I used to run a movie for the final quarter of class at my current job, and I’d generally go for some classic to discuss with the students that they maybe weren’t familiar yet. One year I went with Bonnie and Clyde, and one of my two sections had an interesting reaction to the film’s two stars. Warren Beatty was repeatedly referred to as “Bullworth” because apparently some of the kids in there had seen that one (I still haven’t). Faye Dunaway, however, they thought was a very attractive woman. Knowing a bit of Dunaway’s age and her reputation for plastic surgery and how superficial 18 year old men can be, I suggested they not look up what she looks like now. Sure enough, someone did, and he reacted, let’s say, loudly.
But beyond that, this bunch really liked the film.
And hey, what’s not to like? Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker is lounging around naked in her dingy and dinky Texas farmhouse. It’s the Depression, she hates her job waiting tables, and she’s clearly what might be called working poor. She hears a noise outside and spots Beatty’s Clyde Barrow trying to steal her mother’s car. Rather than stop him, she asks what he’s up to, likes the cut of his jib, gets dressed, and helps him out. They don’t even exchange names right away, but one thing is clear: the entire point of Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree is not to hurt people. It’s to have fun and maybe inadvertently stick it to the man. Sure, Clyde has a gun, but even before the two of them have pulled their first bank job, let alone their first successful one, they each take a moment to proudly proclaim, “We rob banks.”
It’s only when Clyde shoots a bank manager in the face during a bad getaway, caused by their getaway driver, the youthful C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), being bad at parallel parking, that things get a little less fun, and even then there’s plenty of fun to be had for our antiheroes, even as the gang grows to include Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s often hysterical new wife Blanche (Oscar winning Estelle Parsons).
On a side note, there are so many great performances in this film, I find it a little odd that one day, while watching an old episode of Star Trek that featured Pollard to have my dad wander in, recognize him, and tell me Pollard stole the show on Bonnie and Clyde despite being surrounded by better actors. I hadn’t seen Bonnie and Clyde yet by that point, but since I have, well, I wouldn’t say Pollard is bad in the role by any stretch of the imagination, but I likewise wouldn’t say he stole the show. The two leads, Parsons, and Hackman are all his equals in terms of performance. Heck, Parsons earned that Oscar playing an essentially unlikable character who under normal circumstances would be some sort of rain on their eternal parade. Blanche is never useful during the course of their crimes, she never quite accepts the criminal lifestyle, and she has one of the more tragic endings of the gang, but it takes a certain talent to be that obnoxious and not hate-able.
And that’s basically what most of this film is: five criminals who are hard to hate. They are certainly capable of committing large acts of violence, and both the Barrow brothers realize they’re doomed when they each kill a man. After that, well, the course is set. The press exaggerates their crimes, but that’s more of a mild annoyance. Bonnie, dressed more like a 1960s radical than a 1930s outlaw, probably sees her biggest problem being Clyde’s odd erectile dysfunction. Clyde thinks the two can settle down someday when they have enough money and raise a family. It’s hard to say what the end game for Buck and Blanche are, but it probably isn’t Buck dead in a ditch and Blanche blind and insane in police custody. C.W. gets to live as a (probably) free man if he can live with himself why he gets to live, but Bonnie and Clyde never get that. Despite how the press in-story treats them, they’re never a particularly dangerous or violent pair, using gunplay only in self-defense. The fact that the gang is so good with guns and the occasional hand grenade is more like a weird coincidence than anything else. They’re glamorous, famous, and they rob banks.
But there is a dark side to the film that raises its ugly head from time to time. That comes out more and more often as the film progresses, symbolically changing when the gang steals a car from a young man who chases after them with his girlfriend in her car until he realizes the thieves might be armed and opts to turn around. The gang then turns around themselves and forcibly picks up the couple. The man, Eugene, goes from fiery to cowardly at the drop of the hat, and it’s a great comedic role, appropriate since it is the film debut for the actor, one Gene Wilder. Everything seems to be going fine, Eugene and Velma are getting along with the gang, and then someone asks Eugene what he does for a living. His answer? Undertaker. And that’s when Bonnie, perhaps most sensitive to the coming deaths of most of the gang, tells the two to get out of the car.
And from there, the gang falls. Buck dies, Blanche is caught, and C.W. is forcibly persuaded by his father to abandon his two heroes. And even then, there’s still a lightheartedness to Bonnie and Clyde’s banter, as Clyde opts to ride around with a pair of sunglasses missing one lens, the two have finally made love, and then they get caught in an ambush led by Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazard. They had humiliated that Texas Ranger earlier, and he more than got them back in a manner that seems not so much an “eye for an eye” so much as a “series of internal organs for an eye”.
That, in a nutshell, is Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a lighthearted romance interspersed with sudden, sometimes shocking violence, and a gradual feeling of doom sliding over the proceedings, all set to some jaunty banjo music. It’s the 30s gangster film mishmashed with 60s counterculture. It’s the sort of film that is a product of its time and place and still timeless. It’s a blast of fun and a kick to the head. It’s just an example of what great film making can be.
NEXT UP: We’re back to one of my all-time favorite directors with Stanley Kubrick’s incredibly broad political satire, 1964’s Dr. Strangelove.