First off, I must confess that I had never actually seen Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn's 1967 biopic of the infamous Depression-era outlaw couple. Considering that it took home two Oscars and was nominated for eight more, I knew I was in for a solid film. What I wasn't expecting was how far ahead of its time it was and how much of a game changer it was, not only for the crime-drama genre but for cinema in general.
Right from its opening credits, you get a sense of how unconventional this movie is going to be for its time, the film opens with a simple black background and a slideshow of real-life photos of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in their youth before they embarked on their iconic spree, interspersed with names of the cast, all delivered in a frank, undramatic fashion with no music. This unusual sense of realism sets up the tone that carries through the remainder of the film.
Penn wastes no time introducing us to our protagonists, filling in their backstories with brief but effective on-screen texts during the opening credits, allowing us to jump right into the story, opening with Bonnie and Clyde's first meeting (and first armed robbery together shortly thereafter). The chemistry between Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway jumps off the screen from the first minutes of the film and doesn't let us go until the film's closing moments, a crucial element given the story being told. Their chemistry oozes danger and a blatant sexuality that was uncommon for mainstream movies in the 1960's. A moment early on when Bonnie, using her hand and a cheeky look in her eye, draws a less than subtle parallel between Clyde's pistol and a phallus is particularly eyebrow-raising given when this film was produced.
Furthermore, the more intimate aspects of their relationship are handled with a frankness and maturity that was uncommon for the time, paving the way for the uniquely "Anti-Hollywood" realistic love scenes we would soon see in more than a few dramas in the decades that followed. The film's violence is likewise presented with an avant-garde bluntness, expressing a sense of undramatic realism that, like the film's love scenes, is an approach that would be adopted by future crime films attempting to strike a realistic chord with audiences. The choice to feature next to no conventional musical score goes a long way towards further establishing tone and enhancing key emotional moments of the film. In fact, aside from a few random banjo pieces, the conventional score first appears approximately one hour into the film, a powerful moment when Bonnie finally breaks down, lets her facade crack for a moment, and insists on visiting her elderly mother (despite being on the lam from the law).
Which brings me to one of the film's major strengths, the realistic depiction of its characters. The unapologetically authentic execution of this story's violence and sexuality would be noteworthy on its own, but I feel it's the three-dimensional protagonists that make it a truly enjoyable film. Warren Beatty's portrayal of Clyde Barrow is an honest depiction of an insecure man who's facade of dominance masks his lack of confidence, and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie Parker is a strong woman, patient in some areas and impatient in others, whose boredom with an ordinary life has made a dangerous life with Clyde all the more appealing, but a woman who, even at the height of their fame (or infamy), never loses a sense of where she came from and the importance of family. The film has been criticized by purists for some of its historical inaccuracies, but at least within the context of this particular version of the story, we are seeing human characters with nuanced human traits and faults that are often times relatable.
Some of the criticism this film received at the time of its release was an accusation that it was attempting to glorify Bonnie and Clyde's crimes and murders. I personally never got that impression. It never shies away from showing the stark realities of their crimes, but it's the actors' depictions of multilayered human characters that allow us to empathize with them, if not sympathize with them. Even if you're not well versed in the history of Bonnie and Clyde, most people have some idea of how their story ended, but despite that, I found myself hoping against reason that history would change for their sake, in spite of their crimes.
While the film doesn't glorify their actions, it does show how their exploits soon made them folk heroes throughout America. Several moments throughout the film highlight the realities of what it was to be a middle or lower class citizen during the Great Depression. As such, it's easy to see why so many desperate people would have sympathized with, or even idolized, two people with humble beginnings who decided to "stick it to the man" and make their own luck. Ironically, this bleak depiction of Depression-era America and the public's eager acceptance of the crime duo's antics is what leads to much of the film's levity. People seem to be almost tripping over themselves for the chance to join Bonnie and Clyde on their cross-country trek with little to no hesitation. "Hi. We're Bonnie and Clyde, wanna come rob banks with us?" .. "Sure!". I'm paraphrasing but that is almost exactly how the scene plays out in which they recruit the first member of the "Barrow Gang", which consists of.mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde's older brother Buck (Gene Hackman), and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons, who took home an Oscar for her role). A particularly amusing sequence featuring an early appearance by Gene Wilder as a "kidnapped" undertaker further enforces this point.
Much like Hitchcock's infamous shower scene, Bonnie and Clyde's closing moments have gone down in history as a watershed moment in cinema. In a modern context, the scene is particularly poignant when considering current debates about police brutality and abuse of power. I went into this movie having already experienced the final scene, but it still delivered the required punch to the gut thanks in large part to the time spent building empathy for the characters throughout the course of the film.
Looking at it in the context of when it was produced, it's easy to see how much of an influence this film had on such films as The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, and even more surreal films like Natural Born Killers. It introduced audiences to an unflinching display of realistic violence, intimacy, and complex characters, all of which have remained staples of crime-drama films to this day. It's strong characters, memorable performances, and trailblazing execution make it a film that holds up remarkably well a little more than half a century later. It's lost none of its bite. To say 1967's Bonnie and Clyde was ahead of its time is an understatement.