s money on the counter. When the man replies that it is his money, Clyde tells him that he will not take it. Clyde wants to rob the establishment but does not take from his fellow man. Due to the sympathy they showed for their fellow common man, Bonnie and Clyde became national folk heroes in the process.

         Bonnie and Clyde, was one of the first films to depict this type of anti-establishment heroes, and this was historically significant because it depicted the climate in America within the late 1960s.

         Another aspect that makes this film significant in cinema is the way Bonnie and Clyde are killed at the end of the film. The death scene was filmed using four cameras running at different speeds and with different lenses. The footage was then intercut into a complex montage that gives the death sequence an almost unbearable intensity. The viewer, through the storyline and dialogue, has been conditioned to like these characters. The two heroes of sorts are not simply killed but ripped apart and annihilated by machine gun slugs. From the start of the ambush to the final gunshot, Bonnie and Clyde and writhing around, and we see slugs penetrating the car in a rapid-fire style. The viewer knows that this pair has killed numerous innocent people along the way but yet still identifies with Bonnie and Clyde. The violence used within this film was quite graphic for its time. As discussed in class, this depiction of violence had a more realistic quality than many of the American horror films produced in recent years.

         Bonnie and Clyde become more than murderers to the audience. The viewer watches their courtship and feels a connection to their dreams of prosperity and building a better life. Even once the killings begin there are many moments filled with humor that allow the viewer to empathize with the killers. This film has been referred to as a gangster film in numerous literature and critiques; however, it is better described as a drama or action film with comedic moments. The comedy allows the viewer to escape the seriousness of the struggles on screen. During a particularly violent moment, the “gang” is involved in a shootout with police. The viewer witnesses a police officer being shot, but the next scene the screen is filled with Estelle Parsons running down the street toward the getaway car screaming and flailing her arms. The audience is forced to laugh as this continues, and her performance pulls the audience away from the violence it has witnessed to the sheer hilarity of such a situation.

         Although contemporary audiences may identify with the film slightly differently, Bonnie and Clyde was a revolutionary film for the late 1960s.

Tara Wagner

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