Study Guide

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde Introduction


Release Year: 1967

Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama

Director: Arthur Penn

Writer: David Newman, Robert Benton

Stars: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard


Bonnie and Clyde is more than just a movie that shows its heroes being blown away on screen.

It's also a movie that had the effect of blowing away the American movie-going public—although thankfully not in a hail of gunfire. The only thing hailing down in cinemas when Bonnie and Clyde dropped in 1967 was popcorn, as ticket holders threw up their hands and XXL buckets of extra-buttered as they realized they were witnessing cinematic history.

On paper, Bonnie and Clyde sounds pretty straightforward: young, hot, and bored Bonnie meets young, hot, and reckless Clyde and the two go on a bank robbing spree across the Southern Midwest. There are plenty of giggles and hijinks until the laughter leads to crying—somehow, the law doesn't approve of a couple of crazy kids taking on a life of crime. (Who'da thunk it?)

But—as a group of famous philosophers known as The Clash say—when you fight the law, the law wins. B & C are shot to death, and the rest of the Barrow Gang (Clyde's bro Buck, Buck's wife Blanche, and a hobbit-looking mechanic named C.W.) meet similarly nasty ends.

Like we said: this all sounds textbook. Movies about attractive criminals meeting grisly fates have been around almost as long as the art form itself: think of The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932).

But where Arthur Penn's film bucked the norm was in its matter-of-fact portrayal of violence and its in-depth characterization of its two lawless "heroes." It was also edited in a way that few Americans had seen before—it was influenced heavily by French New Wave films like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960).

As well as being different, Bonnie and Clyde had hit a raw emotional nerve with much of its audience. Although the film is set in the 1930's, it captured the disillusioned and rebellious attitudes people were feeling toward just about everything in the mid- and late- 1960's.

  

Yes, those 1960's—the time of the hippies, lots of drug use, race riots, several traumatic political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and large-scale military draft resistance. In the middle of all of this, Bonnie and Clyde spoke to people in a new and startling way.

For months and months, people flocked to see Bonnie and Clyde, and the film—produced for a fairly modest $2.5 million—eventually made more than $70 million worldwide. Also, the film's catchy advertising tagline—"They're young, they're in love, and they kill people"—didn't hurt things, either.

Then, as more people "got it," praise and honors started pouring in. The following year, the film received ten Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Cinematography (Burnett Guffey) and Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons).

Actor Warren Beatty—who played Clyde and also produced the film—established himself not only as a serious actor, but also as one of the most talented film actor/director/writer/producers of his time. Two other actors, Faye Dunaway (Bonnie) and Gene Hackman (Clyde's brother Buck) quickly became big, big film stars, both eventually winning Academy Awards as well.

What's amazing, too, is how fresh Bonnie and Clyde remains today. It's the kind of movie that you're tempted to classify as "not your grandma's gangster movie"…until, of course, you realized that your grandma was probably in the audience during one of the original screenings.

What is Bonnie and Clyde About and Why Should I Care?

We're so glad you asked. We're so glad we're essentially waving our arm in the air, wriggling in our desk, and chanting, "Pick us! Pick us! We know the answer!"

Ahem. You should care about Bonnie and Clyde because…it changed the dang face of American cinema forever.

No. Really. This movie is insanely important.

Bonnie and Clyde was a complete game-changer. Scratch that: this film didn't change the game so much as reinvent the game. If the game of American film before B & C dropped was foosball, the game of American film post-Bonnie and Clyde was bare-knuckle boxing.

Critic Patrick Goldstein calls Bonnie and Clyde "the first modern American film: a daring, disturbing tragicomedy that ushered in a giddy, golden era of Hollywood movies." Bonnie and Clyde influenced almost everything, writes critic Eric D. Snider.

Them's fighting words, so we should explain just what about this film makes people so hot n' bothered.

Violence

Bonnie and Clyde has a bit of the old ultra-violence, and movies since Bonnie and Clyde have used this film as a template: "How To Do Violence Right." The ending scene of B & C shoots (pun!) violence with slow-mo and quick editing.

If you've ever seen a bullet-riddled body writhe in half time onscreen, or seen the camera linger on one person being killed for a second and hop on over to another person being killed…well, you can thank Arthur Penn's film for that.

New Hollywood

Out with the old, in with the New Wave. Bonnie and Clyde borrowed from French New Wave filmmakers to create something that Americans had literally never seen in domestic cinema.

This film is responsible for ending the reign of Old Hollywood and launching the American New Wave—it is, to quote a 1967 TIME magazine article bombastically called "Hollywood—The Shock of Freedom in Film," "a watershed picture, the kind that signals a new style, a new trend."

But what does "American New Wave" mean? A few things, all of them zeitgeist-shifting.

  • New Wave films were earthy. That glamour of Old Hollywood? Done for. Instead of aging starlets (think Sunset Boulevard) New Wave movies focus on, say, haunted cabbies (think Taxi Driver).
  • These New Wave films injected non sequitur, seemingly random scenes into movies. Think of the scene with Eugene and Velma in Bonnie and Clyde. Or Rocky Balboa's decision to talk to his pets so dang often. These additions are character building, but don't forward the plot of the film—instead, they add to its realism. Life is weird, and New Wave films reflect that.
  • The chronology in New Hollywood films doesn't hold your hand. In Bonnie and Clyde, the film jumps around. A scene ends, and suddenly we're in a different place and a different time—without knowing how exactly we got there. (If you want to see another example of this, peep Terrence Malick's Badlands.)
  • Not everything in American New Wave movies is tied up in a neat little bow. What happened to Blanche Barrow? What happened to C.W.? When you finish Bonnie and Clyde, you don't know. You can see this lack of resolve echo through the American New Wave in movies like Chinatown.
  • Finally, the big daddy of American New Wave cinema: discomfort. If you want comfort, you go watch Cinderella. If you want to feel like humanity is iffy at best, go watch The French Connection. If you want to feel alienated, go watch Five Easy Pieces. If you want to root for people that aren't exactly heroic or decent, go watch Cabaret.

Or, if you want to see all where American film started to change forever, go watch Bonnie and Clyde.

Trivia

Far from being the bumbling Texas Ranger out for revenge at having been humiliated by Bonnie and Clyde, the real-life Frank Hamer was a highly respected law officer who was asked to come out of retirement to hunt down the gang. He only saw Bonnie and Clyde once—when he and other law officers gunned them down in Louisiana in May of 1934. (Jeff Guinn, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009)

In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked Bonnie and Clyde number five on its list of the top 10 American gangster films ever made. (Source)

The real Bonnie Parker actually did write the final poem that Faye Dunaway reads in the film. But it was never sent to newspapers when the two were alive. Bonnie's mother had it published after their deaths. (Source)

Warren Beatty—who was a producer—was quite interested in having his older sister, actress Shirley MacLaine, play Bonnie. Later, when he decided to play Clyde as well as produce, he felt this casting was inappropriate. Yeah. You think? (Source)

Although she was snubbed at Academy Awards time, Dede Allen, who edited Bonnie and Clyde, has since been praised enthusiastically for her groundbreaking work on this film. In fact, in 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild named Bonnie and Clyde the fifth best edited film of all time. (Source)

Bonnie and Clyde Resources

Websites

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—Greatest Films by Tim Dirks
This entry on the AMC Filmsite is one of the most in-depth summaries and analyses of the film you will run across. Good job, AMC.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Website: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
What's better than one B & C analysis? Several. TMC offers a series of summaries and articles about the film (which it airs frequently).

FBI: Famous Cases and Criminals, Bonnie and Clyde
For people who want to learn more about the real-deal Bonnie and Clyde, the FBI has an entry on its site.

Bonnie and Clyde—Places to See
If you've ever had a hankering to take a road trip to see some of the things and sites associated with the real Bonnie and Clyde, this article has information on all kinds of things—from Bonnie's pistol to the inscription on Clyde's headstone.

Book or TV Adaptations

Bonnie and Clyde (2013)
This is a fairly recent mini-series also based on the real-life Bonnie and Clyde that received mixed reviews. Peep the trailer.

Gun Crazy (1950)
This film, often shown on TV, is a classic film noir very loosely based on the real Bonnie and Clyde. It's often been cited as an influence on the 1967 film.

"Bunny and Claude: We Rob Carrot Patches" (1968)
This is a Warner Brothers cartoon starring Bugs Bunny… spoofing the film that'd been such a huge hit for the company the year before.

Non-fiction Books

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (2009)
This book offers an excellent account of the making of the film, Bonnie and Clyde, including interviews with those involved from director Arthur Penn to screenwriter Robert Benton. It also goes into the film's significance, both as a landmark in film history and as a work of art.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn (2010)
This is one of the more popular recent book accounts of the real Bonnie and Clyde.

Articles and Interviews

Film Analysis on Bonnie and Clyde by Jenny Lu on Media Studies
Here's a thoughtful essay on Bonnie and Clyde. Worth a look.

What's the Big Deal? Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by Eric D. Snyder, Film.com, 2010
Here's a detailed, measured article explaining why Bonnie and Clyde captured the public imagination when it came out and why it's remained such an intriguing film ever since. We give this two pistols up.

Riding the New Wave: The Case of Bonnie and Clyde by Elaine Lennon, Senses of Cinema, 2006
If you ever had a need to drench yourself in film criticism, Senses of Cinema is one of the best places to start. The online magazine constantly offers insightful, occasionally brilliant perspectives on various film-related subjects. This excellent article about Bonnie and Clyde is no exception.

The Real Bonnie and Clyde: 9 Facts on the Outlawed Duo by Joe MacGasko, Bio., 2013
This is an interesting article about the real Bonnie and Clyde featuring photos and video.

Arthur Penn on Directing Bonnie and Clyde, American Film Institute
The famed filmmaker discusses how actor-producer Warren Beatty convinced him to direct Bonnie and Clyde.

Video

Trailer for the Movie
This is the original trailer for the movie that theater audiences saw in 1967.

Film Footage of the Final Ambush
This is a five-minute link that includes both a reconstruction of the actual ambush and film of Bonnie and Clyde taken just minutes after they were killed.

The Making of Bonnie and Clyde
This is an eighteen-minute documentary that tells how the film came together and features interviews with Arthur Penn, Faye Dunaway, Dede Allen, and others involved in its creation

Warren Beatty Introduces Bonnie and Clyde (American Film Institute)
The industry legend shares his thoughts and memories about the film that put him on the map.

Images

Original Poster Art for Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
This is an image of the poster theatergoers saw in 1967 when Bonnie and Clyde was first released.