The Start of New Hollywood
The movie is enjoyable on its own right, but it gets a bit better when you know the historical significance.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #27/100
Awards: Nominated for eight, winning Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and Cinematography.
The start of New Hollywood!
Directors now had more control since there was no longer a process for code approval and the content could be more risque. This movie couldn’t have been made previously; it glorifies Bonnie and Clyde with gory violence. The movie focuses on the deranged protagonists and never takes a moral stance. It opened up a whole new venue of story telling without the obligatory moral condemnation.
Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) during Clyde’s attempt to steal her mother’s car. Wanting more excitement out of life, Bonnie decides to go along with Clyde and help him pull some crimes. They recruit more people into the fold: C.W. Moss, a gas attendant ( Michael Pollard); Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman); and Buck’s wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons).
Their thefts begin to grow as they start targeting bigger and bigger banks. This leads to several shoot outs and deaths, including the death of Buck and the significant wounding of Blanche. This increases police effort to capture and kill Bonnie and Clyde.
The police finally set up a trap using Moss’s father; he pretends to be fixing his broken down car, and when Bonnie and Clyde pull over to help, the police open machine gun fire on both killing them. Their riddled bodies, full of holes and blood, are the coda to the film.
While I think cultural significance does play a part in how to view a movie, if the product isn’t any good, I don’t care how important it was (looking at you Easy Rider). Thankfully, the film on its own is a pretty good romp: there are plenty of laughs, excitement, and character intrigue for it to be interesting. What makes it even more impactful is realizing it’s place in cinematography history.
I believe I was able to make this connection more easily because of the run of pre-New Hollywood movies I had just seen. Those films were clearly constructed with a specific list of goals, one of them being to push a moral agenda. Wicked characters deserved no hint of humanity: it was all black and white.
While Bonnie and Clyde do not escape alive, their lives were not juxtapositioned against any moral arc. The film simply followed a group of deranged criminals who stole and killed without making many motions to judge their actions. The film is actually told from a point of empathy for them: we almost find ourselves rooting for Bonnie and Clyde to escape.
There are times the film does do a bit of moralizing, but usually from the opposite corner. Running into a man who was evicted from his house since he could no longer afford payments, Clyde gives him his gun so he could shoot it up, reducing its property value and throwing a middle finger to the upper class who is taking advantage of the hard times. Bonnie and Clyde in this moment are depicted more as a Robin Hood with a twist: stealing from the wealthy but keeping it for themselves.
Being able to play around with different perspectives makes narratives so much more interesting. “Bonnie and Clyde” showed how those we consider vile are still human.
Throughout the story, Bonnie and Clyde come out with what I consider a more fair interpretation. Instead of painting them with the broad strokes of old Hollywood, we instead get a deeper character study. The conclusion is still the same — they rightfully got what was coming to them — but now we have a fuller picture of what lead them there.
This leads to what might be a paradoxical conclusion. By sharing multiple angles, even if it muddles the moralistic picture, we become stronger in our ethics, not weaker like many people probably feared. Showing a different side of Bonnie and Clyde didn’t create more bank robbers just like depicting them as purely evil wouldn’t have prevented them.
Realizing that people can do completely vile things and still think, act, and feel like us is a more valuable lesson to learn, making us consider what really separates us from those we consider animalistic in their actions.