“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”
In the early days of cinema there were no real restrictions. Some filmmakers pushed the envelope of tastefulness a little too far, resulting in the Motion Picture Production Code, which dictated moral standards in film from 1930 to the late 60s. Ask someone today to describe an “old-fashioned” movie, and they’ll probably end up describing this code. By the late 60s, enforcing the code became too cumbersome, so the MPAA began working on rolling out movie ratings to replace it—granting filmmakers many new freedoms that had not been available for almost 40 years. Films quickly came out that exercised this new freedom; but the first film to really use that freedom artfully was Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn (Night Moves, Little Big Man) and starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, this movie shocked audiences with graphic violence and discussion of sexuality. It’s actually rather tame by today’s standards; but when it came out, there had never been another movie like it.
The plot is based on the real-life criminal duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who went on a bank-robbing spree across the Midwest for a few years. Bonnie is an intelligent young waitress in a small town looking for a ticket out. She meets criminal Clyde, just out of prison, and quickly attaches herself to him and his exciting lifestyle. When Clyde’s crooked past and Bonnie’s yearning for a more exciting life come together, they get a gang together and start robbing banks. They quickly become folk heroes as well as outlaws, sending pictures and poems to newspapers to publish. The law is less sympathetic and puts more and more effort into catching them as they get away time after time.
You go home and sit in your room and think, “When and how will I ever get away from this?” And now you know.
The story is deep and compelling and the performances are great (each member of the gang got nominated for an academy award that year). But the best part of the movie is without a doubt Faye Dunaway’s performance as Bonnie Parker. Bonnie is a small-town girl with much larger aspirations—she wants to get out and be this famous, larger-than-life anti-hero that everyone adores. Sending photos and poems to the newspapers is all her doing, and we see her light up when an opportunity to be famous presents itself. She quickly realizes that most members of the gang are simply in it for the money, which frustrates her intellectual aspirations and provides a deeper level of conflict in the movie. She’s a complex, sympathetic, and tragic character, and Dunaway does an amazing job bringing all of this to life.
The real-life Bonnie and Clyde were hated by law enforcement, but loved by pretty much everyone else. They truly were both famous and infamous. People disapproved of their actions, of course, but always jumped at the chance to read new stories about them. Remember, this film was probably the first major film to portray criminals in a sympathetic light, and it does this exceedingly well—I loved Bonnie and Clyde, and seeing them escape justice never failed to bring a smile to my face. I admittedly haven’t done enough research to know how much of the film actually happened, but if the real-life duo was even half as charming as they were in the film, I can see how they became so famous so quickly.
Bonnie and Clyde is both a great classic film and a fun little piece of cinema history. In many ways, this is the movie that ushered in the modern era of filmmaking. The sympathetic anti-hero is very common now, but it was this film that showed that that formula could not only sell, but tell a great story as well. The movie is rated R and is probably too much for most kids, but older teens and adults will probably love it. Whether you’re a Bonnie and Clyde historian or don’t know anything about them, this movie will make a fan out of you.
Director: Arthur Penn