Study Guide

Bonnie and Clyde Analysis

  • Guns

    Cocked And Ready

    What's long, hard, and caressed by Bonnie in one of the first scenes of the movie?

    Clyde's…pistol.

    We'd ask you to get your mind out of the gutter, but the thing is this: Arthur Penn put your mind in that gutter. The first time we see a gun in Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde holds it at crotch level and Bonnie strokes it, murmuring "Yeah."

    To make matters even more innuendo-tastic, we see that Clyde has a match held between his teeth. As he holds his pistol near his fly, he moves his teeth in such a way that this (very erect) matchstick waggles up and down.

    We are not making this up.

    After this exchange, Bonnie looks up and says breathily:

    BONNIE: But you wouldn't have the gumption to use it.

    Use it he does—Clyde robs a general store, and Bonnie starts smooching him as they drive away. But once they get to a secluded spot, Clyde jumps out of the car. "I'm not much of a lover boy," he says. And Bonnie replies, snarkily:

    BONNIE: Your advertising is just dandy. Folks wouldn't guess you don't have a thing to sell.

    She's referring, clearly, to the "advertising" of the gun. Guns are so synonymous with penises—think of the old quip "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"—that Bonnie assumes when a man shows off his gun, he's intimating that he'd like to show off something else, as well.

    Of course, there are more than just phallic guns in this film. You can't rob a bank without firing off a few warning shots, and the police that track and ultimately kill B & C are locked and loaded.

    But because our first introduction to firearms is a groaning with Freudian symbolism, we never quite shake the association between pocket rockets and…pocket rockets.

    P.S. 

    Not a fan of the Freudian analysis? Check out the 1950 movie Gun Crazy and see if you can spot any similarities to our Bonnie and Clyde. (Hint: we bet you can.)

  • Cow Joke

    Worst. Joke. Ever.

    Sorry, guys. We're going to have to repeat Buck Barrow's groan-inducing joke. Here we go:

    BUCK: This boy, he owns a dairy farm, see? His old ma, she was kind of sick. And the doctor called him over and said, "Your mom's lying there. She's so sick and weakly. I want you to persuade her to take a little brandy. Just to keep her spirits up."

    "Ma's a teetotaler," he says. "She wouldn't touch a drop."

    "Well, I'll tell you what to do," the doc says. "You bring in a fresh quart of milk every day, and you put some brandy in it."

    So he did, and he doctored it all up with brandy. And he gave it to his mama. And she drank a little bit of it. So the next day, he brought it in again. She drank a little more. The third day, a little more. The fourth day, she took a little more.

    Finally, one week later he gave her the milk and she just drank it down. She swallowed the whole thing. Then she called him over and said "Son, whatever you do—don't sell that cow!"

    Look: we know this joke is terrible. It's a cheeseball dad joke. But the thing is this: the first telling of this joke takes up one minute and fifteen second of this film. The second telling (so nice Buck has to tell it twice, right?) takes up an additional thirty seconds.

    That's a total of one minute and forty-five seconds of screen time devoted to what is perhaps the worst joke known to man.

    It might not sound like much, but here's a comparison: the entire final shoot-out, from the minute the birds come flying out of the trees to the last time we see the bullet-riddled bodies of Bonnie and Clyde, takes all of forty-five seconds.

    Yep: we spend twice as much time hearing about how tasty a brandy-milk cocktail is as we do seeing Bonnie and Clyde die.

    But why?

    Good To The Last Drop

    The joke has a dark undercurrent. It's about something poisonous being slipped into something wholesome and going undetected. The old woman doesn't want to drink alcohol—she's a teetotaler who doesn't believe in drinking. But by drinking fresh milk laced with brandy, she not only chokes it down, but she begins to love it.

    We can see some serious parallels between the story of Bonnie and Clyde and the relationship of this woman to her milky brandy. The woman drinks a little more brandy every day, and she begins to crave it so much she can't think of doing without it—"don't sell that cow!"

    Bonnie and Clyde experience a similar progression. They start out small—Clyde commits armed robbery, and Bonnie's an accomplice. They get in a little deeper—Clyde kills a man, and Bonnie aids in armed robbery. Finally, they're both wanted for multiple crimes that include the murder of police officers, Clyde's brother is dead, and they're both wounded.

    But we see in one of the final scenes that Clyde, at least, has a "don't sell that cow!" mentality. Check out this convo:

    BONNIE: What would you do if some miracle happened, and we could walk out of here tomorrow morning and start all over clean? […]

    CLYDE: I guess I'd do it all different. First off, I wouldn't live in the same state that we pull our jobs. […]

    Clyde's so used to the crime that informs his life that he's not able to think of a life without it. Like the woman in the joke, he can't make a distinction between wholesome milk (or an honest life) and poisonous brandy (or a life full of bank robbery).

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    At the beginning of the story, Bonnie's world is dull and boring. She craves adventure and excitement, but she doesn't know how to go about finding it.

    Call To Adventure

    Clyde is Bonnie's call to adventure. He's a handsome young man, which appeals to Bonnie's sexual appetite. He's also dangerous: he's been in jail, he's continued to be a thief, and he carries a gun. All this is super alluring to our bored Bonnie.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Bonnie doesn't take much time refusing. She is lured to Clyde right from the start. She does need to learn a bit about him before she does anything too rash, though. So, she and Clyde chat for a bit before he robs a store and effectively "wins" her.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Taking this approach, yes, the mentor has to be Clyde. (It certainly isn't going to be Blanche.) Bonnie wants the kind of adventure and excitement that a life of crime on the run will offer, and Clyde—because he's an experienced thief who knows how to use a gun—can offer her that. When they're first together, Clyde shows Bonnie the ropes—how to shoot a gun, pull off a robbery, etc.

    Crossing The Threshold

    The threshold here is the threshold between staying within the law and becoming an outlaw. Bonnie crosses the threshold as soon as she runs away with Clyde. At this point, she's committed both to him and a life of crime.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Bonnie has to undergo tests, forge alliances, and deal the enemies during the story. For example, she must learn to keep her head during bank robberies, during car chases, and when she and the others in the gang are being shot at.

    She forges alliances both with Clyde and C.W., whom she recruits for the gang. She also has to contend with enemies—ranging from all the law enforcement after her to Blanche, who dislikes her.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Rather than any specific robbery or ordeal the gang goes through to survive, the inmost cave here refers to the inevitability of death—a death that will likely be coming soon and will likely be violent.

    Bonnie increasingly handles this with a sense of acceptance and calm.

    Ordeal

    We can see the ordeal as the full arc of Bonnie's life of crime. When it begins, it's lots of fun for both her and Clyde. They get away with robbery after robbery and have a great time doing this. They even humiliate the dogged Texas Ranger Frank Hamer.

    But, as their robberies continue, the whole situation becomes increasingly grim. The law's bearing down on the gang, and it's increasingly clear that Hamer and others want Bonnie and Clyde dead. As the violent encounters become more frequent and more ghastly, Bonnie's ordeal intensifies.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Bonnie doesn't seize the sword in any traditional King Arthur or Lord of the Rings way. Her reward is really twofold. First, she comes to terms with her destiny. While her life may not be a long one, she has done what many people never do—pursued the kind of life she wants to pursue and achieved a level of celebrity.

    Second, she's also reached a level of peace and happiness with Clyde. During their last moments together in the film, both are sublimely happy.

    The Road Back

    There really isn't a road back for Bonnie, unfortunately. While she's reached a level of peace and happiness, she still has to face her comeuppance.

    Resurrection

    Ditto here. Bonnie's grown in the course of the story is her resurrection. She chooses a path, taken it, and made peace with the consequences.

    Return With The Elixir

    The elixir in this case might just be the realization that she has chosen her own path, found love along the way, and in the end lived the kind of life she wanted to live. In the end, that's all that anyone can hope for.

  • Setting

    Rural Texas and Neighboring States in the Early 1930's

    Bonnie and Clyde takes place entirely in rural areas in Texas and various neighboring states (such as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Louisiana) between the years 1932 and 1934.

    These states, which were mostly farming communities, were one of the areas hit hardest by the Great Depression during the 1930's. Countless people who lived there lost their farms and homes. Families were destroyed. Severe hunger and even starvation were common. The American capitalist system of government had clearly failed the people who lived in these areas. People were angry and cynical.

    Yeah, you've probably heard that all before.

    So, the emergence of a pair such as Bonnie and Clyde represented a kind of hope for many of these people. Bonnie and Clyde were sticking it to the system. They were choosing not to play by the rules… and actually getting away with it.

    They were—in a twisted way—heroes standing up to the rich and powerful, standing up for the oppressed. Don't be fooled: they weren't Robin Hood and his merry men. They didn't give the money they stole to the poor; they kept it. But they were—in their own minds as well as the minds of many of these oppressed rural Americans—standing up for something.

    Within this macro setting, the film takes place in numerous specific settings: Bonnie's home, various small towns, banks, stores, hideouts, roads, etc. All these settings suggest the Barrow Gang's transient nature.

    The gang had to keep moving—all the time—in order to stay one step head of the law.

  • Point of View

    New Wave

    The way that Bonnie and Clyde's narrative's put together is heavily influenced by a movement called the New Wave, which first became prominent in France in the late 1950's. It used a bunch of film techniques people weren't used to seeing in films—and it created quite a stir.

    Let's take a look.

    Eliminating Traditional Establishing Shots

    What's the first thing you see in this film? Lips.

    There's no panning shot of a small town. There's no scene of Clyde walking down a street. We don't see the outside of a house—we don't even see an entire face. Instead, we see Bonnie's lips.

    This was wild back in the day… and totally disorienting. It eliminated the idea that setting was vital for understanding what was going on and, instead, moved straight into characterization. In the first seconds of the film, we already understand that Bonnie is beautiful, bored, and sexually frustrated—before we even know what country she lives in.

    This lends a whole new meaning to the phrase "up close and personal."

    Crosscutting/Editing

    The editing in this movie is justly super-famous. One of the biggest tricks up the editor's sleeve is crosscutting, which allows the camera to show two things happening concurrently—and wasn't being used all that often in 1967.

    This spreads on a thick layer of irony. We get to see Bonnie and Clyde finally—finally—having sex at the same time that Malcolm is selling them out to a Texas Ranger. We get to see C.W. parking a car at the same time that B & C are robbing a bank.

    We want to hand the mic over to famous film critic Pauline Kael, though. Her insights on Bonnie and Clyde are awesome—in fact, she's one of the people credited for bringing the movie such fame and glory:

    The editing of this movie is, however, the best editing in an American movie in a long time, and one may assume that Penn deserves credit for it along with the editor, Dede Allen. It's particularly inventive in the robberies and in the comedy sequence of Blanche running through the police barricades with her kitchen spatula in her hand. […]

    The quick panic of Bonnie and Clyde looking at each other's face for the last time is a stunning example of the art of editing. The end of the picture, the rag-doll dance of death as the gun blasts keep the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde in motion, is brilliant. It is a horror that seems to go on for eternity, and yet it doesn't last a second beyond what it should. The audience leaving the theatre is the quietest audience imaginable. (Source)

    Yup. Although we didn't see Bonnie and Clyde in the theaters, we were the quietest audience imaginable…as we sat in our couch with our blankets pulled up to our chins.

  • Genre

    Gangster, Crime Film

    If we had to place Bonnie and Clyde into a specific genre, it would fall squarely into gangster/crime, a genre we can trace back to early silent films.

    Usually, these types of films involve people who break the law for easy money, get deeper and deeper into their lives of crime, find out they can never again be respectable, and often die violently.

    Often, too, the main characters are in love and realize that their love is ultimately doomed. Some excellent examples of gangster/crime films were made in the 1930's and starred the great actor James Cagney. A few of these include The Public Enemy (1931), Angles with Dirty Faces (1938), and Twentieth Century (1939).

    And—needless to say—gangster/crime films are still very much with us. In fact, many have been greatly influenced by Bonnie and Clyde, too. A good example of this is the 1994 film by director Oliver Stone, Natural Born Killers… although Bonnie and Clyde's legacy lives on with Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and The Drop.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title Bonnie and Clyde refers, of course, to the film's two main characters. But it's also what people called them during their time as bank robbers—they weren't primarily known as "the Barrow Gang"; they were known as "Bonnie and Clyde."

    And that name has just solidified with their legacy. The phrase "Bonnie and Clyde" conjures up romantic lawlessness—it's almost impossible hear a story about an outlaw couple without coming across a mention of this dynamic duo.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending in Bonnie and Clyde is among the most famous endings in film history. We're not just being bombastic—it's widely considered one of the best.

    We are, of course, referring to the scene when Bonnie and Clyde stop along a road to help C.W.'s father, Malcolm…and are suddenly ambushed. And the heartbreaking thing is that this comes at a time when things seem to be going well for them. They've finally had sex. They're coming back from grocery shopping and sharing a pear. They're blissfully happy.

    The ending—which is credited to Penn, the film's editor Dede Allen, and her assistant, Jerry Greenberg—was startling for the time. While people had used freeze-frames, slow motion photography, shock cuts (cuts between dramatically different shots), and other techniques before in films, no one had every done anything quite like this.

    In just about a minute of screen time, Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down in a hail storm of machine gun fire, their bodies bobbling about in what New Yorker Magazine film critic Pauline Kael called "the rag doll dance of death." (Source)

    After that, there's just silence as the various law enforcement officers come out of hiding to view the two dead bodies. No swelling music. No pious last words. Just stunned silence and then the words: "The End."

    Ugh. It gets us every time.

  • Shock Rating

    PG-13

    While this film is definitely not for kiddos, it is, by today's ultra-violent standards, not the shockathon it seemed to audiences back when it first came out in 1967.

    The violence is quite real, though, and we feel deeply when some of these characters—flawed people we've grown to like and care about during the story—are killed. The exception is the film's last scene, though. Even today, nearly fifty years after people first saw this film, this scene is really and truly jolting.

    So yeah, don't screen this one at your 6-year-old cousin's birthday party.