Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde

Lester D. Friedman (ed),
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
ISBN 0-521-59697-1

(Review copy supplied by Cambridge University Press)

Uploaded 1 March 2001

It is nearly seventy years since the notorious Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed on the roadside in Louisiana, their bodies pulverized by a barrage of more than eighty bullets. It is over thirty years since the release of Arthur Penn’s landmark film, Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The American Depression-era criminals and Penn’s glamorous incarnations appear to share little in common, except their legendary ability to generate, in the media and the public, intense and often opposing reactions.

In the late 60s, the powerful influence of Penn’s film on audiences, film theorists, and critics was due to its innovative style and controversial thematic. However, the film’s impact was also intrinsically enmeshed in its ability to have expressed the disenchantment of a youth culture with the society of the time.

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, edited by Lester D. Friedman for the Cambridge Film Handbooks series, brings together a selection of essays that explore historical, cultural, and contemporary issues. In his introductory essay, Friedman states that the focus of the collection is the film’s cultural and critical reception, its place in American culture, and its technical and thematic aspects. He also suggests that the film remains “compelling” today due to audiences’ “fundamental response” to the figures of Bonnie and Clyde as fated individuals “struggling” to find connection.

Diane Carson’s essay, “It’s never the way I knew them”, offers a “rare” history of Bonnie and Clyde through firsthand accounts, FBI reports, and media coverage. She illustrates how the legend that Parker and Barrow initiated has perpetuated to the point where Penn’s film defines, for many, what is regarded as an accurate portrayal. Her essay voices a central concern that underlies much of the discussion surrounding this film – Bonnie and Clyde’s story “provided all the elements for mythic fabrication.”

With its Hollywood “insider” anecdotes, Penn’s “Making waves” is an entertaining read. Paying homage to Kurosawa for “inspiring” his “spastic, yet balletic” conclusion, Penn claims his decision to formally set the film in the past was influenced by the ways in which the story of Bonnie and Clyde became a cipher for an element of Depression-era society. Strangely, Penn then feels driven to attack Pauline Kael’s career-making defense of his film, which is reprinted in the collection. Although noting that Kael’s article is “sometimes insightful”, he claims that she fails to acknowledge him as the sole “creator” of this film because of her animosity to “auteur theory”.

One cannot help but swiftly turn to Kael’s review, but just before Kael’s piece is a reprint of one of Bosley Crowther’s outraged reviews. Writing in 1967, Crowther is appalled by the way in which this film shifts between violence and “slapstick”. His vitriolic attack is founded on moral indignation at what he perceives to be the glamorization of a “notorious”, but “sleazy and moronic pair”. While Kael’s review marks her ascension, Crowther’s failure to register the changing sensibilities of the period ended his career. In the 60s, as Kael’s review so aptly observes, this film brought into the “almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people [had] been feeling and saying and writing about.” Penn’s anger towards Kael’s vibrant, intelligent, and complex review is unjustified. Although she chastises the film’s easy resolution of the hero’s impotence, and argues that a “knowing” audience will not accept this “sop”, she claims the film is a “work of art”.

Again, in David Newman’s “What’s it really all about?” we find a combative response to the inclusion of another contribution – Liora Moriel’s “Erasure and taboo: a queer reading of Bonnie and Clyde“. Newman attempts to put to rest questions about sexual ambiguity that have always surrounded this film. In researching the film, Newman and fellow scriptwriter, Robert Benton, came across “rumours” that Clyde was bisexual and that the couple engaged in “ménage à trois. The decision to delete these elements from the film was based on Beatty’s concern for his image, and Penn’s fear that the suggestion of homosexuality would alienate the audience. Then Newman testily recounts how he received a call from a fellow contributor who claimed that on reviewing the film, as “a lesbian woman in her forties”, realized it was about “homosexuality”. Newman insists that what the film is “really about” is the counter culture of the 60s and a desire for community.

Turning straight to Moriel’s essay we are offered, in confessional style, a brief personal history and an extensive and unnecessary discussion of what this “new” thing called “queer theory” is! However, Moriel’s investigation of how, from script to film, “blasé homosexuality” is replaced by an impotent man, and the heterosexual family is replaced by the gang, is an engaging and intelligent read, which brings to light the film’s subversive nature.

Matthew Bernstein’s “Model criminals: visual style in Bonnie and Clyde” is a thoughtful and often beautiful analysis of the film’s hybrid style. Bernstein argues that the “free-form approach” of the film’s editing and visual style captures nuances that express the characters’ sensibilities, and the contradictory traits of the gang.

There is nothing in Stephen Prince’s “The hemorrhaging of American cinema” that we can’t already find in his text on Sam Peckinpah, Savage Cinema. Prince’s analysis of Penn’s film in relation to the cultural conditions of the 60s is insightful. However, his essay then descends into an attack on “screen violence” and includes the unsubstantiated claim that most “evidence” supports the position that it has “aggression-inducing properties”.

Steven Allan Carr’s “From ‘fucking cops!’ to ‘fucking media!'” involves an extensive analysis of how a discourse on violence and media is apparent in Warner’s Bonnie and Clyde and its 90s update, Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994). Carr argues that this discourse “charges” the films with “ideological significance”. His thesis is that what is frequently termed deviant by politicians and “sensationalized” by the media is often quite mainstream. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was, for a “youth culture”, subversive. By the time Warner’s released Natural Born Killers, the youth audience and their “position as ‘knowing spectators'” had been thoroughly compromised.

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde offers a varied collection of essays, as well as including a filmography of Penn’s work, and a selected bibliography. Perhaps the collection’s greatest feat is that in developing a dialogue between its pages, it manages to again evoke the controversy that has always surrounded this film.

Note : The contributors listing for Stephen Prince is incorrect. He is the editor of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, not the writer.

Gabrielle Murray

About the Author

Gabrielle Murray

About the Authors

Gabrielle Murray

Gabrielle Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Cinema Studies program at La Trobe University in Australia. She has published in several journals, edited anthologies and is the author of This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah.View all posts by Gabrielle Murray →