The Impacts of Bonnie and Clyde

         In 1967, the world was left in a state of shock by the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. This film marked a turning point in cinematic history, with its realistic violence, sexual references, and revolutionary symbolism. Unlike previous films that had portrayed death and violence in a rather light way, treating the human body more like a doll than a true embodiment of flesh and emotion, Bonnie and Clyde depicted its characters as overtly realistic and expressive. Through the incorporation of gangster tradition and the stylistic influences of film noir, Bonnie and Clyde not only stunned audiences with its harsh violence but also alluded to the reality of revolutionary darkness that was occurring in Vietnam at the time (Cook 853, 415).

         Bonnie and Clyde was a film based on the true story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who were lovers, murderers, and partners in crime during the 1930s. Set in the Midwest during the Depression, this film examines the emotional, sympathetic angle of the infamous couple’s lifestyle (Cook 849). This film focuses on the personal aspects of the couple, including their love affair, their longing to “beat the system,” and their genuine desire to rob banks and “establishments” without having to harm anyone. Unlike previous films that depicted gangsters in a heartless, dark manner, Bonnie and Clyde portrayed the couple as having emotions, dreams, and goals. Perhaps it is this humane portrayal of the pair that makes the murderous end of the film appear so cruel and appalling.

         The most controversial part of Bonnie and Clyde is the final scene in which the police ambush the couple with machine guns and riddle their bodies with bullets. For the first time in cinematic history, the body was treated in a very tactile and realistic way. For one, the entire scene was shot in slow motion, making it exponentially dramatic. Also, when the bullets made contact with the bodies, they actually caused blood to spurt forth. This differs greatly from previous films where gun wounds were depicted as slowly oozing blood, and death was a mild condition that came silently and harmlessly. In addition, in the dramatic closing scene of Bonnie and Clyde, the couple's bodies thrust and swayed in a horrific dance of death. The couple’s death seemed to be portrayed in an almost sensual way with the twisting and pitching of the bodies. Here, the human body is no longer a mannequin to be treated carefully, but rather it is one of flesh, expression, and physicality (Cook 853, 849, 853).

         The corporeal handling of the bodies in Bonnie and Clyde was seen as extremely violent for the time, although it actually opened the doors for more realistic cinematic effects. Many criticized the final death scene, feeling that it was completely overdone and drawn out. However, Penn’s depiction of the scene was in fact based on reality and portrayed the true death of Bonnie and Clyde. It seemed that audiences were not used to being shown the dark truths of death and murder, usually watching films in which deaths occurred off camera or were unrealistically tranquil. Bonnie and Clyde was not created as an excuse to present needless violence, but rather it was meant to be truthful. This film was meant to uncover things that often go untold or unseen, and in order to successfully accomplish this it came at the cost of shock and horror (Cook 853).

         The film noir movement in France during the 1940s inspired this idea of exposing truths, no matter how dark or shocking. Film noir aimed at uncovering things that were often overlooked or kept from the public. For example, the truth about gangsters and the war during this time were often kept secretive, leaving the public blinded to the real horrors that occurred. Arthur Penn incorporated similar techniques in Bonnie and Clyde, revealing the sensuality and violence that coincided with the infamous couple’s story. In addition, Penn intended to make subtle references to the fact that many things were kept hidden from the public about the Vietnam War that was taking place (Cook 853, 376, 853).

         Despite the use of violence and horror in previous films, nothing seemed to compare to that depicted in Bonnie and Clyde. Certainly its realistic nature and exposure played a major role in its shock factor. However, the way in which Bonnie and Clyde were portrayed in this film also played a huge role in the tragic quality of the film. The couple is depicted as being emotional, driven, and sensitive to issues such as family and taking from the rich to give to the poor. Bonnie and Clyde were also shown as being in love, each holding concern for the other. Furthermore, the viewer is aware of the humorous side of the two characters, with their situational irony and satirical banter. The culmination of these attributes generates a sense of compassion and understanding for the character. Unlike gangsters portrayed in previous films, Bonnie and Clyde appear human, holding a wide breadth of emotions from love and fear, to compassion and enthusiasm (Cook 848). It is quite easy for the audience to sympathize with the characters by the end of the film. This connection created between the characters and the audience only heightens the horrific nature of their death. If Bonnie and Clyde had been portrayed as heartless people, their death would have been almost welcome. However, because Bonnie and Clyde were depicted as normal people that made a few bad decisions, the gunning down of their bodies came as a harsh and uninvited shock to all.

         In many ways, the depiction of violence and the portrayal of so-called gangsters and villains was forever changed after Bonnie and Clyde. Death was no longer treated as something that had to be hidden or demure but was rather shown truthfully, no matter how violent or jarring. Films began including things that were once hidden and kept from the audience, which opened the door for more explicit violence and sexuality. In addition, films following Bonnie and Clyde occasionally adhere to a similar portrayal of the villain in order to spark sympathy in the audience. Overall, Bonnie and Clyde opened many doors for the realistic portrayal of life and death, which in turn invited an increased incorporation of violence and sexuality in films.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2004.

Jenny Meier

Table of Contents