Bonnie and Clyde saw an entirely new era of film making begin to take shape. Leaving behind the style and content restrictions of the old studio system and melding the results with the French new-wave, the film has an astonishing number of firsts for a major American picture and fuelled the nascent careers of its stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and its co-stars -the two Gene's, Hackman and Wilder.

 Two years prior to Easy Rider (1969) and it's re-laying of the foundations of studio pictures, Arthur Penn took a real-life story of gangsters and turned into a noir-ish tale of sexual repression and violence as pornography, reflecting the characters depravity back at the audience.



We first meet Bonnie Parker as she stands topless in her bedroom. Immediately this, though concealing of her modesty, sends a message to the audience: there will be a strong sexual undercurrent to the events depicted in the film. In actuality, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were companions and smitten with each other very early into their criminal activities but the film depicts the character of Clyde -and it's an important distinction to make between 'character' and 'real life person' in this instance- as a sexually stunted, shy -in a physical sense- creature. This is made amusing by the casting of notorious womaniser Beatty in the role and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie.

Bonnie and Clyde

Indeed, in the original script written by David Newman, Robert Newman and an uncredited Robert Towne the character of Clyde was written as bisexual. Director Arthur Penn decided to remove it as it made the character too far into the realm of having too many quirks, as the tone of the film was already comedic in intention. One early scene sees Bonnie stroking Clyde's gun, in a way that's as suggestive as you might imagine it to be. For a character like Clyde to be stunted in that way, despite his machismo was quite unique for the time.

Penn's decisions on the tone of the film were what would lead to the new Hollywood movement of the seventies. A time of freedom and a rise in the power of director under what Cahiers Du Cinema had labelled as the Auteur theory. The theory of a director having a visible style that carried over between films. Penn took a lot of influence from the French New wave, particularly from Jean Luc-Godard's Breathless (1960) which had a similar story of criminal activities between young lovers and took some of the formal content too, with the fractured editing. This would all be absorbed by Hollywood and its new-wave of directors within a decade, but here Penn deployed it in that classic studio system genre: the gangster picture. The comedic overtones would almost make it a parody of those '30s pictures if it wasn't for how extraordinarily violent the picture is. Images that previously would have been censored under the Hays code were now being shown and not just implied. Blood splattered faces are almost gleefully deployed and the film enjoys a particularly grizzly climax.

Bonnie and Clyde

The actors understand the tone the film is aiming for, with Beatty all dumb smiles and charisma and Dunaway playing the femme-fatale for all its worth. The supporting performances from Gene Hackman, boisterous and more over-the-top as Clyde's brother, Buck, and from Estelle Parsons -in an Oscar winning role- as his nervous recent bride Blanche are excellent and transform the film from an early two-hander and into an ensemble piece. Gene Wilder also appears in a small early role as an innocent bystander who is dragged into the journey when the gang steals his car. He brings his typical jittery exasperation to his role.

What proves to the duo's eventual undoing and a cautionary early tale of the power of the media -and lust for celebrity- is a predilection for taking photos of themselves with various captives. In an instance of wanting to be famous -or infamous- they have their picture taken with a highway patrol man that they have accosted. The patrolman, played by Denver Pyle, is humiliated by their childish prank and vows to be the man that captures them. To give them “one last photo opportunity” as he puts it. In some way, he represents the intention of the director onto the audience. Sure, it's fun to watch Bonnie and Clyde tear around the country killing and robbing banks but should we be thinking that it's fun? Or should we be horrified? It's that thin line between parody and realism that gives the film its edge and made it so different for 1967.

Bonnie and Clyde

One person who wasn’t impressed with initial screenings was Jack L. Warner. Indeed, the studio basically dumped the movie into cinemas as a second run feature. But audiences loved it and so too would the Academy Awards with the film being nominated in many categories including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Screenplay and winning for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress. This would haunt Warner to his grave, still hating the film despite its massive success.

The legacy of the film itself, as it hits its fiftieth anniversary, looms large over the cinematic landscape of the decades that followed. As one of the first to show and tell its more morally duplicitous acts, it stood away from the restrictions of the past and pointed a way towards a cinematically more adventurous future. In an era where medium sized feature films get sporadic releases and multiplex cinema is dominated by hyper-budget features, maybe it's time a similar revolution occurred.