Once upon a time, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were the most famous actors in the world.
No, I’m referring to a movie that came out long before the 2017 Oscars Moonlight episode. This is a little story about two Depression-era bank robbers and lovers.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is now fifty years old, and it feels as modern as ever. For a little film on a tight budget, it would be a surprise hit in 1967 and earn several Oscar nods.
Dunaway plays Bonnie Parker, a waitress who feels bored in her one-horse town. While preparing for work, she spots ex-convict Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car. Instead of calling the police, Bonnie finds an attraction to the well-dressed thief, who is smitten with her. As he flirts, Clyde is quick to detect she is unhappy with her lot in life.
Within minutes of their first meeting, Clyde holds up a general store and steals a car with Bonnie. At this point, they haven’t even learned each others names! Despite the difficult situation, Bonnie and Clyde hit it off pretty well and go off on a crime spree. Their modus operandi is stealing different cars which they drive across state lines, so as to prevent capture. Although they become famous across America, Bonnie and Clyde prefer to rob grocery stores and gas stations instead of the big banks.
While on the road, they form the Barrow gang with Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). Rounding out the crew is gas station attendant C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), who’s handy with fixing cars. From the start, there is tension between Bonnie and Blanche, who don’t see eye to eye. Clyde also has some friction with Buck, who is more trigger-happy.
As with all things, the fun does come to an end. During a stop-over in a Texas motel, the group’s presence and behaviour alert the local authorities. Following a violent shootout, the gang members are driven their separate ways. As the law zeroes in, Bonnie and Clyde have to make peace with the idea they might not get out alive.
Warren Beatty delivers a stellar performance as Clyde. Handsome and persuasive, he brings a folksy sort of charm to the role. Beatty shows he can be vulnerable, as Clyde struggles with impotence and living up to notions of masculinity.
Faye Dunaway also shines as Bonnie Parker. Her evolution from mousy waitress to confident outlaw is impressive to watch. She also shows a more somber side in writing poems for the newspapers. It is her reading of “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” that serves as an elegy to the young couple.
The supporting cast does a great job in their roles. Gene Hackman is in fine form as Buck Barrow, and he has great chemistry with Beatty. One could easily believe the two of them as brothers. Estelle Parsons has a Oscar-winning performance as Blanche, who provides the comedy in freaking out during gunfights. Pollard plays C.W. as a country bumpkin who gets caught up in a crime wave. Yet he remains likeable, if somewhat naive to his predicament. In a different world, he could easily fit in with the Beverly Hillbillies.
The late Gene Wilder makes his film debut as the put-upon Eugene Gizzard. His entrance in the middle of the film is a welcome one, as he and his finance are taken prisoner by the gang. Over a few hours, kidnappers and hostages bond over dinner and jokes, and it seems everyone is having a good time. The fun ends abruptly when he reveals he’s an undertaker, which leads to him and his girl having to walk home.
Historically speaking, Bonnie and Clyde plays loose with the facts. C.W. is a composite of a few gang members, and some of their capers are not in the film. The real-life Clyde’s vendetta against the justice system is also left out. Contrary to the movie, he and Bonnie did not capture the sheriff who would later take them down. In addition, there is doubt as to whether or not Bonnie ever did shoot at anyone.
Penn’s direction is also in fine form. The film’s first half is in a light comedic tone. The getaways to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, which has become a staple of chase scenes. It isn’t until a bank robbery goes awry that the movie begins to take on a serious tone.
Perhaps the most remembered scenes are the motel fight and the climactic bloody shootout, in which our heroes go down in a haze of bullets. The latter is notable for its use of multiple angles and cross-cuts. It makes this writer wonder if Penn had the JFK Zapruder footage in mind.
Bonnie and Clyde holds up pretty well at half a century. Sure, it isn’t historically-accurate, but there are fine performances and great septettes. In a time when the studio system would die, the movie paves the way for a new age of anti-heroes.