Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty) are presented as social drop-outs, alienated from a decayed society.
They are joined by Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and a (fictional) driver called C W Moss (Michael J Pollard in a composite of real Barrow Gang members WD Jones and Henry Methvin) as they take to the road and live out of their car, engaging in violent criminal activities across the USA in the 1930s.
And the criminal activities (and subsequent retribution) are certainly violent – No gangster film before Bonnie and Clyde had quite so much red in it . . .
In the slow-motion ballet of brutality that concludes the film (when Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed and shot to pieces by Frank Hamer’s posse), director Arthur Penn has said that the feeling he had in mind and wanted to convey was something like the shock of the JFK assassination, and the horrific detail, when part of Clyde’s head is blown off in the shooting, is an anguished allusion to the Kennedy murder.
The scene set new standards for screen violence in 1967, and it’s a testament to Penn’s work that the sequence is still shocking today.
In reality, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed by police near Arcadia, Louisiana, in late May 1934, and lawmen fired so many rounds into their car that Barrow’s shirt was cut in half. Later, crowds paid to see their mutilated corpses in the morgue!
This film became famous partially for the controversy it provoked. Bonnie and Clyde was accused of romanticising criminals and of glorifying violence – given the painfulness of the violence in the film, this latter charge is quite extraordinary.
But most critics had to concede the extraordinary accomplishment of the film, its splendid performances, stunning photography and razor-sharp dialogue.
Yet at the end of the day, it was not the movie’s quality that made it a big box office hit – it was its notoriety.
In the movie, Clyde Barrow is impotent but, apparently, in the original script, Clyde was gay, Bonnie was a nymphomaniac, and they were both making it with their driver, C W Moss. Now that would have been a film.
Real Barrow Gang member WD Jones sued Warner Bros, claiming that the film invaded his privacy and “brought shame and disrepute” upon his character. He didn’t see a penny.
C W Moss
Michael J Pollard
Capt Frank Hamer