A somewhat romanticized account of the career of the notoriously violent bank robbing couple and their gang.
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a ‘classic’ movie, but as I’ve been reading ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, Peter Biskind’s magnum opus of 1970s Hollywood, I’ve felt compelled to go back and watch some of the films discussed that I’ve missed, starting with ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. The backstory behind the making of the film is worth several paragraphs on its own so I was keen to see the film itself. As the title gives away, the film is about the infamous bank robbers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, who terrorised large parts of the central US on a spree involving robbery and murder. For the purposes of the film, the story has been streamlined with several auxiliary members of the Barrow gang excised or combined into one character, allowing the film to focus on Bonnie and Clyde themselves, alongside Clyde’s brother and wife, and a composite character they pick up at a gas station.
The first thing that struck me about the film is how quickly it gets into its groove with minimal set up, and I liked how we learn about Bonnie and Clyde at the same time as they learn about each other. There’s limited rationale for why Clyde is who he is, and for why Bonnie so willingly goes along with it, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway really sell their character’s actions and the chemistry between them literally sizzles on the screen. It’s a film with an escalation narrative and a defined end point so the key is in getting the viewer invested in the story and the characters and Arthur Penn do this successfully, aided of course by the strong central performances. In many respects I preferred the earlier moments when it was just Bonnie and Clyde and there’s a thrilling naivety and abandon to how they brazenly went about their activities, boldly telling anyone they encountered that they robbed banks. In the era of The Great Depression, banks weren’t exactly the most popular businesses and you can see many people willing the robbers on, at least initially. Having seen the excellent ‘Hell or High Water’ earlier this year, also set largely in West Texas, and also about two bank robbers in an era just after a financial crisis, it was interesting noting the parallels albeit both films are very different stylistically.
I felt the film lost something once Clyde’s brother and his wife came on board, and once the first person had been killed by the gang their exploits became less cocksure and more dangerous. Gene Hackman’s good value as Clyde’s brother although I absolutely hated Estelle Parsons as his wife Blanche, and couldn’t believe it when I read she got an Oscar for this shrill and irritating performance! After this point it turns more into a cat and mouse fight between the gang and the authorities, essentially turning into a battle to survive once the noose starts to tighten. The film was heavily criticised at the time for the level of graphic violence on display, and whilst it seems rather tame compared to some modern films, you can see how it would have been unprecedented at the time. It was also criticised for the glorification of murder and violence, which I don’t really agree with – yes, the film displays murder and violence in a graphic and striking fashion, but I do believe it shows the increasing violence of the gang as a reaction to being backed into a corner. Less glorification and more the survival instincts of a group of people with nothing to lose (whether this is a true reflection of real life or not I don’t know, but for the characters in the film I think it’s the case). There’s also an early appearance from Gene Wilder as a man the gang take hostage and he’s great fun at a time when the narrative was getting tenser and tenser.
I enjoyed ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, particularly for the performances from Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, but also for the slick direction and stylistic flourishes to bring the Barrow gang’s crime spree to life. This was perhaps one of the first films of its time to squarely focus on antiheroes with a limited view from the side of the ‘good guys’ and I can imagine it was a big change for audiences of the time. If you fancy reading more about the making of the film, I can highly recommend Peter Biskind’s book if you haven’t read it!
Directed By: Arthur Penn
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, Evans Evans and Gene Wilder