Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is an important film. The fact that its stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, were asked to hand out the Best Picture Oscar in 2017 on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, proves just how much esteem it still has within the Academy. Yet, in their AFI list, Bonnie and Clyde ranks at only 27 and in the prestigious Sight and Sound list, the movie does not rank anywhere at all.
These lists need to be amended. For starters, Bonnie and Clyde is universally regarded as the first film of the New Hollywood era because it boldly shattered conventions, brought a new level of sex and violence to the screens and has been enormously influential.
It is indeed considered to be a landmark film. Its success, especially with young audiences, paved the way for filmmakers to be more open in their portrayals of sex and violence on the big screen.
Set in the Great Depression in the United States, the film is based on the true story of two legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Parker who received national notoriety because of their spate of robbing and killings in the American South-West and Mid-West during what became known as the “Public Enemy Era” of the early thirties.
Bonnie and Clyde has also been a very controversial film. Some critics had initially attacked the movie for glorifying murderers. The two lead characters, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, are morally ambiguous and the violence is bloody and shocking, especially during the legendary climax.
Although toned down from the original conception, Bonnie and Clyde is forthright in its display of sexuality. Clyde is clearly impotent despite displaying his heterosexuality and manhood through his provocative display of his gun to Bonnie whilst she suggestively strokes the weapon.
Style and production
The script, as in the finished film, is heavily influenced by the French New Wave movement of the period. The New Wave movement had abandoned traditional styles, used different techniques and radical experimentation. Bonnie and Clyde adopted some of those techniques.
The earliest version of the script was submitted in the early 1960s to David Newman and Robert Benton, and then to Arthur Penn. Penn was busy with the 1966 film The Chase and therefore the script was passed on to French New Wave director François Truffaut. Truffaut made some contributions but then suggested that the script be sent to his colleague, the New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard who eventually turned it down due to artistic differences. Following many attempts, Arthur Penn was eventually persuaded to direct the film.
Reception from the critics
The result is impressive. Starting with the opening credits with period photographs and camera clicks, the film is full of striking visuals which successfully blends traditional Hollywood filmmaking influences, such as Scarface (1932) and Gun Crazy (1949), with the New Wave techniques, such as experimenting with cinematic devices, using windows, glass and mirrors as recurring visual motifs and framing. The scenes which intercut from the comic to the brutal violence are startingly effective.
Despite being banned in various countries and being heavily criticized for its violence, Bonnie and Clyde still made money with over 23 million box office receipts in the US alone. However, its legacy is even more impressive because for the next decade, the talented auteurs had taken control.
It is time to remember why Hollywood changed. The success of Bonnie and Clyde helped finally break down the Production Code by breaking the rules of cinema and enabling such classics as The Wild Bunch (1969), Easy Rider (1969) and The Godfather (1972) to be made, all which are very heavily influenced by Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde is an important movie. That is not in dispute. But it should really rank alongside Citizen Kane and The Godfather as arguably America’s greatest film. It is too influential and groundbreaking to be ignored.
Paul J. Bradley
CLASSIC MOVIE RECALL PODCAST
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Paul J Bradley
Classic Movie Recall is a series of bite-sized podcasts hosted by on-air radio host Lara Scott and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll, chatting about films from the golden age of cinema.
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