Bonnie and Clyde

(Arthur Penn, USA, 1967)


When I was a young teenager in suburban Melbourne, I had a small role as the Narrator in a school play about the glamorous Australian bushranger outlaw/rebel, Ned Kelly (1854-1880). As Kelly lay dead, mowed down by police, I came on stage for my one and only moment, to declaim: “The sad, lonely life, and the lonely ending. One man against all the world in the bush at Glenrowan!”


Bonnie and Clyde also ends with the murder of its beyond-the-law heroes. “Birds and bullets fly” is the apt DVD chapter title for this finale: before the bullets, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), euphorically happy, are alive to everything happening around them in the natural world, such as that flock of birds. Little do they realise that this burst of disturbed nature is a last-second omen, and that they have been lured to their death by an innocent-looking guy with car troubles by the roadside.


Many viewers misremember the murder as a more protracted and extravagant spectacle than it actually is; the volleys of fire, and the slow-motion that captures the strangely lyrical paroxysms of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s bodies, are quite restrained compared to many subsequent films. Due to director Arthur Penn’s careful play of contrasts – the quick-change in moods, the movement from quiet to loud – this finale is certainly sudden and shocking.


But what really clinches the scene is the mute, disquieting ballet that follows. The cops slowly approach the corpses (which are no longer seen) and, in the final shot, a car window’s looming bullet-hole seems to fracture the image itself. The film cuts to black before the chief cop can speak. No comforting “sad, lonely life” epitaphs here; the event speaks for itself.


In the 1960s, Penn was considered one of America’s greatest filmmakers. In the ‘70s, the course of his career began to wobble. He was eventually reduced to helming bizarre novelty films (Penn and Teller Get Killed, 1989) and tele-dramas (The Portrait, 1993) that are lucky to receive even a video release in some countries. Only twice since the ‘60s – in Night Moves (1975) and Four Friends (aka Georgia, 1980) – has his immense artistry, when inspired by good material, seized the day once more.


The re-release of Bonnie and Clyde reminds us, with a pleasing jolt, what an exciting master Penn once was. From its first, wild moments of a half-naked Bonnie thrashing around frustrated in her cramped bedroom, it is a vivid, kinetic, restless testament to bored-youth-gone-crazy, in the tradition of that B movie masterpiece Gun Crazy  (1949).


At that time, Penn was in an ideal position to synthesize two very different types of cinema. From such modern-leaning American directors of the 1950s as Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray, he absorbed the Method Studio’s emphasis on highly physical acting, a sturdy sense of storytelling structure, and a rock-solid, realistic sense of historical time and place – especially as all of that related to the film medium. (In theatre, Penn himself had studied under the great Michael Chekhov, and later became Artistic Director of the Actors Studio.)


From the Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut especially), Penn imported a fragmented editing style, a Pop Art-inspired visual flair, episodic narrative, and a fondness for those confronting, split-second switches in mood displayed in the final sequence evoked above.


The result, still today, is astonishing. One aspect of Bonnie and Clyde that seems more remarkable now is the evidently high degree of almost cartoon-like exaggeration in the acting and staging. Long before Fargo  (1995), Penn zeroed in on his characters’ oddities of gesture, accent, posture and behaviour. Entire scenes are based on single details of the way someone looks, reacts or even breathes. Such overtly comic performers as Gene Wilder, Estelle Parsons and Michael Pollard blend in perfectly with dramatic players like Dunaway and Gene Hackman.


In its time, Bonnie and Clyde was among the films that prompted great alarm about the exponential increase in “high impact” screen violence – partly because it refused to censor the sensational, thrilling aspect of its characters’ murderous, anti-social behaviour. Seen now, however, the movie’s attitude to the violence it depicts appears fully integrated within a complex social and moral perspective. Penn and his writers (Robert Benton – who himself became a good director – and David Newman) spend a great deal of time detailing the milieu of the Depression era. And they offer a disquieting trajectory from the initial hi-jinx to a sombre, melancholic, doubt-ridden finale.


But the most striking element of Bonnie and Clyde for a contemporary audience is its treatment of sexuality ­– and particularly the dysfunctional masculinity of Clyde Barrow. Beatty’s ability to express this character’s immense vulnerability and torment is extraordinarily intimate and touching. Once again, Penn was able to find in this fascinating figure an intersection of hitherto starkly separate cinematic concerns – ultra-modern psychology fused with all the glamour and excitement of the generic gangster hero. The mix is still potent.

MORE Penn: Target, Alice’s Restaurant

Beatty: Warren Beatty: A Life and a Story

© Adrian Martin September 1997 / March 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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