Bonnie and Clyde’s violence, especially its final shootout, busted cinematic taboos – and set the stage for how we watch films now, writes Luke Buckmaster.
By Luke Buckmaster
Two on-the-run criminal lovers drive down a country road on a pleasant summer’s day. The couple smile and canoodle, taking bites out of a juicy green pear. When they notice a person stranded by the side of the road, the driver pulls over to lend a hand. When he gets out, a flock of startled birds fly out of the trees across the street. What spooked them?
The answer arrives a moment later: it’s a trap. A torrent of gunfire, from trigger-happy police hiding behind bushes, suddenly pummels the ambushed lovers, tossing them around like rag dolls. Countless bullets puncture their torso, limbs and faces. A close-up shot shows one enter the man’s cheek; another his forehand.
Eventually the gunfire stops. The male bandit lies dead on the ground. The woman’s corpse dangles out of the car, which now looks like Swiss cheese on wheels. The gun-toting cops emerge from the bushes. The film cuts to black. The closing credits appear.
This is the sensational finale to the watershed 1967 crime drama Bonnie and Clyde: a high-voltage, take-no-prisoners sequence that is among the most famous – and most shocking – endings in cinema history. It is made even more distressing by the beauty of the actors being so memorably obliterated: Faye Dunaway as Bonnie and Warren Beatty (also a producer of the film) as Clyde.
It was confronting back then, and remains so today. In fact, it is hard to believe Bonnie and Clyde is now half-a-century old, given the gut-busting impact this scene (and others in the film) still has. Its director, Arthur Penn, intended the shot depicting a part of Clyde’s brain being blown away by a bullet to remind audiences of the JFK assassination, providing some indication of the creative mentality behind it.
The film had a profound impact on cinema and popular culture more broadly. Bonnie and Clyde rewrote the rules on screen violence, paving the way for a new and more liberal film classification system in the US, introduced the year following its release: the Motion Picture Association of America ratings guidelines, still in effect to this day.
Countless films took cues from it. It is virtually inconceivable that Sonny Corleone would have experienced his rain of bullets in The Godfather, for example, if Bonnie and Clyde hadn’t swallowed lead before him. Likewise for Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
References to Bonnie and Clyde spread far and wide in popular culture. They are present in songs from Jay Z and Beyoncé, Lulu Gainsbourg and Scarlett Johansson and Eminem. There was a 2011 Broadway production and a two-part 2013 TV miniseries, as well as countless books, paintings and other artworks – though it is difficult to know whether these were primarily influenced by the film or the subjects it is based on. The real-life Bonnie and Clyde inspired several productions before Penn’s, such as 1950’s noir-esque action-drama Gun Crazy, and 1958’s The Bonnie Parker Story, featuring a memorably hot-blooded performance from Dorothy Provine. But none of them were like this.
While everybody still talks about the impact of Bonnie and Clyde’s most risqué moments – especially those breathtaking final images – the film’s influence extends even further than revolutionising screen violence. Bonnie and Clyde shook the very foundations of Hollywood, playing a major role in steering the US film industry towards a new, exciting, history-defining direction.
Initially a box-office flop, Bonnie and Clyde was re-released following an enthusiastic reception in England. There, as author Peter Biskind explained in his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: “It became a hit, more than a hit, a phenomenon.” Bonnie and Clyde soon became a phenomenon in the US too. Many critics at the time gave it a hostile response, but it wasn’t without plaudits, securing 10 Academy Award nominations.
Inspired by the work of French film-makers such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (both of whom, at various points, were attached to direct it) Bonnie and Clyde signaled the arrival of a new wave of European-inspired American films, infused with contemporary – and often cynical – sensibilities. This movement was dubbed by the press as the “New Hollywood.”
We see some of those sensibilities reflected in the film’s attitudes towards the banks. Bonnie and Clyde takes place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the backdrop an economically ravaged America where there is some respect for the rule of law, but certainly none for the banks. In an important early scene, Bonnie and Clyde bond with a man whose house has been repossessed. Bonnie describes this as “a pitiful shame”.
The film’s screenwriters, David Newman and Robert Benton, resist painting the lead characters as gooseflesh-raising villains. This is partly why the ending packs such a punch: it feels less like the defeat of evildoers than the murder of, if not average, then certainly unremarkable people. In several scenes, Bonnie and Clyde seem genuinely bewildered that anybody would wish them harm.
The film’s unusual sexual energy and politics also contributed to its controversy. The innuendo is blatant from the start. Shortly after the two characters meet, Bonnie lasciviously dangles a (rather phallic) neck of a coke bottle from her mouth, then a moment later strokes Clyde’s revolver, which is positioned in front of his crotch. The original script even had a ménage à trois sequence, which was ultimately removed. There are no sex scenes between Bonnie and Clyde, because there can’t be: Clyde is impotent. And with this comes the provocative suggestion that his gun has, in a certain sense, replaced his penis.
Arthur Penn never directed another film as famous as Bonnie and Clyde. But through this one iconic work he played a part in creating a culture where US film-makers could become mega celebrities. The New Hollywood movement brought about the rise of auteurism in America – a system that credits the director of a film as its primary author. This shifted power out of the hands of studio producers, who had long gripped the industry in a chokehold.
That power ultimately returned to them, when the modern blockbuster (with its massive, potentially studio-sinking budgets) began dominating in the 1980s. This new movement was kicked off the previous decade by Jaws and Star Wars.
But before then, the New Hollywood ushered in a staggering array of great directors. This list includes some of the finest and most influential film-makers of the modern era, such as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma. Every one of these artists, and countless others, owes something to Bonnie and Clyde.
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