Bonnie and Clyde At 50: How Two Outlaws Changed Cinema Forever

The words of Bonnie Elizabeth Parker, the real-life outlaw who traversed the central states of America with partner Clyde Chestnut Barrow, robbing and killing as they went. During the early 30’s, the notorious couple and their gang of malefactors gained national infamy, their antics and exploits capturing the attention of the public, due in part to both the above poem and a series of photographs found by law enforcement during a raid on one of the gang’s hideouts. Much of the media’s early perception of the pair, enforced by later verses in Bonnie’s poem, was that these were not evil, heartless bandits. They were young and rebellious, living fast and dying young while defying the law and abiding by their own set of rules. And on top of this was a love story for the ages, one that ended the way both of them knew it was going to, poetically gunned down side by side.

In 1967, a controversial gangster film came along and shook up the landscape of Hollywood film production, acting as a trailblazer and paving the way for directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. That film was Bonnie and Clyde, and much like the duo it was based on, it was bold, controversial, enthralling, and charming. Breaking taboos left, right, and center, Arthur Penn’s movie initially provoked widely negative reviews from the vast majority of critics and shocked and appalled many due to its unprecedented visualization of graphic sex, violence, and murder. Many feared that the film was glamorizing violence and that it was dangerous or in poor taste to merge killing with humor, style, and romance, as death was generally treated as a serious matter in the movies and not graphically dwelled upon.

Fortunately, the film connected with the public, proving to be one of the highest-grossing films of the year, garnering multiple Academy Awards and even causing many skeptical film critics to take U-turns and recognize the picture for what it was and is: a masterpiece. Due to censorship in the ways that crime could be depicted on the big screen, directors were restricted on this front, hence the gangster genre’s muted presence throughout the 40’s and 50’s. This is, perhaps, the reason as to why audiences had such a strong reaction to the film; it was daring and reflected the violence occurring in America at the time, a topic that the major film studios did not want to tackle.

Warren Beatty, already a well-known figure, was ever present throughout the film’s production, finding the film its director and cast, contributing to the screenplay, and even overseeing post-production. Casting himself as Clyde, he assembled a largely unknown cast to star alongside him, and after rejection from many actresses, the part of Bonnie was finally given to Faye Dunaway in what became her breakout performance, earning her an Oscar nomination along the way.

Their portrayal of Bonnie and Clyde is exhilarating to watch, oozing with chemistry and sex appeal, giving this scandalous couple of lawbreakers a movie star quality, both enviable and alluring to young audiences. There really isn’t much sex in the film (it is suggested that Clyde is impotent), but even its flirtatious nature and sexual symbolism was scarcely seen in cinemas at the time. The film opens with Dunaway’s Bonnie in her room naked; she makes no effort to cover herself when engaging with Clyde through her window upon their first meeting, and soon after she touches his gun in a clearly provocative manner. These scenes alone establish the film as a landmark in the expression of female sexuality and helped to introduce the sexual freedom that was present in French new wave cinema to American audiences.

Bonnie & Clyde 1967 still 2

But Bonnie and Clyde’s strongest area of influence is certainly in its violence, highlighting the reality and consequence of pulling the trigger of a gun. The first half of the film is fun and comic in nature. The pair are enjoying themselves and doing what ever they want, care free and in good spirits. Thanks to this light, humorous tone, it is a shocking and abrupt tonal shift when Clyde first kills a man; he puts a bullet straight through the man’s eye, covering their car’s window in his blood. Suddenly taking the audience out of the comedic comfort they had been lulled into, this level of realism was groundbreaking. The film also featured one of the earliest recorded uses of squibs in American cinema, small explosive charges attached to the actors clothing that, upon detonation, released red liquid to simulate the impact of a gun shot. These are still commonly used in cinema today, further accentuating how innovative the picture was, and these squibs were essential in creating Bonnie and Clyde’s most iconic scene, one that is still emotionally devastating when viewed 50 years from its release.

The lover’s story comes to an end when their car is ambushed by the police. After realization and one final glance at each other, Bonnie and Clyde are horrifically obliterated by over 100 bullets, leaving them and their car covered in wounds and bullet holes. The scene’s intention is clear from the unnecessary amount of bullets fired, and the overly dramatic editing used during this barrage of gunfire. The characters that we have grown an affinity with despite their flaws have been betrayed and murdered right before our eyes. But while the characters were taken by surprise, there wasn’t really any other way to end the film than with the two dying together; a consequence of their crimes and sins, as Bonnie had prophesied in her poem.

Today, the violence that appears throughout the film seems very tame, and considering the content featured in many modern box office hits, it is strange to think that audiences were so taken aback by the sexually suggestive imagery and brutality which has since been expressed with far more extremity on-screen. Violence now plays a key role in the films of popular auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, and therefore we are used to seeing extreme violence and murder on film. While many films by these directors are ten times more violent than Arthur Penn’s film, it can be assumed that the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, and Tarantino would not have made the films that they have without the game-changing influence of Bonnie and Clyde, one of the most important films in American history.