I’m terrified of watching any film with a big reputation for the first time. I’m even more terrified of putting my thoughts on that film into writing. What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t understand why people hold the film in such high regard? And then I agree to put those opinions down in word so that everyone can point and laugh and say “that’s the guy that hates Bonnie and Clyde. What a charlatan. Let’s eject him from the internet.” I must confess that there are classic films I just don’t understand. Films from the French New Wave immediately come to mind. In many cases, I can’t make heads or tails of them. Whew! It feels good to get that one off my chest. I hope we can still be friends.
I was kicking myself immediately after volunteering to write an essay about my first viewing of Bonnie and Clyde. With all my anxieties about fitting in with established wisdom, why would I choose to write an essay around whether this film deserves to be in the film canon? Why would I choose to opine on a film that Roger Ebert called “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.” How could I have a relevant opinion on a movie that’s considered one of the key players in establishing the New Hollywood in the late 1960s? And yet here I am.
I suppose I can take some solace from the characters of Bonnie [Faye Dunaway] and Clyde [Warren Beatty] themselves. Would they give a damn what people thought of them? Not really. Not as long as they were in the papers. They would proudly proclaim that what they thought about the film just like Bonnie constantly declares that “We rob banks!” In fact, this attitude on the part of the members of the Barrow Gang is an expression of what I appreciate most about this movie. Bonnie and Clyde reflects the undercurrents of the late 1960s, serving as a kind of spiritual record of the era. There’s the happy-go-lucky absurdity of the bank robbers and their lifestyle. One gets a sense that these people are fed up with the constraints of a society that they feel has failed them and their dreams. They’re railing against authority and living the life that they’ve chosen to live. And, in the end, it reveals the dangerous underbelly of this youthful rebellion. Under that carefree facade is a threat of violence. The Barrow Gang, living their lives as they please, cause tremendous suffering. The film, in its landmark use of graphic violence, never turns away from the physical consequences of these characters. It’s as though this film takes us from the idealistic peace and love vibe of Woodstock to the death of the whole hippie movement at Altamont a few months later. That’s all the more remarkable because those events wouldn’t take place for two more years. Bonnie and Clyde deserves to be in the cinematic canon for its landmark expression of the 1960s alone.
With such an impressive legacy, it’s easy to forget that, first and foremost, Bonnie and Clyde was a piece of popular entertainment. It wasn’t made to kick off a movement in Hollywood or represent a generation. It was made to thrill and amuse its audiences. On this count, too, the film succeeds. The characters of Bonnie and Clyde exude an American variant of that French New Wave cool that’s magnetic. It doesn’t ever feel like they’re trying to be cool. They’re defining what it is to be cool. No matter what despicable act they were engaged in, I couldn’t help but root for them. Even as they bumbled around, sometimes miserably botching bank robberies, they were expressing an enticing will to forge their own path. Much of this feeling is thanks to the performances of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the titular roles. Each of them can go from cool and collected to emotionally volcanic in seconds, as though there’s no intermediation between their inner lives and their expressions. This too, feels quintessentially 1960s. The couple expresses an emotional authenticity that might have been lacking in the more buttoned up society immediately after World War II. They show a rawness that was missing in studio films that preceded it and would become commonplace in films over the following decade.
So, yes, I can wholeheartedly say that Bonnie and Clyde deserve to be a part of the cannon. Not only is it a tremendously entertaining film, but, to this millennial, it feels like a perfect expression of the heady days of the late 1960s. Of course, this verdict, again, leaves me in a conundrum. When I first decided to tackle this topic, I was concerned that I would come down on the wrong side of the respected authorities. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the importance of this film. I ultimately decided that if I didn’t, I could take solace from Bonnie and Clyde’s authenticity. They wouldn’t be shy about contradicting conventional wisdom. Why should I? And yet, now I find myself agreeing with conventional wisdom, wholeheartedly. Do I really feel this way? Or maybe I only love this film because everyone else already thinks it’s important. Would I have loved this film when it was released in 1967? Or would I be like poor Bosley Crowther, the reviewer for the New York Times, who was fired for his negative review that seemed so out of touch with the currents of society? I’ll never know.