Hollywood, Nihilism, and the Youth Culture of the Sixties:
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Lawrence L. Murray
The 1960s has not proven to be an epoch which readily lends itself to ease of analysis and comprehension. From the beginning, in the snow and cold of Washington when John F. Kennedy proclaimed that the torch had been passed, to its close in a hail of gunfire on a grassy knoll at Kent State University when the flame was extinguished, a montage of eclectic events transpired to assault the national consciousness. In the ongoing historical quest for simplifications and generalization, Jim E. Heath has arranged the disparate occurrences around the amorphous thesis that it was a "decade of disillusionment." Similarly, Andrew Kopkind and James Ridgeway sought to bring order from chaos by erecting a vague framework in which crisis was the common denominator. The most thorough study to date, that of William L. O'Neill, has fallen on the dramatic phrase "coming apart" as its descriptive theme. l
Although a more restricted endeavor, reconstructing the history of American film during that period is an equally elusive task. One can describe and catalog the significant movies as John Baxter has, but organizing and synthesizing all of the events, issues, and personalities into a cohesive whole has thus far not been attempted.2 Whichever perspective is taken, contradictions abound. For example, attendance figures and box-office receipts inched forward and though the annual increments were not overwhelming, it was the first sustained forward movement since World War II. Yet audience surveys found that theater clientele constituted an ever more skewed sector of the population as nearly every viewer was under thirty. The studio system continued to falter and such corporate conglomerates as Gulf and Western and Transamerica absorbed Paramount and United Artists amidst rumors of renewed antitrust action. The symbiotic relationship between television and the movies, developed in the late i9$os, began to disintegrate as Hollywood was more and more being transformed into Television Gty. What had begun as cooperation ended in competition with the CBS announcement that it was establishing its own film division and the other networks following suit. There was a boom in new construction as over a thousand new theaters opened in the last half of the decade. But production continued to hover around 230 new releases yearly and exhibitors complained that there were not enough features to sustain their emporiums. The reorganization of the Motion Picture Association of America under Jack Valenti and the imposition of a rating system with the collapse of the old Hays Code seemed to herald an opportunity for pursuing more mature and sophisticated themes. Such an assumption, however, was counterbalanced by demands for censorship of movies that were too violent and sexually explicit.3 Amidst this welter of crosscurrents, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) appeared, one of the most discussed and controversial films of the decade. Few pictures have generated as much critical analysis, and the process continues a decade later.
Bonnie and Clyde was the creation of David Newman and Robert Benton. 4 While working as art director and editor respectively of Esquire in 1964, the two satirically-inclined writers collaborated on a screenplay. The appetite of these novices for such a venture was whetted by the profound filmic influence of "New "Wave" directors, particularly Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Newman and Benton had been caught up in the euphoria of what Cahiers du Cinema termed "the furious springtime of world cinema," the transition of movies from a means of escape to a means of approaching a problem. As they recalled it, three factors coalesced to provide the immediate impetus. First was their belief that the mood of American society was in the process of change, that there was a shift in attitudes which they described in an article, "The New Sentimentality," published by Esquire in June, 1964. Second was their fascination with the revelations contained in a new book by John Toland, The Dillinger Days.5 Finally, daily attendance at a month-long retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock pictures sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art convinced them to move forward with their scheme.
Of course, in a larger sense, as John Cawelti has noted, their script grew out of a "complex cultural and artistic background: the reality and legend of the historical Bonnie and Clyde, the American artistic tradition of the gangster film, and the new-wave French film."6 In a comparable vein, film critic Tom Milne emphasized the reactive or responsive quality of Bonnie and Clyde, that it was an American reply to the stranglehold that French directors, notably Truffaut in Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Godard in Bande a Part (1964), had on the gangster film genre. 7
Developing a scenario about the exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde
Barrow was a project with little likelihood of success. Neither Newman
nor Benton had any experience in screenwriting and were totally ignorant
of how to compose a treatment. More importantly, the subject had been reworked
several times by Hollywood: Fritz Lang in You Only Live Twice (1937)1
Nicholas Ray in They Live By Night (1948), James E. Lewis in Gun
Crazy ( 1949), and William Witney in The Bonnie Parker Story (1958).
The prospect that their script would ever be filmed was diminished further
when the writers decided that they would accept only Frangois Truffaut
as the director and wrote with him in mind.
Their naivete, chutzpah they called it, was substantially mitigated by well-connected friends. Two of them, equally ignorant of the movie business but enthusiastic about the sketchy treatment, thought that producing a movie would be exciting. They took out an option and provided working capital. Another acquaintance, Helen Scott of the French Film Office in New York, was also intrigued and she forwarded the treatment with her recommendation to her friend Truffaut. The director was captivated by what he read, and during a visit to America a month later spent three days with Benton and Newman offering constructive criticisms. However, he avoided committing himself. That they were not decisively rejected was embraced by the writers as a good omen. They left their jobs, journeyed to Texas to conduct research, and began drafting a shooting script.
For eighteen months, Benton and Newman floundered about in search of a director or possibly a studio when it briefly seemed that Truffaut might yet be available.8 They were rejected at every turn; even Arthur Penn—the eventual director—refused to read the script as his schedule was fu1l. 9 Frustrated, they authored a book which went unpublished, free-lanced several magazine articles, and scripted a musical play about Superman which ran four weeks on Broadway. While they were engaged in these other affairs. Warren Beatty contacted them and asked to read the scenario. He said his interest had been piqued during a conversation with Truffaut.
Beatty's reading convinced him that Bonnie and Clyde was a viable commodity, but he would only become involved if he owned the property. Benton and Newman allowed their initial agreement to lapse and sold an option to Beatty for $10,000, against a final payment of $75,000. The actor originally intended to find someone else who would actually produce the film while he played the lead role, but the exigencies of the situation led to him assuming both parts.10
The decision to engage Arthur Penn as the director was also Beatty's. 11 Penn initially was uninterested as he was involved in the early stages of Little Big Man (1970). Beatty's insistence and the attraction of the "outlaw" quality of Bonnie and Clyde meshed to convince him to participate. 12 Like Beatty, he was captivated by the relationship of the two figures to an era in which "the country was destitute, in the grip of a depression which was not only economic, but was also a state of mind." Bonnie and Clyde "were a product of their times," the director thought, "historical figures in the social-political situation. . . ."" Penn's major contribution to the screenplay was in developing more of a sense of the period and emphasizing the socioeconomic chaos. Additionally, he was responsible for placing a premium on the legendary quality, the mythical aspects. The director accurately perceived that the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, the alienation of the young from standard social conventions, was quite comparable to his image of the 1960s. His intent was "to make a modern film whose action takes place in the past," to appeal to the sensibilities of a youthful audience caught in the throes of rebelliousness and challenge. He believed the allegory would be strengthened by giving increased attention to a time frame unfamiliar to the under-thirty generation. 14
The scenario written by Benton and Newman drew primarily upon information contained in The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde: As Told by Bonnie's Mother and Clyde's Sister (Emma Parker and Nell Barrow Cowan), edited and compiled by Jan 1. Fortune. 16 Other accounts were available, especially the voluminous newspaper reports, Frank Hamer's rendition of his killing of Bonnie and Clyde as recounted in Walter Prescott Webb's The Texas Rangers, and Toland's The Dillinger Days.16 While these may have been consulted —Toland has accused them of utilizing material he discovered about John Dillinger and ascribing it to Bonnie and Clyde—the writers preferred the more subjective portrayal in spite of its obvious inaccuracies." "We had decided early on that, for dramatic purposes, certain figures of considerable importance in true history had to be eliminated, certain adventures altered or dropped, certain facts ignored and certain legends adhered to [and] certain characters combined from many into one for the sake of simplification. . . .” They were much more enthralled with listening "to the language patterns, the speech cadences, the colloquialisms, so as to insure absolute accuracy of dialog."
Shooting the film proved to be relatively simply. Penn performed masterfully
in bringing the production in on time and within budget, 2·5 million
dollars." He and Beatty had only one disagreement, that relative to the
casting of Bonnie's part. The producer had wanted his sister, Shirley MacLaine,
while the director preferred Faye Dunaway." Penn won that dispute as well
as a more important one concerning editing the final cut. Over the objections
of Jack Warner, whose company distributed the film, the director did the
cutting in New York with his close associate Dede Alien. Penn believed
that his previous difficulties in film had resulted from his lack of control
over the final cut.20
The collaboration of Benton and Newman with Beatty and Penn worked exceedingly we1l. 21 The only problem centered around the sexual activities of Bonnie, Clyde, and C. W. Moss, a composite figure of several individuals who had been members of the gang. The original draft had them functioning as a menage-a-trois, with Clyde unable to perform sexually without the stimulation of a third participant. Both Penn and Beatty worried about labeling the hero as a sexual deviant, feeling that such a characterization would turn audiences off and lead to the conclusion that every action he performed was done because he was a pervert. That there was some sexual dysfunction within the group, the exact nature of which was not known, was thought by Penn to be a vital element for the dynamics of the characters and their relationships. Eventually, a group decision emerged in which it was agreed that Clyde would be portrayed as impotent. Otherwise, "the collaboration between myself [Penn] and the scriptwriters was quite real"; "basically" it was their film.22 Benton and Newman were more than satisfied, testifying that "it was the film we all wanted to make, the film Arthur Penn
John Cawelti has identified what he felt to be two "major changes" between the original script and what was shot, but in doing so he failed to recognize that the initial screenplay was changed in cooperation with the writers. Furthermore no one expected religious adherence to the first draft. Most of what Penn and Beatty recommended was incorporated in revisions written by Benton and Newman themselves. The alterations were not fundamental; rather they amounted basically to deletions of what might be construed as extraneous material so as to tighten the narrative.23
The plot and narrative of Bonnie and Clyde are relatively easy
to follow and understand, factors which no doubt contributed to its enormous
popularity. The film opens with several photographs of the two principal
characters and the period interspersed with the credits. After the
final credit, two title cards containing brief biographical information
appear, establishing the setting as Texas in 1931. The technique enhanced
what many reviewers would call its "documentary-like" or "pseudo-documentary"
quality. The cards dissolve into the bedroom of Bonnie Parker, who is sitting
naked, involved in thought about the dull, unhappy life she is leading
as a waitress in a small-town cafe. Her attention is distracted by a man
who has come into her yard, apparently to steal her mother's car. Bonnie
calls to him and then, drawn by some excitement or animal magnetism, quickly
dresses and goes down to talk to him. The two walk into town, with Clyde
Barrow deriding Bonnie's boring life while bragging about his daring, his
prison background, and his gun.
Taunted in turn by Bonnie, Clyde proves his courage by holding up a grocery store and the two roar off in a stolen car. Their escape is punctuated by rapid banjo music that gives the scene the quality of a Keystone Kop's escapade. Thrilled and sexually stimulated, Bonnie throws herself at Clyde only to discover that he is impotent. Though unable to satisfy her sexually, Clyde does come to dominate Bonnie through a combination of flattery and force of personality.
Two confused, ineffective robberies follow. The first is at a bank, but it fails and produces no cash. Angered and embarrassed, Clyde shoots out the windows. The second is the holdup—for food—of a grocery in which a butcher attacks Clyde with a meat cleaver. Clyde pistol-whips the man and finally shoots him to avoid his grasp. The affair befuddles him:
Why'd he try to kill me? I didn't want to hurt him. Try to get something to eat around here and some son-of-a-bitch comes up on you with a meat cleaver. I ain't against him. I ain't against him.In these early stages, Penn has developed a farce that is hard to accept seriously. Ineptitude is at a premium. More importantly, criminal actions are attributed to accidents of circumstance and it is strongly indicated that they are not very malicious. On the contrary, the protagonists emerge as reasonably attractive—physically and psychologically—figures who are simply rebelling against the system. Vicarious identification by viewers is certainly possible.
Bonnie and Clyde bring C. W. Moss, a not-very-bright but hero-Worshiping country boy, into their activities. With C. W- driving, they rob a bank. They brutally shoot a pursuing teller because of the stupidity of Moss who temporarily lodged the getaway vehicle between two parked cars. The gang is now subjected to a widespread manhunt. The emotions of the audience are wrenched by the wanton slaying of the teller and the vivid, realistic photography. (According to Penn's philosophy, "In film, when you show a death, it should have that shock effect." "The trouble with violence in most films is that it is not violent enough.") The seriocomic quality of the earlier episodes dissolves. Having been led to empathize with Bonnie and Clyde and to perceive them as likable people who have accidentally fallen into a life of crime, the audience is confused as to how to respond to the transition. The recurring banjo music becomes more macabre; Bonnie and Clyde is not the Keystone Kop comedy first assumed.
The frequency and intensity of the gang's violent behavior increases after Clyde's brother Buck and his wife Blanche join them in hiding. The police discover their location and attempt to capture them. The group narrowly escapes amidst a hail of gunfire with Blanche screaming hysterically and running about madly. Three policemen are killed, and the gang is marked for destruction. A Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, is instructed to hunt them down.
The gang eludes the police for a while. They glory in the role of hunted celebrities, reading of their exploits in the papers. Yet the increasing pressure of flight creates tensions, particularly between Blanche and Bonnie. Increasingly Bonnie is becoming aware that their criminal behavior is just another destructive trap and at one point tries to flee. Clyde brings her back, however, and the two are drawn into an even closer relationship. After a desperate but futile attempt to recapture their old lives by attending a picnic with Bonnie's relatives, they realize that they cannot go back, that they have only one another. But a scene with Bonnie's mother in which the girl expresses her desire never to live more than a mile away revives the audience's sympathies for her and Clyde. This constant change in tone, from burlesque to pathos, from empathy to revulsion, marks the entire production. Viewers are constantly emotionally off balance, never knowing quite how to react for fear there will be a shift in the next scene.
The audience senses that the end is near when, after a second narrow escape, the gang is quickly trapped again; this time Buck is killed, Blanche captured, and both Bonnie and Clyde wounded. During the flight to sanctuary at the home of C. W. Moss, the fugitives are given food by a group of dispossessed Okies who appear in awe of their famous visitors. As in an earlier scene in which Clyde and an evicted farmer take turns shooting at a bank's notice of foreclosure, an attempt is being made to protect the two criminals as "folk heroes" of the victims of the Depression, "well-known and even revered" was the opinion of the screenwriters. According to Penn, "the fact is when Bonnie and Clyde were killed, they were regarded as enormous folk heroes. . . ."24
While recovering on the Moss farm, Bonnie and Clyde finally are able
to consummate their love. Ironically, just as they learn how to fulfill
themselves in love rather than violence, they are betrayed to the police
by C. W.'s father. Lured into an ambush, they die in a tremendous fusillade.
In an extended scene shot by four cameras, each at different speeds, the
bodies jerk and twist under the impact
of the bullets. A piece of Clyde's head flies off as had happened in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a conscious comparison by Penn. 25 The brutality of their execution exceeds anything done by the gang and the film closes, as it had opened, with the audience being drawn to the principals. The previous confusion of emotions is resolved in the final frames.
Bonnie and Clyde debuted in early August, 1967, as the leading
American entry and opening night feature at an extravagant film festival
in Montreal held in conjunction with Expo '61. Variety was unimpressed,
panning the production for inconsistent direction and characterization,
erratic performances, and an uneven tempo.26 The dean of the nation's movie
critics, Bosley Crowther of the New
York Times, was scathing.27 Lamenting that "Hollywood moviemakers seem to have a knack of putting the worst foot forward at international film festivals," he condemned the picture as "another indulgence of a restless and reckless taste and an embarrassing addition to the excess of violence on the screen." Insulted by the "wild, jazzy farce melodrama," he contended that it was historically inaccurate and criticized the audience for its tremendous burst of applause at the end. Formally reviewing Bonnie and Clyde a week later at the onset of its New York run, Crowther continued his tirade, launching what Andrew Sarris termed a "crusade that makes the 100-years-war look like a border incident."28
Crowther's effort to bury Bonnie and Clyde under a mountain of invective contrasted with the approach of other critics who rallied to its support, and hastened the end of a lengthy career. William Wolf judged it a "major artistic achievement," declaring that it was "a wonderfully authentic look at the 1930s.” A similar opinion was voiced by Jacob Suskind who thought it "a documentary of a kind," that "you feel that you are actually witnessing history." Wilfred Sheed raved that it was best movie of the festival, that it was a veritable "W.P.A. mural of the thirties. . . ." Pleased that justice triumphed in the end, the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures included it in its "Best of the Month" category.29 Andrew Sarris devoted most of his review to chastising Crowther, accusing him of using the pages of the Times for a "personal vendetta" and of inciting the "lurking forces of censorship and repression with inflammatory diatribes. . . ." Sarris was particularly distressed because he believed the Times critic was in effect pandering to the emotions of those who were demanding "law and order," a racist euphemism in 1061 for those who wanted punishment meted out to the black community for the urban riots of the previous three years'
The readership of the Times also responded to Crowther in a series of letters to the editor, and he promptly issued another ringing denouncement." "Puzzled by the upsurge of passionate expressions of admiration and defense," he remained adamant in his opinion that the movie was a "deliberately buffoonized" miscarriage of history, "a cheating with the bare and ugly truth. . . ." Contemporary newspaper accounts were cited at length to buttress his opinions. Rather than silencing opponents with his "factual" rendition, Crowther only succeeded in eliciting a new ardor, and more letters deluged the Times. 32
Virtual internecine war erupted when Vincent Canby permitted Arthur Penn to respond via an intreview. At a Montreal press conference, the director had previously addressed the complaint that Bonnie and Clyde was an exercise in gratuitous violence, and these comments were reprinted under the title "Private Integrity and Public Violence."33 He now focused his attention on the issue of historical accuracy as well. Any errors, he said, might exist in "the small details, but not in the big ones." But more importantly,
We weren't making a documentary, any more than Shakespeare was writing documentaries in his Chronicle plays. To some extent we did romanticize—but so, inevitably, does any storyteller. . . . We do not purport to tell the exact truth, but we do tell a truth.34Pauline Kael endorsed Penn, asking "why [are there] so many accusations of historical inaccuracy, particularly against a work that is far more accurate historically than most and in which historical accuracy hardly matters anyway?" Throwing the point back at Crowther, Kael suggested "that when a movie so clearly conceived as a new version of a legend is attacked as historically inaccurate, it's because it shakes people a little." And, "only good movies . . . provoke attacks."35
Crowther's venomous insults made it awkward for others to offer negative commentaries without appearing either to be in league with him or to have succumbed to his rampant emotionalism. One critic who did embrace his posture was Page Cook, who noted that the film was "so incompetently written, acted, directed and produced it would not be worth noticing were a claque not attempting to promote the idea that its sociopathology is art." Bonnie and Clyde, she concluded, "was dementia praecox of the most pointless sort.” 38 Joseph Morgenstern reflected the quandary of some when he called the movie "a squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade," and then reversed himself after a second viewing.37 An attempt by Richard Schickel was made to disentangle matters when he "invited all men of good will to join me here on the nice soft grass of the middle ground.”38
That via media was most commonly exploited by persons who judged the production in the context of the American film heritage. Bonnie and Clyde would ultimately be compared with John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood (1967), among others. The most successful and productive of those who sought a contextual framework within a comparative-historical analysis was Philip French. French penned a joint review of Bonnie and Clyde and Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), for he conceived of them as the "highwater marks" of two divergent streams of the gangster film genre. 39 Furthermore, they had given the genre a new lease on life, witness, he said, the British exhibitor who quickly rushed out a double bill of Dillinger (1945) and Al Capone (1959).
As French structured his argument, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre
was from a vein of films set in the 1920s within a static, urban milieu
occupied by- ethnic types who were organized and successful and who engaged
in violence to achieve specific ends. It was an heir to the classic gangster
movies: Joseph Von Sternberg's Underworld (1927), Mervyn LeRoy's
Little Caesar (1930), and William Wellman's Public Enemy
(1931). Conversely, Bonnie and Clyde emerged from a smaller, but no less
distinct collection of films rooted in the 19305 within a rural environment.
The characters were native born, disorganized, and constantly on the move;
when they resorted to violence, it was unpremeditated. It was a linear
descendant of Max Nosseck's Dillinger (1945), Don Siegel's Baby
(1957), and Roger Corman's Machine Gun Kelly (1957).
All of the controversy surrounding Bonnie and Clyde enhanced its box-office appeal. The film grossed over 20 million dollars in paid rentals to the distributor—high for a year which included The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and Cool Hand Luke. It soon catapulted into thirteenth place on the all-time list of financial successes. Critical acclaim in the form of Academy Award nominations followed. Put forward in ten categories, it won two Oscars, for supporting actress and cinematography, while In the Heat of the Night garnered the prize for best picture from both the industry and the New York film critics.
Bonnie and Clyde also ignited a clothing fad, the Bonnie and Clyde "look," first evidenced at the Paris opening but destined to spread under the careful direction of Warner Brothers publicists. 41 Theadora Van Runkle's costumes meshed perfectly with the movement by European designers to replace the mini-skirt with the maxi-dress.42 The movie's theme song, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, was soon in the "Top Ten," reaching number one in England. Nineteen-thirties music came into vogue and posters appeared as the country, if not the world, was swept by a fit of nostalgia.
The prevailing, but unsubstantiated, assumption at the time was that Bonnie and Clyde appealed to the young, the under-thirty crowd that normally populated the theaters. In London where it smashed all box-office records, Charles Marowitz reported that the film "captured the rollicking dream-life-cum-reality of thousands of young Britons." He connected viewing with the rise in drug usage: "There is an unmistakable affinity between the euphoria of L.S.D. and the kicks Bonnie and Clyde get from robbing banks."43
That Bonnie and Clyde was the province of the young has been
accepted by most later observers too. According to John Gallagher
and John Hanc,
A good deal of the picture's financial success was the fact that late Sixties audiences related to the rootless alienation of the film's milieu. Bonnie and Clyde are rebels without a cause; Penn is exploiting characters which the so-called "youth movement" of the late Sixties turned into campy pop culture heroes, a theme he dealt with more explicitly in Alice's Restaurant.40The connection with youthful viewers has been echoed by John Baxter who believed that "unable to find anything worthy of emulation in a society devoid of social purposes, the young audiences saw Penn's couple as saints for a disenchanted age. . . "45
That Bonnie and Clyde would strike a nerve in adolescents and post-adolescents was intended by Benton and Newman. As described in their treatment,
If Bonnie and Clyde were here today, they would be hip. Their values have been assimilated in much of our culture—not robbing banks and killing people of course, but their style, their sexuality, their bravado, their delicacy, their cultivated arrogance, their narcissistic insecurity, their curious ambition have relevance to the way we live now.The theme of a 1930s "underworld" inhabited by heroes was quite comparable to the "underground" of the youth culture of the 1960s.46
The enormous financial return of Bonnie and Clyde suggests that while young people may have composed the bulk of its audiences, people of all ages must have found something attractive about it. Film critic-historian Richard Dyer McCann blithely wrote off its popularity at the time to a "shortage of first-rate films in 1967." William O'Neill ran to the other extreme with his contention that the film "rendered the spirit of the age more finely than any other picture, except perhaps Dr. Strangelove." 47
Within those widely divergent evaluations was a broad spectrum of opinion.
Arthur Penn attributed the success to the rhythm of the film and to a certain
tragic cast that the two protagonists had; that there was a sense of two
individuals not belonging to the life and times of a society in which they
found themselves. "These are problems related to what young people feel
in society now.”48 Penn
also believed that the characters of Bonnie and Clyde as he portrayed them were such that blacks in an age of urban riots could also identify with them.49 Robert Steele has reinforced Penn's point about rhythm whereas John Howard Lawson reiterated the theme of tragedy. According to Steele, "The fresh amalgam of domestic-comedy, Western, and gangster movie routines makes Bonnie and Clyde a dazzling picture, and something would be lacking in anyone who could keep from becoming deeply involved in it."50 The tragic appeal, from Lawson's standpoint, emerged from his observation that "there is no doubt that the film is an attack on American society, linking the events of the Thirties with the continuing predominance of oppression, corruption and hypocrisy in the present. 51 Although distressed that such would happen, Charles Thomas Samuels thought that "the audience probably identifies with Bonnie and Clyde as surrogate social victims. . . "52 Equally fundamental was Time's interpretation that "undeniably, part of the scandal and success . . . stems from its creative use of what has always been a good box-office draw: violence."53
Trying to determine with any degree of exactitude why a particular movie elicits an enthusiastic reaction is to pursue an elusive and illusive chimera. All producers and directors hope that their latest project will touch the collective consciousness, strike a responsive chord while communicating with the needs, concerns, and desires of society. Director Penn has testified that he had no idea while shooting Bonnie and Clyde that he was giving birth to what Time would call "the sleeper of the decade.”54
The chaotic and increasingly divisive American scene in 1967 made it difficult to identify what would please the masses. That year witnessed the culmination of three consecutive "long, hot summers" of urban riots, and the separation between white and black America became more pronounced than ever. The antiwar movement divided the populace into hawks and doves who either supported President Lyndon Johnson and his continual escalations of the war in Vietnam or joined what Norman Mailer called the "armies of the night" and marched for peace. The "generation gap" between young and old became more extended as the youthful counterculture, "the flower children," harkened to Dr. Timothy Leary's admonition to turn on, tune in, and drop out.
That Bonnie and Clyde appealed to so many Americans can be attributed to two things. First, the violence offered an emotional catharsis for many, particularly because of its lifelike quality. Surrounded by carnage, -barraged nightly on the televised news with the shock and fury of scenes from Newark to Hue, the filmic murder and mayhem presented a means for expunging confused feelings from the psyche. More importantly, counterpoints of humor and the frequent slapstick quality of the movie's violence made the subject more bearable. For others, the violence and its graphic depletion appealed to an unconscious bloodlust. The violence of films in 1967, so shocking that year for some, pales into insignificance when contrasted with what would follow: Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), John Avildsen's Joe (1970), and Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack (1972). As Bonnie and Clyde has been praised for spawning a series of nostalgia films, for example, Sidney Pollack's They Shoot Horses Don't They (1969) and Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), so too must it receive a share of the "credit" for influencing the drift toward violence.
Second, Bonnie and Clyde did appeal to the spirit of the age, especially among youth. That Zeitgeist can be summed up in the word nihilism. Some, such as Norman Mailer, may opt for existentialism as the dominant mood, but this writer believes that nihilism comes closer to capturing the essence of the period."" In the wake of an unending stream of domestic and foreign violence and the disintegration of the expectations raised during the Kennedy years, moral absolutism dissolved into moral relativism. The cultural bond of a shared value system eroded. This was particularly true among the young, many of whom opted for a countercultural existence often built around drugs and/or communal living.
But middle America also was experiencing an undermining of long-held and cherished traditions.56 In such a circumstance, as Robert Sklar has stated, "the emotional power of the film's anarchic individualism, its depiction of the awesome force of violent authority . . ." offered something that audiences understood." To use a hackneyed favorite of movie critics, Bonnie and Clyde was "compelling." Its affront to traditional sensibilities afforded an opportunity for millions of outraged Americans to expell—vicariously—a welter of conflicting emotions.
Bonnie and Clyde would have been a success in nearly any period because of the quality of its production and the captivating nature of its screenplay. However, coming as it did, when it did, it rocketed to unforeseen heights. The picture, in its own way, addressed the needs, desires, and aspirations of a society replete with ambivalent feelings. It remains something of a "cult" film among the young, principally because those ambivalent feelings have as yet to be reconciled.
1. Jim E. Heath, Decade of Disillusionment:
The Kennedy-Johnson Years
(Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1975)1 Andrew Kopkind and
James Ridgeway, eds.. Decade of Crisis: America in the 60'! (New York:
World Publishing Co., 1972); and William L. O'Neill, Coining Apart: An
Informal History of America in the iy6o's (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971)-
2. John Baxter, Hollywood in the Sixties (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1071).
3. Statistical data provided by the Motion
Picture Association of America
and the National Association of Theater Owners. Some of it may also be
found in Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970.
2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975)1 l» PP- 4°o-oi-
4,. "The Shock of Freedom in Films,"
Time, December 8, 1967, p.
D. Newman and R. Benton, "Lightning in a Bottle," in Sandra Wake and
Nichola Hayden, eds.. The Bonnie and Clyde Book (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1972)' P- 13- Unless otherwise noted, all information about the
development of the screenplay came from these sources.
5. New York: Random House, 1963.
6. John G. Cawelti, "Introduction: Bonnie and Clyde: Tradition and Trans-
formation," in J. G. Cawelti, ed„ Focus on Bonnie and Clyde, (Englewood
Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973). P- 2.
7. Tom Milne, "Bonnie and Clyde," Sight
and Sound (Autumn, 1967)1
8. The screenplay was submitted to Truffaut who finally turned them
but he did pass it along to Godard who was quite interested. Conflict with
their producers and the director's haphazard plan to begin shooting immedi-
ately led to a collapse in negotiations. A viewing of Pierrot ie Fou (1966) will
illustrate the influence reading the script for Bonnie and Clyde had on Godard.
9. Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (Garden City: Doubleday
and Co., 1970)1 P- 223- Penn later claimed to have read the script, but re-
jected it because "it didn't sound very appetizing. . . ."
10. Curris Lee Hanson, "Interview With Warren Beatty," Cinema, 3
mer, 1967), pp. 8-io. In assuming the dual role of producer-actor, Beatty was
working on the assumption that "making a movie, no matter how you slice
it, is the work of a committee." So far as he was concerned, the auteur
theory was "bullshit." Ibid. Benton and Newman vigorously disagreed, and
though they worked closely with the director, they ascribed the end result to
him. Arthur Penn also subscribed to the auteur theory, while crediting Beatty
and his actions for much of the commercial success.
11. Both Beatty and Penn agreed to accept deferred salaries. Variety,
30, 1967. Penn's salary was to be io percent after the production grossed
8 million dollars. The eventual gross was 22.7 million dollars and the director's
share amounted to 1,470,000 dollars. Only one of his four previous films had
been a financial as well as critical success. Variety, January 8, 197? and Gelmis,
Director as Superstar, pp. 223 and 227.
12. Ibid. and Curtis Lee Hanson, "Interview With Arthur Penn," Cinema,
3 (Summer 1967), p. 12. Penn's fascination with the outlaw can be seen in his
previous films. The Left Handed Gun (1958), his first picture, and The Chase
14. Jim Hiller, "Arthur Penn," Screen, io (Jan.-Feb., 1969), p. 12,
Times, September 17, 1967, and Stanley Solomon, Beyond Formula: American
film Genres (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1976), p. 194- A
close friend of Beatty's, Robert Towne, also assisted in rewriting parts of the
script, though he is given screen credit as a "special consultant." Gelmis,
Director as Superstar, pp. 223-4. See also Robert Towne, "A Trip With
Bonnie and Clyde," Cinema, 3 (Summer, 1967), pp. 4-7- His exact contribution
is uncertain, though he was called in only when the original writers had
exhausted their ideas.
15. New York: Signet Books, 1968. The
book was originally published
under the title Fugitives (Dallas: The Texas Ranger Press, 1934)- Ironically,
their heirs unsuccessfully sued the filmmakers for what they thought to be
libelous and slanderous treatment of their relatives.
16. Austin: University of Texas Press,
1935 and 1965. See also John H.
Jenkins and Gordon Frost, I'm Frank Hamer: The Life of a Texas Peace
Officer (Austin and New York: The Pemberton Press, 1968), one of the
many attempts to capitalize on the commercial success of the movie.
17. John Toland, "Sad Ballad of the Real Bonnie and Clyde,"
Times Magazine, February 18, 1968, pp. 26-29. Toland's opinion, that "not only
were they relatively minor figures in their day; they were in every sense
of the word 'punks,' vicious and petty and despised even by their contem-
poraries in the criminal world," was hardly congenial with the image that
Benton and Newman intended to project.
18. "The Shock of Freedom in Films," Time, December 8, 1967, p. 68.
19. Ibid., and Andre Labarthe and Jean-Louis Comolli, "Bonnie and Clyde:
An Interview with Arthur Penn," Evergreen Review, 12 (June, 1968), p. 61.
The interview was a translation of what had appeared in Cahiers du Cinema
20. Variety, February 3, 197'- The basis of the article was a deposition
had given emphasizing cutting and editing as "a critical part of a director's
work" in a suit brought by Elaine May against Paramount Pictures. See also
Jacob Atlas, "A Conversation with Arthur Penn," Rolling Stone, March i<),
1970, p. 37- Penn had left Hollywood for Broadway for five years after his
objections to what Warner Brothers did to The Left Handed Gun (1958)
in the editing process.
21. A complete screenplay, based on the original script and a comparison
against a copy of the dialogue continuity and several viewings of the film, is
provided by Wake and Hayden, in The Bonnie and Clyde Book, pp. 37-164.
Cawelti, in Focus on Bonnie and Clyde, includes a script extract, pp. iji-6;,
a content outline, pp. 148-50, a plot synopsis, pp. 146-47' and, most importantly,
an analysis of the changes between the original script and the film, pp. 138-45.
Other overviews and evaluations are available in Robin Wood's Arthur Penn
(New York: Praeger, 1969), pp. 72-91 and in Jim Cook's "Bonnie and Cldye,"
Screen, io (October, 1969), pp. 101-14.
22. Labarthe and Comolli, "Interview with Arthur Penn,"
view, 61 and Gelmis, Director as Superstar, p. 224.
23. J. G. Cawelti, "Changes and Revisions from the Original Script to
in J. G. Cawelti, ed.. Focus on Bonnie and Clyde, pp. 142 and 144.
24. New York Times, September 17, 1967.
25. Labarthe and Comolli, "Interview with Arthur Penn,"
26. Variety, August 9, 1967.
27. New York Times, August 7, 1967-
28. Ibid., August 14, 1967, and Village Voice, August 31, 1967.
29. Clippings from Cue, n.d„ Montreal Gazette, n.d„
1967, p. 32 and Variety, September 13, 1967. Folder "Bonnie and Clyde," Clip-
ping Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
30. Village Voice, August ji, 1967.
31. New York Times, September 3, 1967. The nature and content of John
Toland's "factual" study, "Sad Ballad of the Real Bonnie and Clyde," New
York Times Magazine, February 9, 1928, pp. 26-29, suggests that it was
solicited by Crowther to aid in his defense.
32. Ibid., September io and 17, 1967-
33. A. Penn, "Bonnie and Clyde: Private Morality and
Take One, i (September, 1967), pp. 20-22.
34. New York Times, September 17, 1967. See also Variety, August 30,
in which Penn is quoted as saying that he tried for "documentary authenticity"
and that there was not a major incident that did not happen. In less heated
circumstances some years later, Penn extended his remarks on the matter of
historical accuracy, at least in the instance of Clyde Barrow's sexuality, by
admitting "I don't know what the history books say. . . ." Gelmis, Director as
Superstar, pp. 225-26.
35. P. Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Boston: Little Brown
and Co., 1968),
p. 50. Originally published in the New Yorker, October, 1967. Albert Johnson
thought the debate on historical accuracy was a moot one for "the 'legend'
of Bonnie and Clyde is exactly what the movie was about." "Bonnie and
Clyde," Film Quarterly, 21 (Winter, 1967-68), p. 47. From a different per-
spective, Vernon Johnson has chided the critics of violence, noting that "they
find truth more unpalatable than fiction." On Film, Unpopular Essays on a
Popular Art (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1972), p. 19°-
36. Films in Review, 18 (October, 1967), p. 504-
37. Newsweek, August 21 and 28, 1967, pp. 66 and 82. His retraction,
Thin Red Line," included a short history of violence in the movies for they
give us "an historical perspective on violence. . . . In that context Bonnie
and Clyde was an ideal laboratory for studying violence. . . ."
38. Life, October 13, 1967, p. 16. Schickel also would revise
negative opinion of the film, describing it as a "breakthrough," "the first of
the new cult films for kids and helps establish the now infamous 'youth
market.' " R. Schickel, Second Sight, Notes on Some Movies, ip6;-ifio. (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. '43·
39. Phillip French, "Incitement Against Violence,"
Sight and Sound, 37
(Winter, 1967-68), pp. 2-8.
40. Peter Collier disputed such an assertion: "Whatever else it
and Clyde is not a gangster movie. The film genre has seen its day. . . ."
P. Collier, "The Barrow Gang: An Aftertaste," Ramparts, 6 (May, 1968),
p. 18. Collier's position is weakened by his narrow definition of the genre
which would be improved by a rereading of "The Gangster as Tragic Hero,"
by Robert Warshow in The immediate Experience (Garden City: Doubleday
and Co., 1962), pp. '27-35
41. "Bonnie and Clyde 'Revives 30's Style,' " Wamer Brothers
lease, n.d.. Folder "Bonnie and Clyde," M.O.M.A.
42. Village Voice, December 21, 1967. Pauline Kael has pointed out that
fashion change was really so much a charade as Faye Dunaway actually had
"a sixties look." P. Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, p. ;8.
43. Variety, September 20, 1967, and Village Voice, December 21, 1967.
all of Europe, however, was taken by Bonnie and Clyde, it was banned in
Norway because of its "brutality."
44. J. Gallagher and J. Hanc, "Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde," n.d„
Folder "Bonnie and Clyde," M.O.M.A. A similar opinion was expressed by
Stephen Farber, "The Outlaws," Sight and Sound, 38 (Autumn, 1968), pp.
45 Baxter, Hollywood in the Sixties, p. 35·
46. Benton and Newman, "Lightning in a Bottle," in Wake and Hayden,
Bonnie and Clyde Book, p. 19.
47. O'Neill, Coming Apart, p. 217, and Heath, Decade of Disillusionment,
48. Bernard Weintraub, "Director Arthur Penn Takes on General Custer,"
New York Times Magazine, December 21, 1969, p. 8z.
49. Labarthe, and Comolli, "Interview With
Arthur Penn," Evergreen
50. R. Steele, "The Good-Bad and Bad-Good
in Movies," The Catholic
World (May, 1968), p. 80.
51. J. H. Lawson, "Our Film and Theirs: Grapes of Wrath and Bonnie and
Clyde," American Dialogue, ; (Winter, 1968-69), p. 32.
52. C. T. Samuels, "Bonnie and Clyde," The Hudson Review,
1968), p. 16.
53 "The Shock of Freedom in Films," Time, December 8, 1967, p. 67.
54 Ibid., and J. Gelmis, Director as Superstar, p. 229.
55.Norman Mailer, "Kennedy—The Existential Hero," Esquire (November,
1960), pp. 46-55.
56. Time, July 7, 1967, pp. 16-22.
57. Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (New York: Random House, 1975)'
p. 301. Sklar also believed that the enormous popularity of Bonnie and Clyde
"was, among other things, a small victory for the independent judgment of
audiences against the guiding advice of mass journalism. . . ." Beatty would
dispute that opinion as he has observed that while "establishment" critics did
not understand his picture, younger ones did. He admitted that he "disobeyed"
tradition and "broke a lot of rules," especially by mixing comedy and violence,
but he believed that a new generation of film critics had greeted his work with
enthusiasm. Jeffrey Lyons, "Interview with Warren Beatty," W.C.B.S. radio,