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Bonnie and Clyde

…because before this film, violent bank-robbing criminals couldn’t be sexy, glamorous, sympathetic – and maybe even on the right side of history? Considered the first New Hollywood film, Arthur Penn’s "Bonnie and Clyde" created the modern anti-hero, portraying the title characters as morally ambiguous protagonists. The film revolutionized the depiction of violence on screen, with Penn and editor Dede Allen showing all the bloodshed and bullets in realistic detail. Star Warren Beatty believed so much in this story that he also produced the film and wrote part of the final script without credit.



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Audiences accustomed to Tony Soprano and Walter White might not realize that, once upon a time, the heroes were always the straight-laced good guys. "Bonnie and Clyde" changed our conception of this, developing the anti-hero as an alternative that fell somewhere between the boy scouts and the child molesters. Sure, the film was inspired by "Gun Crazy," a 1940’s B-movie that featured main characters based on Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, "Breathless" had similarly glamorized young, sexy criminals – so much so, in fact, that Jean-Luc Godard was even asked to direct this film until his ideas proved to be too avant-garde. And okay, "Cool Hand Luke" was also a criminal rebelling against the oppressive forces of law and order, though vandalizing parking meters isn’t exactly in the same league as armed robbery and murder. Arthur Penn’s depiction of Bonnie and Clyde as a pair of outlaws against an equally (if not more) corrupt system struck a chord with viewers. Moreover, with a lot of help from Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s chemistry, the film also suggested that Bonnie and Clyde’s love somehow transcended the illegality and possible immorality of their actions. At some level, everyone realizes that justice isn’t always the same as obeying the law, but it wasn’t until the success of "Bonnie and Clyde" that characters could reflect this aspect of real life.

"Bonnie and Clyde" was also significant for its depiction of violence and sexuality on screen. In the famous final sequence, the film both brutalizes and glamorizes the death of its main characters (and no, it’s not a spoiler alert when something actually happened in real life), showing the impact of each bullet in slow motion as it tears through the bank robbers. Editor Dede Allen reportedly insisted that they show the film’s violence in its full form. On the one hand, this fit in with the traditional “crime doesn’t pay” message of the old production codes (though again, offering a grisly depiction of Bonnie and Clyde’s demise). On the other, this implicitly casts the police officers responsible as a gang of vigilante murderers. More importantly, the stylized depiction of their death also seemed to intentionally cast Bonnie and Clyde as martyrs. The film also took an interesting approach to the couple’s romantic relationship, presenting Bonnie as the more sexually aggressive character, literally turned on by Clyde’s gun. While there were no graphic depictions of sex, the implied eroticism between Bonnie and Clyde, with Bonnie leading the charge, changed the usual dynamic between the aggressive male peer pressuring a morally upright girl into losing her virtue; in fact, Beatty had played this exact archetype in an earlier film, "Splendor in the Grass."

The making of "Bonnie and Clyde" is itself a story of passionate love in the face of a corrupt system – Warren Beatty’s love for the story against the last forces of Old Hollywood. Beatty was so committed to making "Bonnie and Clyde" that he would have been content to simply produce the film without starring in it. Even the role kind of defined his career – at one point he considered casting his sister Shirley Maclaine, who was more successful than him through her association with the Rat Pack and through films like "The Apartment." Despite the setbacks in getting the film made, this may have been a case where the multiple minds involved actually contributed to the creative output. Perhaps believing that American directors were too conservative, the film was originally offered to François Truffaut, who reportedly helped with a version of the script. The producers also asked Jean-Luc Godard to direct, though his ideas were perhaps not conservative enough. Beatty also contributed to the screenplay with his friend Robert Towne, who would go on to write the classic script for "Chinatown." The credited writers were Robert Benton and David Newman, who would both also go on to successful careers. When Arthur Penn came on board to direct, he brought a unique vision to the film that was heavily influenced by the French New Wave and in line with the iconoclastic spirit of the film. Beatty’s continued commitment to make the version of the film he wanted allowed different creative voices to chime in, all ensuring that the final result be something new and iconoclastic. Otherwise, "Bonnie and Clyde" could easily have been a long forgotten B-movie...or simply never have been made at all.

Resources

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Arthur Penn: American Director (Screen Classics)

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Arthur Penn: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series)

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Critical Insights Film: Bonnie & Clyde

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