Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is one of very few films with a legitimate claim to have revolutionised the American film industry. Along with The Graduate (1967) and Cool Hand Luke (1967), it enjoys a reputation as one of the harbingers of New Hollywood. Bonnie and Clyde not only typified the subject matter that appealed to young audiences it demonstrated to the powerhouse studios of what we now refer to as Old Hollywood, which were largely still entrenched in traditional film-making, that their approach to storytelling was in irreversible decline. Warren Beatty, who both starred as Clyde Barrow and produced the film, described it as “the death knell of the studio system, and the rise of anarchy in the troops.” But although it granted film-makers a license to defy studio constraints, Bonnie and Clyde’s revolution was short-lived, and trends similar to those which had allowed New Hollywood to flourish soon compelled studios to replace it with still another kind of film-making.
The plot is simple - Bonnie Parker (played by Faye Dunaway) and former inmate Clyde Barrow meet in an obscure Texan town and set out to rob banks. They ensnare C. W. Moss, a gas station attendant, and are later joined by Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife Blanche, forming the Barrow Gang. They are pursued across the Deep South, becoming national celebrities in the process. After several robberies and weathering multiple gunfights with the police, a trap is set for them, and the eponymous duo are killed.
It may seem odd that Bonnie and Clyde, a story about two bank-robbers, could exert such influence on the film industry, but it was immediately recognised as trouble for the Hollywood establishment. After being shown an early cut of the film, the head of Warner Bros., Jack Warner, supposedly made a remark which encapsulated both the disapproval and bemusement of Old Hollywood: “What the f*** is this?”
Much of the film’s subsequent acclaim has stemmed from its confronting Old Hollywood’s aversion to realism, in particular its reluctance to depict violence. In an interview given long after the film’s release, director Arthur Penn refers to the Motion Picture Production Code, a now notorious industry document containing stipulations and restrictions regarding the content of studio films. Penn tells us, “The old studio system […] had these rules, for instance, where you couldn’t even fire a gun in the same frame [sic] with somebody getting hit. You had to have […] a film cut in between. […] So I thought […] we should show what it looks like when somebody gets shot, that shooting somebody is not a sanitised event, it is not immaculate. There’s an enormous amount of blood, there’s an enormous amount of horror”. As a result of Penn’s insistence on authenticity and realism, and his flagrant disregard for the MPPC, Bonnie and Clyde distinguished itself from Old Hollywood, and most of its contemporaries, through its violence and bloodshed. The infamous scene in which Clyde shoots a bank manager in the head is but one example. There is a moment when Blanche bleeds from her eyes after a window is smashed in her face. Beatty even claims that the closing scene in which Bonnie and Clyde are machine-gunned to death “was as violent a piece of film as had ever been in the movies”.
Closely associated with its violence is Bonnie and Clyde’s editing. ‘Dede’ Allen, who learned her trade cutting advertisements and short promotional films, devised a combination of editing techniques which shared a likeness with the films of the French New Wave, but which was antithetical to the dominant industry style in America. She frequently utilised disorientating jump-cuts and pre-lapping, the technique of running the sound of a new scene before the cut has been made, to create a more hectic, restless pace- “more the style of this ragamuffin group of bank robbers”, as she described it. During the gun-fights, dozens upon dozens of cuts are made in rapid succession, baffling the audience as to where characters are standing, where they are moving, and who is firing at who. Allen also overlays the film’s sound, heaping the clatter of crashing cars, splitting wood and smashing glass over the actors’ voices to further immerse the audience in the chaos of the cross-fire.
Even the racier aspects of Old Hollywood tropes like the seductive femme fatale, or the glamorised alure of doomed infidelities and crimes of passion, are undermined by Bonnie and Clyde’s astounding frankness when discussing sexual themes, another feature which it shares with the films of the French New Wave - Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) for instance, or Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). This transgression is manifested in the couple’s dysfunctional romance which they are unable to consummate - while squatting for the night in an abandoned building, Bonnie attempts oral sex and discovers that Clyde is impotent, and later ridicules him for his sexual inadequacy.
Bonnie and Clyde’s divergence from Old Hollywood is demonstrated most effectively by the differences between its two leading ladies, with Blanche embodying many of the otiose aspects of Old Hollywood. She is prim, prudish and squeamish. She becomes hysterical at the sight of blood and the sounds of gunfire. She is mortified by the sight of Moss in his undergarments. During her first encounter with the police, she ends up uselessly crawling around in the street, wailing and screaming gibberish in every direction, and needs to be rescued after the others have already escaped arrest. Bonnie, however, routinely engages in gunfights alongside Clyde, C. W. and Buck, and unlike Blanche, her sangfroid is never perturbed until she is shot through the shoulder late in the film. Bonnie also enters the banks to commit the robberies herself - meanwhile, Blanche waits in the car, out of sight and out of harm’s way.
Besides her fearlessness, and a scandalous lack of remorse for her crimes, Bonnie’s lack of sexual inhibitions revolutionised how female characters could be depicted in Hollywood films. Whereas Blanche, a demure preacher’s daughter, strives to be a model of propriety and poise, Bonnie opens the film by shouting to Clyde from her bedroom window, her nakedness concealed only by the cloudy glass. Later, she and Clyde make love in a field beside their stolen car. Bonnie also famously goes the whole film without wearing a bra, and frequently appears dressed in chic frocks and her iconic beret.
The action of Bonnie and Clyde amounts to little more than a squalid and inglorious, and fairly aimless, trek through the Deep South during The Great Depression of the 1930s. Signs of privation are conspicuous throughout the film. At their first meeting, Clyde follows Bonnie down streets lined by boarded-up windows. They take shelter in abandoned buildings. Late in the film, Moss drives through a shanty town built by scavenging vagrants. Even Bonnie and Clyde’s robberies are impeded by economic circumstances. Shortly after they first set out as a duo, Clyde swaggers into a bank with his pistol drawn, only to be told, “There ain’t no money here, mister. […] We bailed three weeks ago.” Later, he tips out the paltry takings of the Gang’s recent heist and puffs, “Ain’t much, is it?” “Well, times is hard”, Buck reminds him.
It was largely a combination of this bleak setting of the Depression and the central couple’s reaction to their circumstances which generated what Penn calls a “groundswell among the young people in the country about this movie”. He explains that although the situation explored in Bonnie and Clyde did not directly correlate with the crises faced by America during the 1960s, it resonated with the indignation and discontent of a youth audience familiar with race riots, the civil rights movement, assassinations, and anti-war demonstrations. He suggests that many film-goers watching Bonnie and Clyde’s struggle to thrive amidst the Depression saw “an analogous situation in their own lives.” As a result, many viewers felt a solidarity with the couple who, it was construed, had resorted to crime through desperation. Penn describes them simply as, “two people who had a response to a social condition that was intolerable,” and as such, they became figureheads of youth rebellion and anti-authoritarianism.
It should be noted, however, that Bonnie and Clyde was not unique in this, since the popular response to all film trends depends largely upon cultural, social, or economic factors. The Italian Neo-Realist films of the 1940s and early ‘50s, for instance, had little appeal for the ordinary Italian cinema-goer during the ‘Economic Miracle’ which rehabilitated the country after the Second World War. Rather than films like Roma città aperta (1945), set in Nazi-occupied Rome, or Germania anno zero (1948), in the derelict ruins of war-time Berlin, audiences were more receptive to films which were not only reflective of the optimism engendered by this financial resurgence, but which freely depicted Italians enjoying their new wealth and improved lifestyles. It was this climate which beckoned films showcasing bourgeoise ostentation and excess like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960).The British ‘kitchen sink’ dramas suffered a similar fate. Usually following the plight of working-class protagonists, and almost invariably set in dismal, industrial environments, they effectively went extinct after the release of This Sporting Life (1963). They were succeeded, however, by more exuberant British films such as the James Bond franchise, which instead flaunted the exotic, globe-trotting adventures of a raffish secret agent.
With these examples in mind, it is important to realise that although certain social and cultural circumstances can account for Bonnie and Clyde’s reception, they also illustrate why New Hollywood diminished as a phenomenon. One should not generalise, but as the 1970s progressed, one of the dominant trends was audiences’ preferences shifting towards escapism and fantasy, and away from the realism which had become more prevalent since the late 1960s. As a result, New Hollywood ceded much of its popular appeal to what became known as block-busters, and executives invested in films more akin to Jaws (1975), Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and Superman (1978), as opposed to Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970).
But we ought not to attribute New Hollywood’s brief vogue solely to the advent of another new industry fashion. We should point out that several of the heroes of New Hollywood bungled the opportunities afforded them by the new culture within the film-making industry, and produced films which transpired to be disasters of such magnitude that they reversed much of the progress initiated by Bonnie and Clyde. One example is Dennis Hopper, whose directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969), was another early trailblazer of New Hollywood. However, the three-year production of The Last Movie (1971), his second film as director, was a debacle which culminated in its withdrawal from theatres two weeks after its release. Hopper was effectively disowned by major studios, and did not direct again for nearly a decade. Another example is Michael Cimino, Oscar-winning director of The Deer Hunter (1978), whose career was ruined irreparably after Heaven’s Gate (1980)- costing an estimated $44 million to make, its catastrophic box office performance eventually forced parent company Transamerica Corporation to sell United Artists. It was instances like these which not only deterred industry executives from investing in New Hollywood talent, but prompted them to re-establish their rigid creative control - film-makers were once again made accountable to a conservative, unforgiving studio system.
Beatty, however, was less reckless than his colleagues. More than a decade after Bonnie and Clyde, he masterminded Reds (1981), one of the last great achievements of New Hollywood. It was another landmark, one which broached controversial subject matter, much like its predecessor, but which also became an example of how film-makers could not just challenge, but manipulate Hollywood institutions. As Peter Biskind, one of Beatty’s biographers, puts it, “the biggest Hollywood star of the 1970s had given the Gone With the Wind treatment to the Russian Revolution and the formation of the American Communist Party- and gotten a big studio, Paramount, to pay for it.”
During an interview promoting Shampoo (1975), Beatty was asked, “Do you have any thoughts about Bonnie and Clyde now that it proved to be so popular and started so many trends in the United States? Are you still very proud of it?” He replied, “Yeah, it’s a good movie.” Perhaps conscious of his recent project being upstaged, Beatty understates Bonnie and Clyde’s influence, but history is in no doubt. Its violence was emulated by films such as The Wild Bunch (1969), Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). Bonnie became an archetype for women in American films, and Dunaway’s risqué wardrobe made her a fashion icon. Allen was made to wait a little longer for vindication. In her own words, “I never got recognised for that picture by my peers […] because they really thought it was the worst cut picture they had ever seen. Until they began to copy it”. But it is Penn who best encapsulates everything that his masterpiece accomplished: “The walls came tumbling down after Bonnie and Clyde. All the things that were concrete began to just fall away.”
All quotes used in this article can be found in the following sources:
Bonnie and Clyde (1967), dir. Arthur Penn, Warner Bros.
Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (2010), Peter Biskind, Simon and Schuster UK Ltd.