The Faded Realism of Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde is one of those movies of lasting importance but not lasting impact. Its revolutionary depiction of violence on-screen, as well as its embodiment of the sixties youth counterculture’s angst and aspirations, have assured its place in the history of American cinema, but what once must have appeared a work of raw power, unbridled life, and stylistic verve now seems more like a peculiar relic from a different time.

That’s not to say that being outdated makes a movie bad. I appreciate a lot of old-fashioned movies, often precisely because they are old-fashioned. Moreover, Bonnie and Clyde isn’t bad; it’s just diminished.

Taking inspiration from the French New Wave, director Arthur Penn fashions his movie about the notorious Depression-era bank-robbing duo loosely and freely, deliberately flouting many of the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. The story is meandering and the editing jumpy. The characters are complicated and lack straightforward goals. However, viewed after more than 40 years since its release, many of Penn’s attempts at irregularity and playfulness now appear overwrought or calculatedly messy.

For example, the erratic camera movements of the opening scene in Bonnie’s bedroom suggest her antsy mood. But Faye Dunaway’s bored, restless shifting is a little too postured to strike us as naturalistic—not unlike James Dean’s affected hunch in Rebel without a Cause. When the camera pushes in on Bonnie’s pouting face framed by the brass rails of her footboard, the suggestion of her imprisonment is a little too direct to be cool.

Seen today, the film’s performances seem to be trying awfully hard for “realism” and “psychological complexity.” For instance, Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) awkward attempts at lovemaking with Bonnie, which hint at either impotence or alternative sexual tastes, are overdone.

The psychological complexity of the characters has faded. Dunaway’s Bonnie and Beatty’s Clyde in particular are less interesting as biographical persons (they’re not terribly accurate portraits of the real-life criminals) and more as epitomes of 1960s rebellious youth. Efforts made during the production to distinguish these two from the typical screen heroes of studio-era Hollywood now read as the beginnings of new screen conventions: their angst, their foregrounded, complicated sexualities, and their mix of both likeable and repugnant qualities became the new norms for protagonists in 1970s Hollywood.

While much of the film’s power and rawness has faded over time, the violence still stands out. The graphicness and the frequency of the violence were remarkable in 1967; today, the boisterous quality of the violence is most distinctive. The film’s celebration of Bonnie and Clyde’s violent response to authority—a result of the countercultural milieu of the film’s production—contains a lingering and dangerous electric charge. The film’s unusual shifts from brutality to action bordering on slapstick further unsettles the viewer.

Many film buffs praise the New Hollywood cinema that Bonnie and Clyde helped usher in for its gritty realism. Moments in Arthur Penn’s landmark film are evidence, though, that “realism” is only a set of conventions like any other artistic mode, and that all of these conventions are susceptible to change over time.

Bonnie and Clyde (USA, 1967)

Directed by Arthur Penn; screenplay by David Newman & Robert Benton; starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons.