Regarded as a countercultural, anti-establishment rallying cry as well as being one of the films that kickstarted the New Hollywood era (though many would argue Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is the film to have done so), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde seems forever bound up with the turmoil and change of the late 1960s, as opposed to the 1930s, the period in which the film is set. It’s famous for breaking numerous cinematic taboos of the time, not least because of its bloody, violent ending, which makes the romantic freeze-frame during the finale of the later Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid seem like a weak, image-preserving cop out; there’s also the choppy editing, redolent of the French New Wave, and a sign that there’s a touch of the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard – who turned the film down – in there. Penn also defies genre conventions by shifting between comedy and brutality at the drop of a hat; one minute the cops chasing the Barrow Gang look like Keystone’s famous law enforcers, the next they’re being executed by Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow, Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker, Michael J. Pollard’s C.W. Moss or Gene Hackman’s Buck Barrow (as opposed to, y’know, harmlessly driving off piers).
The film’s harder, revolutionary, unusual-for-1967 edges are offset by some familiar and comforting Hollywood traits; crime is central to the story, of course, but at its heart this is a love story, with more tension arising from Bonnie and Clyde’s extremely tentative sex life than the issue of whether they’ll ever get caught (because everyone knew the outcome in that respect, which is why David Newman and Robert Benton were and are smart screenwriters). It’s terrific to see Beatty’s lack of confidence in the bedroom, which at once subverts Hollywood’s long-standing notion of what a leading man should be and also draws out the audience’s sympathy. Perhaps the film goes too far in pushing the angle that Barrow was a good guy – there’s no need for the constant attempts to portray him as a kind of Robin Hood figure among poor sharecroppers and farmers – but either way Beatty makes a good fist of turning Clyde into a likeable anti-hero. Dunaway is spectacular, and beautiful, and the way her character develops in the film is fascinating; I think she’s the best actor here, despite Estelle Parsons’ Oscar win for playing the understandably hysterical Blanche Barrow. This was Gene Hackman’s breakthrough role, and also Gene Wilder’s screen debut; the latter is woefully miscast as one of the Barrow Gang’s victims and, perhaps understandably given his lack of experience at the time, Wilder seems unsure as to what to do in his few scenes, desperately watching the other actors for cues. A minor quibble, though; overall this is a film that still seems full of attitude and life 50 years later. (****½)