Masterpiece: Bonnie and Clyde

“Some day they’ll go down together; they’ll bury them side by side,” wrote 23-year-old Bonnie Parker, bank robber, public enemy and part-time poet, in her famous ballad issued shortly before she and boyfriend Clyde Barrow perished in a hail of police gunfire. “To few it’ll be grief — to the law a relief — but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.” The romantic fatalism of their story — two doomed kids in love pitted against an uncaring world — has been a recurrent pop culture motif ever since Parker’s naive verse turned her and Barrow into the media’s original celebrity death catch. From Serge Gainsbourg’s glorifying duet with Brigitte Bardot through 2Pac and Eminem’s fantasy gangsta and Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s ode to bling, “’03 Bonnie And Clyde”, those seeking to align themselves with the dangerous fringe while maintaining the adoration of the public have always returned to the bullet-riddled romance. It’s an us-against-them myth as durable as Jesse James, Brando’s leather jacket or the great American road movie. Small town girl, dashing outsider; serve and repeat.

Maybe it wasn’t quite so. Rumours persist that the real-life Barrow was bisexual (clock the film’s scene in which accomplice C.W. Moss gazes at him in a suggestion of ménage à trois), an inconvenience that would have undermined the Wild West Wanderlust of the idealised straight couple. Director Arthur Penn talked screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton out of such deviant inference, and gave his anti-hero the supposedly more favourable affliction of impotence. “I ain’t much of a lover boy,” confesses Warren Beatty’s Barrow, before qualifying: “I don’t like boys.” He awkwardly resists the sexual aggression of Faye Dunaway’s nymphette Parker; though they later consummate, the circumstances remain very ambiguous.

It was with trepidation that Penn approached the project. The script had originally been offered to François Truffaut, and then to his peer Jean-Luc Godard, whose own À bout de souffle tipped its trilby to Bonnie and Clyde’s love-on-the-run (one of the more enjoyable tales had Godard proposing to shoot the movie in Japan with teenage leads). Certainly their declining the film could be viewed as a passing of the torch to the maverick flock of new American filmmakers; after this, the movie brats would have the mandate to run their iconoclastic, nouvelle vague-inspired auteur dreams through the studio system. Penn was openly distrusting of the studios and likely saw parallels between Bonnie and Clyde’s battle with the law and the emergent “youth” culture’s decade-defining tension with the establishment.

Though the story had been filmed twice before, the social tumult of the late 1960s made Bonnie and Clyde ripe for youthquake reinterpretation. Just as the Great Depression had fostered a dislike of the law and allowed outlaws and gangsters to capture the public imagination, the 1960’s questioning of authority made icons out of the outsider. Unlike the stoned mysticism of acid-laced contemporaries like Easy Rider, however, there was something tougher about Bonnie And Clyde: the way it drew upon the tradition of the Great American Outlaw to herald the end of an innocence — as Bonnie and Clyde knew, death was inevitable and ever-present — that predicted the following decade’s cynical perspective. As Penn recalled: “It was to start as a jaunty little spree in crime, then suddenly turn serious, and finally arrive at a point that was irreversible.”

Still, the movie is as glamorous as it is bleak; as funny as it is violent. The carnal appeal of stars the wattage of Beatty and Dunaway was key; it was Beatty’s first film as producer, displaying his gift for vanity management. The twinkle-eyed Hollywood hunk turned irresistible thug; the killer blonde in side-swept mod fringe and beret… their knockout on-screen chemistry, romanticised and almost Southern-fried cartoonish though it may be, proves captive even as their crime spree grows more indiscriminate. Beatty is charming and intuitive, the very model of the volatile drifter who sweeps in to cure a gal’s small town blues.

Similarly, there’s a playfulness to the film despite the escalating violence (emphasised by the famously building  sound level), as our anti-heroes taunt lawmen and bait the media with antics that wouldn’t look out of place in a Keystone Cops farce. The facile surface of Bonnie and Clyde is initially disorientating, yet it soon reveals its post-modern colours: one moment we’re laughing at Dunaway twirling a lawman’s moustache or the goofy rapport between Beatty and Gene Hackman’s Buck Barrow, the next we’re subjected to bursts of violence, rendered all the more scatological by the jittery editing rhythm. The flippant dialogue of characters immersed in crime draws a direct line to the comic anachronisms of Tarantino’s puppies in True Romance, Pulp Fiction and, most obviously, his story for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The film’s finale is caked in gunfire and splatter, the images of the iconic outsiders abruptly shattered as the bullet-riddled tableau becomes a requiem for misspent youth.

The film was luridly retitled Bonnie and Clyde… Were Killers! for its UK release, a cautionary tactic that only served to underscore its anti-authority cachet. Warner Bros. dumped it as a B-movie onto double-bills in the US, pulling the film in the wake of generally negative, if not hostile, press. Pontificating from the old moral plateau, The New York Times fumed that it was “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick… as pointless as it is lacking in taste.” Then, in her career-making moment, critic Pauline Kael bravely defended the movie, praising the fact that audiences could enjoy the duo’s anti-social behaviour without moral justification; thus arguably paving the way for the modern gangster movie. Bonnie and Clyde would go on to become a hit; Beatty collected 40 per cent of the gross for his troubles (he’d conceded his fee in exchange); and it was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

And so endures the myth. Thanks to Bonnie and Clyde, the facts of the story have been consumed by the romantic allure of cinema, cementing the wrong-for-the-world, right-for-each-other cliché of gangster fantasy as a pop culture perennial. As long as there are bored rebels without causes there’ll be a place for Bonnie And Clyde. As the film’s tagline put it: “They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people.” Who hasn’t wished they could experience that at one time or another?

April 2007

Originally published in Empire

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