There are many ways to make a gangster movie. Francis Ford Coppola puffed up the genre to operatic proportions in The Godfather (1972) and its 1974 sequel, an approach subsequently adopted by Brian De Palma in Scarface (1983) and Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Earlier directors — such as Raoul Walsh in White Heat (1949) or Joseph H. Lewis in Gun Crazy (1950) — instead saw stories of lawlessness primarily as opportunities to present action on screen: Having a couple make a quick exit from a hold-up the way John Dall and Peggy Cummins do in Lewis’s masterly Gun Crazy is considerably more rousing than having them quarrel during dinner.
The least likely approach, however, might be that of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which relates the misdeeds of 1930s-era bank robber Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty, doubling as producer) and his main squeeze and associate, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), with both burlesque and sentiment. In real life, the couple committed murder in addition to robbery before being felled by law enforcement in 1934.
Yes, the sweep favored by Coppola and the other makers of gangster epics risks glamorizing miscreants, and the all-action ethos of Walsh and Lewis could be confused with nihilism. Even so, none of these other films is as deferential to amoral antiheroes as Bonnie and Clyde, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. We may be in sympathy with Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or get a kick out of Cody Jarrett in White Heat, but they are hardly presented as saints in wolf’s clothing.
By contrast, Bonnie and Clyde skirts around the horror wrought by the couple while simultaneously presenting them as objects of pity. Penn achieves this by alternating laughter-inducing scenes — such as the prolonged screaming of Estelle Parsons and a rather brilliant comic vignette featuring Gene Wilder — with oh-so-sincere intimate moments, including the golden-hued encounter between Bonnie and her dear mother.
This combination led to one of the most notorious negative reviews ever penned. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther berated the film for cloaking Parker and Barrow’s crimes with light entertainment. Not realizing that he was thrashing a film soon to be christened a classic, Crowther was unsparing. “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie,” he wrote, adding, “This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste.”
Alas, Crowther’s notice inspired commentary from the likes of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” Kael asked in The New Yorker. “Too many people — including some movie reviewers — want the law to take over the job of movie criticism; perhaps what they really want is for their own criticisms to have the force of law. Such people see Bonnie and Clyde as a danger to public morality; they think an audience goes to a play or a movie and takes the actions in it as examples for imitation.”
In the short term, Kael’s position prevailed: Bonnie and Clyde was honored with two Oscar wins out of ten nominations, while Crowther’s tenure at the Old Gray Lady was finished by year’s end. But Bonnie and Clyde actually startles with its acceptance of gangsterism. The film’s opening title card about Bonnie establishes its tongue-in-cheek tone: “In 1931 she worked in a café before beginning her career in crime.” The dry wording flattens distinctions between civil and criminal society, suggesting that the transition from waiting tables to holding up banks is altogether unremarkable.
Even before we see evidence of Bonnie and Clyde’s murderousness, the pair’s indifference to property is hard to take. In the scene of their introduction, Bonnie drifts to the window of her room to observe Clyde poking his head in and around her mother’s car. As she instantly intuits, he intends to make off with it. “Hey, boy! Whatchyou doing with my mama’s car?” Clyde insists he was “thinking about buying me one,” but Bonnie knows better: “Bull! You ain’t got money for dinner, let alone buy no car,” she says, but her manner suggests she is more intrigued than outraged.
The duo’s thievery begins in earnest minutes later, when Bonnie eggs on Clyde to demonstrate his criminal bona fides. An easily wounded stripling, Clyde nonetheless marches into a grocery store and departs with a fistful of greenbacks; a warning shot is fired at the proprietor, whose life, at least, is spared. But what about that cash? Will it not be missed?
In a manner that looks ahead to Beatty’s far better Reds (1981), about American Communist journalist John Reed, Bonnie and Clyde take what they find. (“Hey, that ain’t ours!” Bonnie says when Clyde takes off with a car that isn’t his, but she soon stops objecting.) One memorable scene occurs after a foreclosed-upon homeowner stumbles on the pair squatting in his old residence. Clyde goes wild, blasting bullets into the sign affixed to the porch (“Property of Midlothian Citizens Bank”) and encouraging the kicked-out homeowner to do the same. But is private property less private when belonging to a bank?
In fact, when speaking his immortal line “We rob banks,” Beatty subtly, almost devilishly, emphasizes the word “banks,” as though the morality of the crime depended on what — or who — is being plundered. During one robbery, Clyde asks an overalls-wearing customer whether a stack of cash is his or the bank’s, and upon learning it’s the former, the robber goes into Robin Hood mode: “All right, you keep it then.” The film asks us to share a felon’s indignation.
Penn, who maintained a careful, decidedly un-rowdy tone in his excellent films The Miracle Worker (1962) and Night Moves (1975), here lacks the requisite directorial distance. When Clyde shoots and then harasses a Texas Ranger — handcuffing him, turning him around by his badge, and lecturing him using the film’s increasingly obvious New Deal politics (“You ought to be home protecting the rights of poor folk, not out chasing after us”) — Penn does little to communicate the man’s terror. Bonnie decides to force the ranger to sit for photos with the gang, proving that the female of the species can be equally malicious, but Penn saves his outrage for the finale: Prior to being punctured with bullets, Bonnie and Clyde make eye contact in a series of knowing looks, as though their ardor justifies their anarchy. As Peter Bogdanovich once aptly observed, “The brutal slow-motion massacre of Bonnie and Clyde was the ultimate (and much-imitated) anti-authoritarian deification.”
The film’s drowsy sentiment does not extend to the law officers who are killed. Penn is more comfortable with the horde of Grapes of Wrath types who attend to a wounded Bonnie and Clyde late in the picture — a helpless collective.
Ironically, Beatty found his greatest artistic success in Robert Altman’s knockabout paean to capitalism, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which featured the unforgettable sight of the actor listening to Julie Christie outline a brothel’s business plan while she puts away a plate of eggs. Later, Beatty embraced law and order, in cartoon form, in Dick Tracy (1990). Imagine a version of that strikingly bold, bright film in which “Big Boy” Caprice or Mumbles were the heroes, while Dick Tracy was an anonymous cop! Such is the world Bonnie and Clyde asks us to inhabit, leaving us to wonder: Was Bosley Crowther so wrong?
– Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.