Bonnie and Clyde premiered at the Montreal Film Festival on 4 August 1967 before opening in New York on 13 August.
In his contemporary review of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), critic Roger Ebert stated: “This is pretty clearly the best American film of the year. It is also a landmark. Years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s…” Fifty years on, at least in terms of American cinema, Ebert’s prescient comment still rings true.
Based on the true-life story of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, from a script by two young Esquire magazine employees (David Newman and Robert Benton), the film sounded the starting gun on the so-called New American Cinema, hastening the demise of an already declining studio system and opening the floodgates to the director-led Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and 70s. In the era of the Vietnam war, civil rights protests and flower power, Bonnie and Clyde resonated with a disillusioned young audience ready for something new, an American cinema that would speak for a radical, nonconformist generation.
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Bonnie and Clyde’s graphic violence, explicit acknowledgement of female sexuality and morally ambiguous stance towards its glamorous outsider criminals – a devilishly handsome Warren Beatty and a pouting, frustrated yet liberated Faye Dunaway – all contributed to a film that helped topple the Production Code. But perhaps its most important legacy was in its innovative marriage of European arthouse and traditional American filmmaking styles, taking the best of both worlds to create a more sophisticated, complex approach to specifically American subjects.
Watching the film today, director Arthur Penn’s self-conscious and visually striking sense of cinematic style still impresses. From the opening credits, depicting period photographs accompanied by the sound of camera clicks suggestive of gun shots, through to the film’s boldly original framing, employing windows, glass and mirrors as recurring visual motifs, Bonnie and Clyde constantly experiments with the tools of cinema, clearly echoing movements such as the French New Wave. Its shocking jumps in tone and blurring of genres were largely unseen in mainstream Hollywood, and unsurprisingly it divided the critics. In fact, Bonnie and Clyde indirectly put a bullet in the belly of old-guard film criticism, with Pauline Kael’s 9,000 word New Yorker review establishing her as an influential new voice.
Clearly Penn’s film touched a nerve. Along with other trailblazers such as The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), it would change the face of American filmmaking. But what were its cinematic forebears? How did we reach that point where a Hollywood film might aid the destruction of the system that (reluctantly) allowed for its creation? Here are five films that provide some clues.
Director: Howard Hawks
A film that pushed the boundaries of violence and sex was nothing new. In 1932, the Howard Hawks-directed Scarface grappled with the Hays Office over its perceived glamorisation of Chicago bootlegger Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte (Paul Muni), loosely based on gangster Al Capone. With Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931) having already escalated the body count, Scarface upped the ante again, depicting the brutal machine-gunning of rival gang-members in a scene based on the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, imaginatively captured using silhouettes. But its influence went beyond challenging the limits of screen violence. Similarities with Bonnie and Clyde include the breaking of sexual taboos (intimated incest in Scarface, impotence in Penn’s film), 1930s-era crooks using cars, guns and sharp-dressed fashion, as well as the suggestion of weaponry producing feminine arousal.
Gun Crazy (1950)
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
In 1964 François Truffaut arranged for a screening of Joseph H. Lewis’s cult classic for Bonnie and Clyde scriptwriters Newman and Benton, who were hoping the Frenchman might direct their script. Lewis provides distinctive visual flair in his version of criminal-lovers-on-the-run, with tight close-ups, striking framing and inventive long takes – famously, a three-and-a-half minute one-shot bank robbery sequence seemingly filmed from the back seat of a car. Jean-Luc Godard, also considered for Bonnie and Clyde directing duties, was another famous fan, and Gun Crazy heavily influenced his debut Breathless (1960). To round out the list of admirers, Arthur Penn would put Faye Dunaway in a beret as an homage to Gun Crazy’s bad girl Annie (Peggy Cummins).
Seven Samurai (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Perhaps better known for its influence on films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Star Wars (1977), Akira Kurosawa’s epic adventure of seven farmer-saving samurai proved an unlikely source of inspiration for Arthur Penn’s most infamous scene: the disturbingly violent ambush of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn admired Kurosawa’s use of slow motion in violent death scenes, but felt that for his film he wanted to “change the speeds and then, through cutting, get a kind of balletic result”. The upshot is a savage assassination lasting for almost a minute and splicing together more than 50 shots – a scene of visceral force designed to make audiences experience the genuine brutality of violence and leave viewers open-mouthed in shock.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Stylistically, Breathless delighted in upending filmmaking traditions and experimenting with novel techniques (jump cuts, the freedom of hand-held location work, playing fast and loose with the conventions of genre and tone). But aside from its aesthetic impact, Breathless also felt modern, vital and youthfully rebellious. Its attitude, personified in the nonchalantly cool presence of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Lucky Strike smoking crook, and crop-haired, free-spirited Jean Seberg, appealed to a generation increasingly at odds with their conservative elders. Penn’s film took style and attitude tips from Godard’s noir-influenced romance, openly citing its debt in a number of scenes, most notably in Clyde’s wearing of sunglasses with one lens missing à la Belmondo.
Shoot the Pianist (1960) / Jules et Jim (1962)
Director: François Truffaut
Bonnie and Clyde can be seen as something of a mixture of Truffaut’s early 60s films, combining the quick tonal shifts from clowning to violence of the gangster-filled Shoot the Pianist – complete with incongruous, impulsive musical interludes – and the camaraderie, fated romance, darkening mood and nostalgia of Jules et Jim’s famous love triangle. Writer Benton was so taken with the latter that he reportedly saw it 12 times – and even though Truffaut could not be persuaded to direct, he offered a number of suggestions for Bonnie and Clyde’s final script. It seems only appropriate that the New Wave, so influenced by classic-period American crime dramas – Godard even named Scarface as best American sound film – should complete the circle and help to inspire a bold, complex, exhilarating New American Cinema.