They're Young, They're in Love, and They Kill People: "Bonnie and Clyde" Turns 50.
Originally presented in Fall 2015 edition of Jack Lord's Hair.
Michael J. Pollard's performance as C.W. Moss really wowed me. He does a great job capturing the sometimes bumbling, sometimes very capable Moss. Like Hackman's portrayal of Buck, Pollard's portrayal of C.W. was so good that he elevated a supporting character to a prominent role. When we first meet him at the gas station, he seems somewhat shy but he also shows a mischievous side when he brags of his time at the reformatory. Pollard projects the idea that like Bonnie and Clyde, C.W. Moss enjoys the wild side of life. Later on in the film he shows he is vulnerable and capable. He botches Bonnie and Clyde's getaway after a bank robbery, forcing Clyde to kill someone. Later on, Moss plays a pivotal role in their escape from the police, bravely taking out a police armored car with a hand grenade. Near the end of the film, Pollard shows C.W.'s weakness when he helps betray Bonnie and Clyde to the police.
The story of Bonnie and Clyde provides for a love story that deviated from traditional American cinema. That Bonnie and Clyde were looking for something beyond the doldrums of daily American life was nothing new. What was new was that Bonnie and Clyde encountered very realistic problems along their journey.
First was Clyde's impotence. Bonnie and Clyde are clearly in love with one another but Clyde's inability to perform would be an obstacle in any relationship. At first, they substitute sex with the adventure they experience robbing banks and running away from the law. Finally, Clyde overcomes his impotence when Bonnie's poem about their criminal escapades is published, giving them eternal fame.
Another novel approach is the interplay of family. Buck's brother and sister-in-law join his gang. This impacts on Bonnie's relationship with Clyde but she loves him so she does her best to fit in. Later on, Clyde takes Bonnie to see her family, despite the risk they are taking. The film shows that crime is not always easy. Clyde's first attempt to rob a bank fails when he learns the bank doesn't have any money. His attempt to steal food from a grocer fails when he underestimates the employees' desire to thwart the robbery. Unlike the gun-happy Annie Starr in Gun Crazy and the homicidal Kit in Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde kill out of self-defense, making them sympathetic criminals.
Bonnie and Clyde was more about acting and story than strong cinematography. Penn's directing focused more on telling the story through quality performances than on telling the tale cinematically (compared to Alfred Hitchcock who used the camera to tell his story and who said that actors should be treated like cattle). That is not to say that the film does not have its cinematic moments.One example is early on in the film where Bonnie sits behind her metal bedpost. The way Penn frames the shot makes Bonnie look like she is holding prison bars, an obvious reference to her dead-end life. The scene where the Barrow gang is caught in crossfire in the woods is well done with multiple shots of the posse shooting at the characters intercut with shots of the gang trying to escape in their car, circling inside the woods. This creates the look of both a merry-go-round and shooting gallery and that the gang has nowhere to go. Finally, there is the film's iconic death scene where Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down in a police ambush. Penn uses close-ups of Clyde and Bonnie looking at each other as they realize death is at hand, showing the couple's eternal love. Penn then films their death scene in slow motion as both Bonnie and Clyde are mercilessly gunned down The scene is a brutal and shocking end to the film.
The film's depiction of violence brought film violence to a new level.While Penn was not the first director to use squibs to simulate blood exploding from a gunshot victim's body, his use of them was so effective that it would become commonplace from that point on. In this film, violence is not pretty. Buck dies a painfully long death after he is shot in the head. Blanche is blinded by exploding glass. Bonnie and Clyde are shot as they escape a crossfire. Then there is the aforementioned death scene of Bonnie and Clyde.
Although the concept of a road movie would not be defined until Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde has the elements of one. Bonnie and Clyde are on the road escaping from society (the confines of a dull existence) and the law (for the crimes they commit during their trip). The road also becomes a transforming experience, helping Clyde to overcome his impotence once Bonnie helps him realize his self-worth. Unfortunately the road ends for disaster for them as the law catches up with them.
In the end, the strong performances in the film provide a solid foundation for Bonnie and Clyde. When you add an unorthodox love story, clever cinematography, and realistic violence, you have a complete product that still stands out as an excellent film and an iconic road movie.
Bonnie and Clyde. Dir. Arthur Penn. Perfs. Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway. 1967. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2008.
Lennon, Elaine. "Riding the New Wave: The Case of Bonnie and Clyde". Senses of Cinema 38 2006:.Senses of Cinema. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.