50 Years Ago This Week – Bonnie and Clyde Rocks the Film World
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde made its debut in August 1967, screening first at the Montreal Film Festival on August 4 before premiering in New York City nine days later. A fictionalized account of the notorious depression-era outlaws, the film, starring Warren Beatty (who also produced), Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman would become a sensation, landing on the cover of Time magazine as representative of a “New Cinema”—what would become known as The New Hollywood.
Although not likely apparent to first-time viewers today, Bonnie and Clyde set new on-screen standards for the portrayal of sexuality and violence—and it shattered what had been the ultimate taboo of the Production Code Administration: moral ambiguity. (Had the PCA retained its once-formidable authority, the film could not have been made). Dunaway’s Bonnie is brazenly sexualized, and in a non-traditional take on the Hollywood “meet-cute” she is plainly aroused by Clyde’s criminal bravado. Their relationship is thus complicated by the fact the Clyde is impotent—despite Bonnie’s best efforts, which include an allusion to oral sex (another previously taboo subject), the depiction of which Dunaway described as “a direct Homage” to a similar (and similarly scandalous) move by Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s The Lovers. (In David Newman and Robert Benton’s original treatment for the film, Clyde was bisexual and the Barrow gang a ménage-à-trois, but as the project developed this was rejected as too much for ask of viewers in 1967, especially as the film was already going out on a limb trying to have the audience identify with outlaw killers. Hints of this discarded element can be seen at times during the movie, and especially in a few scenes that did not make the film’s final cut.)
Bonnie and Clyde’s presentation of violence was even more revolutionary than the (still more suggested than shown) sex. As introduced first, shockingly, by the Barrow gang but increasingly and overwhelmingly by the forces of law and order culminating in the finale in which our heroes are ambushed and murdered by the police under a hail of machine gun fire, the graphic depiction of blood, pain and bullets pushed aside longstanding Hollywood norms (the contributions of editor Dede Allen were here essential)—and raised important debates about the responsible portrayal of on-screen violence which are now less discussed but remains a fundemental issue for filmmakers and their audiences.
But to focus on the salacious is to miss the crucial role of Bonnie and Clyde in linking the spirit of the French New Wave with the thematic aspirations of the emerging New Hollywood. Newman and Benton were steeped on the ethos of the Nouvelle Vague, which “allowed us to write with a more complex morality, more ambiguous characters, more sophisticated relationships.” Indeed, they were “specifically writing it for Truffaut,” and they met with the French director in New York in March 1964. Truffaut was effusive in his praise for the “excellent script,” but ultimately wrote his regrets in September, adding that he had passed the screenplay on to Godard, “convinced he would be absolutely the man for the job.” Godard wired Truffaut that he was “in love with Bonnie and Clyde,” but not long after had a falling out with the film’s then-producers, and the project languished.
Enter Warren Beatty, who, on Truffaut’s recommendation, bought the rights to the film. He hired Penn to direct (an inspired choice, Beatty and Penn had previously collaborated on the New Wave inspired, ahead of its time Mickey One), brought in Robert Towne to polish the screenplay, and had enough juice to get a green light from Warner Brothers. All hands were in agreement with what they hoped to achieve—a film about the past that was alive with the politics of the present. “Let’s face it: Kennedy was shot. We’re in Vietnam, shooting people and getting shot,” Penn stated at the time. “So why not make films about it.” The director saw “an implicit connection between the film and the Vietnam war,” and Clyde’s death was designed to echo images of the Kennedy Assassination. Benton and Newman were explicit about the movie’s generational politics—as Benton put it, “our sympathies are with Bonnie and Clyde.” According to Newman, the tattoo of gang member C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) was designed to underscore this generational theme. “Just as our parents were ‘offended’ by long hair . . . rock and roll, smoking pot . . . we reflected this by inventing the tattoo on C.W.’s chest,” he explained. “This is what offends his father, not that he broke the law.” Because of that “and only that” Newman insisted, C.W.’s father “rats out” Bonnie and Clyde.
Now recognized as a watershed film (about which you can read much more in two fine books by Lester Friedman, as well as here and here), Bonnie and Clyde might have easily slipped by unnoticed. Studio head Jack Warner hated the picture, and was disinclined to put much effort into its promotion. And many of the early reviews were scathing. Bosley Crowther, the grand old man at the New York Times, excoriated the movie in a dispatch from the Montreal film festival, disdaining it as a “callous and callow” film that was “another indulgence of a restless and reckless taste,” and “an embarrassing addition to an excess of violence on the screen.” Other established critics loathed it as well – the Chicago Tribune trashed the film and its “glamorized killers”; John Simon dismissed it as “puerile antihero worship” – but no one hated it as much as Crowther. The following week when the movie opened in New York he set forth with a second review, castigating “the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were . . . full of fun and frolic,” and heaping disgust on Beatty’s “clowning” and Dunaway for “squirming grossly” as Clyde’s “sex-starved moll.” Still not done, three weeks later Crowther returned to the film to pronounce “the bare and ugly truth” that “Mr. Penn, his writers, and Mr. Beatty” have produced a “garish, grotesque film.”
But Crowther’s days as a taste-maker were numbered, as a new generation of critics, speaking to a new cohort of film-goers, was emerging. A few weeks after Crowther’s third salvo, twenty-five year old Roger Ebert, on the job at the Chicago Sun Times for less than six months, opened his review by declaring Bonnie and Clyde “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.” The film is “aimed squarely and unforgivingly at the time we are living in.” The violence may indeed be shocking, but “perhaps at this time, it is useful to be reminded that bullets really do tear skin and bone.” One month later, Pauline Kael pounded out over 8,000 words in defense of Bonnie and Clyde (and of a more ambitious American cinema), in a career making turn that would establish her as one of the most influential critics in the country. Within months Crowther was eased out as chief critic at the Times, replaced by Renata Adler, then twenty nine.
Looking back on the film ten years later, in a long, thoughtful piece, Crowther offered a more nuanced assessment, and acknowledged many of the films strengths, but maintained his disapproval: “No film turned out in the 1960s was more clever in registering the amoral restlessness of youth in those years.” Bonnie and Clyde was successful, he held, because it gratified “the preconceptions and illusions of young people who had come of age with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the philosophy of doing your own thing and the notion that defying the Establishment was beautiful and brave.”
Meet Cute, New Hollywood Style
Every Picture Tells a Story
On the Run
Not Much of a Lover
Buck Barrow Joins the Gang
A Moment of Comic Relief . . . Gene Wilder Cameo
C.W.'s Father is More Shocked by the Tattoo than the Wounded