In its first moments Bonnie and Clyde flirts with the idea of being an art movie, but before any real damage is done, the director, the writers, and the cameraman abandon their collective self-consciousness and the worst temptation is past. What follows is an extraordinary film.
What makes it all the more extraordinary is the motley crew that put it together. Warren Beatty, its star and producer, has taken his own time living up to his original billing as the next James Dean of 1961; director Arthur Penn started out on Broadway, and went on to make a series of inconsistent pictures including The Miracle Worker, Mickey One (with Beatty), and The Chase; and his screenwriters, David Newman and Robert Benton, have as their one claim to fame their book to the less than wonderful musical It's Superman. But somehow their collaborative efforts have produced a single work which, for each of its creators, overshadows all he has done previously.
The midwest of the early '30's is the locale of the film. Ugly little towns, cropless fields and unpaved roads fill the screen. Garbage, newspapers, and dust blow across endless flatlands, and each shabby interior has its own oppressiveness. It is less poverty than ultimate bleakness that is Bonnie and Clyde's landscape. Times are hard, but it is the place rather than the time which shapes the society Penn portrays. His view of the depression is closer to that of Walker Evans than Dorothea Lange, and he has peopled his film with faces of unspectacular emptiness. Everyone is dispossessed: those who hold jobs are as desperate and restless as those who roam the territory in broken-down trucks. The desolation of the environment shapes the lethargy and fustration of its population.
Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Beatty) are the embodiment of this world of waitresses and gas station attendants. Clyde, the son of an itinerant farmer, is a small-time bank robber whose gun is a substitute for sexual potency. For Bonnie also, the gun is a release from the unfulfilled monotony of a West Dallas greasy-spoon. They fall in love, and a large part of the film is devoted to their specifically sexual frustrations, not as a clinical case study but as an emblem of waste and entropy.
In a series of compressed vignettes, punctuated by wild car chases to the accompaniment of Flatt & Scruggs banjo music, the film describes the criminal career of Bonnie. Clyde and the friends and relations they collect along the way. Their initially clumsy and comic efforts at robbing banks become increasingly bloody as the film proceeds, until the imagery of incredible violence is the only real visual counterpoint to the desolate image of the landscape. And this is violence unlike that of any other film. Instead of the crisp theatricality and well-timed effects of a movie like The Dirty Dozen, Penn forces on us the relentless destruction of the human body. Even as the audience laughs at one of the gang's hilariously bungled getaways, a bank clerk jumps on the running board of the car and has his face blown off by a shot through the car window. The camera remains fixed on the bloody head as the car squeals around corners and the body refuses to disengage itself from the door. Again and again the camera will not spare us the after-effects of the gun battles, and we are trapped inside the getaway car as members of the gang, panic stricken and hysterical, are ripped apart by machine gun bullets. The death of Clyde's brother, Buck, virtually abandoned in a field, surrounded by vicious law officers, is unbearably powerful.
Between the violence of murder and the bleak landscape, the private domestic struggles of the gang exist in a kind of limbo. They argue about money, get on each other's nerves, read about themselves in the paper and worry about being ambushed. Bonnie and Clyde indulge in a Robin Hood fantasy about their escapades. In one extraordinary scene they pick up a young couple whose car they have stolen, and take them for a joy ride. "You've probably been reading about us in the papers," Clyde declares with pride. He and Bonnie believe they are heroes, and they are. The legend they create is not merely a fulfillment for themselves but for the frustrated desire of the society from which they have escaped. Early in the film, Clyde lends his revolver to an old farmer, who takes revenge on the bank that has repossesed his house by shooting up the sign they have placed on his lawn. It is the act of shooting, not its effect, that gives Bonnie and Clyde their stature. Both they and their admirers are curiously blind to the impact of the slaughter they inflict.
Director Penn treats with matter-of-factness a situation in which two people can be deeply in love, worry about the health of an aged mother, feel the responsibility of kinship and yet find no moral context for the idea of murder. The law for Bonnie and Clyde is merely the agent of a hostile universe. Clyde's gun, which so mesmerizes Bonnie when she first sees it, is the only potency they possess in the face of total anonymity. But it is, for a time, a very real potency, and Penn refuses to flinch at this fact. The script demands that the audience recognize the power of violence to make Bonnie and Clyde whole, even as it engulfs them. In a dusty, sun-bleached field, Clyde finally makes love to Bonnie. His brother is dead, he and Bonnie already wounded, and there remains only one last ride into another dreary town before the potency is destroyed. But even as Penn is unwilling to sentimentalize their death, he acknowledges their consummation through slaughter, and in doing so gives the spectre of American violence a specific and relevant expression.
The art of Bonnie and Clyde is the art of the Hollywood professional, with old tricks turned to new purposes.
The gauze-covered lens, invariably associated with the worst of movie schmaltz, finds a new use as a device of alienation. The classic Mack Sennett chase here horrifies as well as amuses. And the typical Hollywood good looks of the two stars reinforce the sense of physical destruction as they are suddenly maimed.
But the freshness of Penn's technique extends also to his handling of actors. Penn is one director who, though able to control tone and response by shooting and cutting alone, nonetheless shows real concern for achieving a set of convincing and consistent performances from major and minor players. Several performances are considerable achievements in their own right. Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons bring grim authority to three dull and aimless lives. Faye Dunaway will be a great star, she already is, and Beatty, with his utterly credible portrayal of Clyde, finally comes into his own.