Bonnie and Clyde may not boast the epic story of The Godfather, the churning violence of Pacino’s Scarface or the underworld insight of GoodFellas. But if you love those masterpieces, raise a little toast of Anisette—or perhaps Texas moonshine—to this biopic about Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Because Bonnie and Clyde is not just a classic about thieves in love and on the run. It also revived the gangster movie genre.
You can thank Warren Beatty for that. As a young movie star hoping to break into producing, Beatty bought the script for $10,000 in 1966. According to Hollywood lore, he then implored legendary studio head Jack Warner to front him the money for the project, going so far as to beg on his hands and knees.
Warner reluctantly ponied up a paltry $1.8 million—as long as Beatty agreed to play the male lead. Warner had no faith in a period piece about notorious bandits Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. But he figured anything putting the heartthrob Beatty’s face on-screen at least stood a chance to break even.
To this day, Beatty denies the tale—at least the part about crawling before Jack Warner. But he also saved a letter the studio chief wrote to other Warner Brothers executives. It reads: “What does Warren Beatty think he’s doing? How did we ever get us into this thing? This gangster stuff went out with Cagney.”
Warner, of course, was right. By and large, the American gangland movie disappeared from the 1940s through the mid-60s, which is why you’ll find so few films from that era on our list.
But Beatty’s instincts were also correct. Bonnie and Clyde was a box office smash. Its success led—directly or indirectly—to the green-lighting of dozens of future projects, from outlaw films (Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers) to gangster biopics (Dillinger, The Untouchables), to, yes, those masterworks at the top of our list.
It was also a critical success, although not universally.
“A milestone in the history of movies,” wrote Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. “A work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful.”
Meanwhile, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it, “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.”
Crowther was soon removed from his spot as the Times’ lead critic—a position he held for 27 years. His editors cited that review as evidence he was out of touch with modern tastes.
It wasn’t Bosley Crowther’s peers, but the under-30 audience that made Bonnie and Clyde a hit during a turbulent decade when every issue seemed to split down a generational divide.
“Young people understood this movie instantly,” director Arthur Penn told the Los Angeles Times. “They saw Bonnie and Clyde as rebels like themselves. It was a movie that spoke to a generation in a way none of us had really expected.”
In part, that’s because Beatty and Faye Dunaway portrayed the title characters as populist outlaws celebrated in the press for fighting the establishment—as represented by Depression-era banks. The two are 1930s Robin Hoods, heroes to the downtrodden. In one scene, they decline to rob an elderly man during a bank stickup, prompting him to say that if they are ever caught and executed, he will bring flowers to their funeral.
More than that, Bonnie and Clyde was considered a landmark movie because of its sex and violence. Consider the opening scene, where the nearly nude Bonnie peers out the second-story window of her ramshackle West Texas home and spots Clyde trying to steal her mother’s car. Rather than being frightened or outraged, she is turned on—as she demonstrates when she comes downstairs and literally strokes Clyde’s pistol.
A hood out on parole, Clyde takes her into town, where he robs a grocery store. This really arouses her. Problem is, Clyde cannot perform in bed. Or, as Bonnie puts it, “Your advertising is just dandy. Folks would never guess that you don’t have a thing to sell.”
Beatty’s willingness to play a pathologically violent criminal plagued by sexual dysfunction was daring for a leading man in those times. He did insist on one change in the original script, which portrayed Clyde as a gay man having an affair with gang getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard, an actor Beatty met during his tenure on the 1960s TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).
Anyway, Clyde promises to whisk Bonnie away from her dreary life as a roadhouse waitress, “serving greasy burgers to truckers with tattoos who keep trying to get into your pants.” And so begins life on the run, as they alternately stick up banks, shoot some cops, hide out for a few days and try to get their pictures published.
Fame is a major goal here, making Bonnie and Clyde the forerunners of every modern “reality show” pseudo-celebrity from Jon and Kate to Snooki and The Situation. Bonnie writes poems that she mails to the papers (those are Ms. Parker’s real works that Dunaway recites) and Clyde is always poised with the Kodak. They somehow come to believe that their purpose in life is to bring excitement to a dreary nation beaten down by the Depression.
Along the way, the Barrow gang is joined by Moss, as well as Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). It’s a terrific cast of actors who were largely unknown before this. For Hackman and Dunaway, the movie provided breakout roles. For Parsons, a veteran stage performer, it provided an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won two—one for Parsons and one for cinematographer Burnett Guffey.
We don’t think we are giving away too much here telling you that it doesn’t end well for these outlaws. The first half of the movie is often played for laughs, with Keystone Kops chase scenes executed over banjo-picking bluegrass music. But as the law draws closer, the mood of the film darkens. First, you get to laugh with the gang, then you get to watch as its members are picked off, one by one.
The final scene was shocking at the time, and became the inspiration for many to follow—including the slaughter of Sonny in The Godfather. Bonnie and Clyde are double-crossed and a Texas posse pounces on them after they stop their car to help a man posing as a stranded motorist on a rural road. The pair are shot an estimated 150 times, their bodies writhing in super-slow motion. Clothes and flesh fly off with every machine gun blast.
“We did that shot in one take,” Beatty told the Los Angeles Times. “We had one car and one load of squibs [tiny special-effects explosives], so we had to keep it together. We shot off more bullets than had ever been used in movie history. . . . There were squibs all over me, there was a makeup guy, off-camera, who was going to pull my scalp off when it exploded. I was just hoping I did it right.”
It’s riveting stuff. No final words, no postscript. Just the two young outlaws convulsing for minutes until they lie there lifeless.
Today, Bonnie and Clyde stands as a cultural touchstone. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
CASTING CALL: Beatty knew he would play Clyde the moment he signed on as producer. But Bonnie? The list of those considered sounds like a stroll down Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Beatty’s real-life girlfriend at the time, Leslie Caron, wanted the part. She later insisted that she convinced Beatty to buy the script. But Beatty refused to give her the role, leading to their breakup. Others mentioned for the role included Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda (both declined), Tuesday Weld (who inconveniently got pregnant) and Cher (whose then-husband, Sonny Bono, didn’t want her taking part in such a controversial project).
Dunaway, the daughter of a Florida dirt farmer, auditioned and got the gig. “Never have I ever felt so close to a character,” she later told Ellis Amburn, author of The Sexiest Man Alive: A Biography of Warren Beatty. “Bonnie was a yearning, edgy ambitious Southern girl who wanted to get out of wherever she was. . . . That was me.”
Bonnie and Clyde also marks the debut (of sorts) of Morgan Fairchild, although you won’t recognize her. She was hired as Dunaway’s stand-in.
HIT: Bonnie and Clyde was as much a pop phenomenon as a movie. The maxi skirts and berets worn by Dunaway became fashion trends. The bluegrass soundtrack featuring Flatt and Scruggs (who also played the Beverly Hillbillies theme song) climbed into the Top 10. And two separate pop songs were written about the duo—one rose to No. 7 in the United States, the other to No. 1 in France.
MISS: Penn curiously calibrated the soundtrack so that the volume moves up and down with the intensity of the action on the screen. It varies from ear-splitting during gun battles to, “Huh? What’d he say?” during small conversations. Make sure you keep the remote control at hand.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: As opposed to Dunaway, who stands five-foot-seven, the real Bonnie Parker was just four-foot-ten. And her appearance, unlike Dunaway’s, was anything but glamorous.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: In the final death scene, Clyde is driving in socks, with no shoes, and Bonnie is eating a pear. According to newspaper accounts, that is how it went down on May 23, 1934.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: That nervous undertaker Bonnie and Clyde decide to kidnap after stealing his car is 33-year-old Gene Wilder in his movie debut.
REALITY CHECK: A movie like this strays from the facts, although many of the portrayed incidents did occur. The broadest poetic license involves the character of lawman Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), who hunts down Bonnie and Clyde—but only after they have captured, photographed and humiliated him by tying his hands and shoving him into the middle of a pond in a rowboat. In real life, Hamer was a retired and legendary Texas Ranger who never met the outlaw pair before he gunned them down. Hamer’s family sued the producers, including Beatty, for defamation of character and received an out-of-court settlement.
BEST LINE: “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”
PIVOTAL SCENE: Bonnie insists on visiting her mother even as the law draws closer. In a scene shot through a romanticized haze, the duo shares a picnic with her extended family, deep in the woods. Bonnie is initially ecstatic.
Clyde tries to charm Mrs. Parker, suggesting that he and Bonnie hope to settle down just a few miles away. But the wise mother won’t have any of it, predicting that if they were ever spotted in the area, her daughter “won’t live very long.”
Forget settling down, she says. “No, you’d best keep running, Clyde Barrow. And you know it.”
Hearing this, Bonnie turns ashen. This joy ride will inevitably end in her bloody death, and now she realizes it.
“When I started out, I thought we was really going somewhere,” she tells Clyde as they drive away. “But this is it—we just going, huh?”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Fluctuating. Because the movie is told from the lead characters’ delusional point of view, their victims die without suffering or spilling blood. But when the Barrow Gang members are hit by bullets, wounds open and blood seeps. Their pain feels genuine, in part, because we watched these people tell jokes or play checkers in the last scene. It all culminates, of course, in the slow-motion, bullet-spewing climax which, at the time, was considered among the most violent scenes in movie history.
BODY COUNT: Twelve—eight cops, one bank manager, and three gang members.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Dunaway’s seminude scene at the beginning—daring as it was in 1967—is still impressive, and the bloody finale is riveting. You can probably fast forward through the other 100 minutes the second time around.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Big Bad Mama, a 1974 shoot-’em-up in which Angie Dickinson leads a dysfunctional family driven to bootlegging and bank robbing by the Depression. Same attitude, same banjo-plucking, same car chases.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”