Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director: Arthur Penn
Screenwriters: David Newman, Robert Benton
Cast: Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons
Nominations: Picture, Director – Arthur Penn, Actor – Warren Beatty, Actress – Faye Dunaway, Supporting Actor – Gene Hackman, Supporting Actor – Michael J. Pollard, Supporting Actress – Estelle Parsons, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design
Wins: Supporting Actress – Estelle Parsons, Cinematography

The transition from sepia-toned period photographs to Bonnie Parker’s soft, sensuous lips is our first indication that Bonnie and Clyde will not be a typical Warner Bros. gangster film of the past.  As the film progresses, that indication has become fact: while the fates of the main characters follow along the genre’s traditions, the story itself establishes revisionist tropes and conventions that subsequent films will come to rely upon.  On top of resetting the gangster genre, the film and its director, Arthur Penn, helped open the door to the New Hollywood film movement that would dominate much of American filmmaking in the 1970s.  The explicit sexuality and violence—mostly tame by today’s standards—was unexpected, intriguing, and fundamentally profound, not only regarding what filmmakers could depict on screen but what mainstream audiences would find acceptable in the films they choose.

Similar to The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), Bonnie and Clyde offers a sexually powerful and confident female character unlike any from the studio era.  This breach of social mores, in which the woman pursues a lover with assertiveness, possibly stems from observations in Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, a text that played a role in igniting second-wave feminism.  While Mrs. Robinson better fits the archetype and descriptions Friedan covers, Bonnie represents the younger generation’s desire to become independent, self-reliant, and unafraid.  Instead of, for example, getting turned off from Clyde when he reveals he’s just been released from state prison, Bonnie encourages him to prove his moral maleficence.

What’s interesting is how the endeavor excites her, but seemingly has no effect on Clyde.  Bonnie is more like the main characters of the 1930s gangster movies than Clyde in that she—more than the others in the gang—uses crime as way to escape poverty and a dead-end life.  Unfortunately, the opportunity to climb the social ladder via a life of crime is practically non-existent, so perhaps her choices are more to do with just plain having a life.  After all, what end is there for an uneducated waitress in the middle of Texas during the Great Depression?  The chance to even taste something greater and bigger is a far stronger pull than the alternative for anyone.

Clyde, on the other hand, comes across as put off by his bandit ways.  Upon meeting Bonnie, he tells her that he’s looking for “more suitable employment”—the implication that even though he may have been interested in stealing Bonnie’s mother’s car it may have been more to go somewhere with better chances of finding work than just to steal a car.  This isn’t, to be sure, meant to clear Clyde of any wrongdoing, but is more of an observation of how some people we meet can change everything we’ve planned for.  Clyde could have just as easily as quit robbing banks as easily as he decided to rob them.  That’s why we talk about Bonnie and Clyde and not just Bonnie Parker or the Parker gang.

In addition to playing with the characters’ gender dynamics, the film opens up a new level of on-screen violence in American film.  The first death we see is of the bank manager getting shot in the eye through his glasses (no doubt an homage to the Odessa steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin [1925]). 

The graphicness of the deaths only increases from there, culminating in what remains even today as one of the most brutal and vicious death scenes in film history.  The camera is unflinching and compromising in its composition of the end of Bonnie and Clyde.  By intercutting slow motion shots, the sequence is given an ethereal feeling.  These characters are not just dying: they’re transcending time and space, given an immortality in both film and life.