In the late 1960s a new type of cinema emerged in Hollywood due to the social, political and industrial changes in America. One of the first new types of films was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which redefined classical conventions especially for the crime genre that would determine a new way of approaching filmmaking for the next generations. This essay will investigate how the social trends of the 1960s spawned a revolutionary crime film and by closely analysing Bonnie and Clyde’s cinematic devices determine its meanings for the audience of the 1960s.
The period following the Second World War brought changes to Hollywood. Starting with the Paramount Decree in 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled that the major studios must depart from their exhibition sector in order to dismiss their monopoly. Although the economy flourished after the war, audiences declined. The growing middle-class was able to move to the suburbs, which resulted in a tripling of the suburban share of the population until the 1960s. Theatres were less accessible there and other leisure activities were prioritized, as prosperity and more opportunities appeared.
Cinema audiences further declined in the post-war period due to the advent of television. Hollywood started experimenting with new strategies to appeal to audiences. A new blockbuster plan, producing less but high budget movies to inaugurate specialty in cinema, however, resulted in an overproduction and left the major studios struggling in the 60s. Slowly they realised how audience tastes had changed, which could be seen in prospering niche markets such as the European art cinema.
Another change in the economics of Hollywood was the transformation from the producer-unit-system to the package-unit-system. Stars, directors and agents became more powerful in the production because the studio functioned more and more as the financier rather than the producer. This enabled Warren Beatty, a new Hollywood star, to put together his own production: Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde is about the young Clyde Barrow and the young women, Bonny Parker. Both bored and frustrated, they start robbing banks to overcome their social dissatisfaction. On their trip through the country, they encounter C. W. Moss, who joins their gang, as does Clyde’s brother with his wife. Together they form the Barrow Gang. As criminals they are on the run, until ordinary people join forces with the police to take them down, ending in a tragic slaughtering. Shot in colour and widescreen, the film uses some strategies of the post-war period to engage new audiences.
Initially, the scriptwriters of Bonnie and Clyde, David Newman and Robert Benton, both not trained or educated in filmmaking, offered their debut script to the French director Francoise Truffaut, being inspired by his French New Wave films. Occupied with another project, he provided them with “a series of crucial visual and dramatic ideas”, which will be discussed later. Truffaut also got Beatty into the team. Beatty felt unhappy with his personal career and was confident that this project would mean taking his future in his own hands.
Arthur Penn, originally from the theatre with experience from TV, was also new in Hollywood. Previous film productions, one with Beatty, had left him unsatisfied with his artistic freedom. With Beatty’s offer to get the final cutting rights, he saw a chance to make his own film after all. Thus, the crew for the film consisted mostly of new filmmakers, who had aspiratory beliefs about the production and the benefit of more creative control. This is supported by a mostly unknown cast with co-star Faye Dunaway and the supporting roles played by Gene Wilder or Gene Hackman, who became huge stars after the film’s success.
The Baby Boom from 1946 up to 1964 also resulted in a new type of audience. In the 1960s, cinema-goers consisted largely of baby-boomers now in their teens. The new production target became teenage males who would drag women and younger admirers into the theatre. These were drawn to anti-heroes such as Clyde Barrow, because they were brought up under a new system of beliefs – instead of oppressing children with control and discipline, new liberalising ideas brought the “permissive age” with an anti-authoritarian approach. That resulted in the opposition of social values for many teenagers, so that the Barrow gang illustrated a “countercultural alternative for the youth” by representing a differing family.
Moreover, social disturbances caused by the civil rights movement9 and the anti-Vietnam war beliefs encouraged the appearance of the anti-hero. Young intelligent students protested against authorities, which increased after the assassinations of highly important figures such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Insecurity became part of everyday life, so the youth felt estranged from the government.
This is why the audience favoured a disillusioned portrayal of reality. The film uses deep focus like the French New Wave films, which favoured Bazin’s theories about capturing the reality on the image. Especially the period details like the Dust Bowl environment when they visit the mother and the depiction of the seasons provides authenticity without forcing attention to it. The naturalism gives the viewer a sort of freedom which they were lacking in real life and which Bonnie and Clyde are looking for as well.
Bonnie and Clyde is based on real criminals from the Depression era who terrorized the western part of the US. In the film they are became “counter-cultural and romantic fugitives” that can be liked and even gain a celebrity status. They reached fame through exploiting the news with self-made photographs and Bonnie’s poem about their story. This is of interest for youth audience, who strove for fame and individualism as well. Bonnie and Clyde even manage to structure their own perception.
The screenwriters wanted the couple to “resonate with countercultural sensibilities of the sixties”. Friedman explains that the “young attractive couple fights the restrictive moral codes and the repressive social institutions” of the 30s just like the teens of the 60s struggled with personal and communal problems. Clyde’s figure was admirable for teenagers, for example the opening credits introduced him as a small-time criminal, simultaneously referring to his “good behaviour”. The scene with the farmers who have lost their property to the bank expresses a public sympathy even in the film as the farmers understand Clyde. To show his agreement in return Clyde lets them shoot a symbolic hole into the bank’s sign after he shot it.
Clyde started a criminal career because he is frustrated by his lower-class life. When talking to Bonnie’s mother, he states that he wants to reintegrate into society once they made enough money. This is represented by more open spaces, starting with the field scene, where for the first time Bonnie doubts her decision. The rest of the film gives more restricted frames which alone the car travelling inaugurates, indicating their oppressed path as well as their limited ways out.
Bonnie lived a suburban waitress life. She is bored, symbolized by the images of her behind iron bars such as her bed, and thus she is easily encouraged by Clyde’s dreams and aspirations about prosperity and fame, which initially made him so sympathetic. Young female viewers identified with her as she followed her dreams and spend an exuberant time. They even started copied her redefining combinations of old fashioned clothes to share her professional and emancipated attitude without losing their women’s attire.
This went along with general social advances of the time. The Kinsey Report in 1948 until 1953 and the new liberalizing society changed attitudes towards sex in the 50s. This also showed in Hollywood production, but not as strong until Bonnie and Clyde, where the Production Code had lost influence due to the Supreme Court decision putting films under the Second Amendment of free speech. From the start, the film shows much more explicit sexuality. Bonnie is in her bedroom, naked, when she finds Clyde stealing her mom’s car. Seeing her from Clyde’s view, barely hidden behind the window, is extremely sexual and unimaginable for classical Hollywood convention where sex only was implied.
The film also plays with Clyde’s potency. His gun is a phallic symbol which becomes very obvious in the scene where he presents it to Bonnie for the first time. She touches it tentatively before we see her with a lustrous open mouth in one of the many close-ups. However, Clyde cannot please Bonnie’s sexual needs. Although he proved his manhood by robbing the shop as Bonnie suggested, he does not respond to her sexual assault in the car. He explains his incapability, signalling an impotency, and afterwards even specifies a homosexuality. The homosexual plot was initially even stronger, but Beatty’s image as a womanizer seemed less agreeable with that.
The inclusion of Moss leads to a triangle relationship. His introduction scene uses one of the visual suggestions of Truffaut, when all three switch planes in the deep focus frame throughout the scene, symbolizing their interconnection. Until the end, Moss celebrates Clyde as a hero. The audience, hoping for Bonnie’s sexual resolution, is allowed the pleasure in the pre-final sequence, where Clyde “consummates his relationship” with her. This is still only represented by the unbuttoning of the shirt, but afterwards their talk addresses it directly. “You did it perfect,” says Bonnie and Clyde’s insecurity resolves into surprised joy about his own abilities.
The film differs from the previous depiction of the crime genre in that it shows the robbers as “innocents on the run”. Bonnie and Clyde have been influenced by society in a way that leaves them no choice but to be outlaws. John G. Cawelti argues that Penn “inverted the traditional meaning of the gangster film” and hereby invokes tragedy in contrast to humour. The initial sympathy for him gets challenged when he brutally kills a man by shooting him in the face. His character was always persistent, but also anti-authoritarian and gentleman-like. Here he becomes vicious, even though his choice enabled them to escape. Here he reaches over the boundaries of society and in the end is tracked down by the blood lustrous society itself. Moreover, it is the betrayal of Moss’ father, who first helped the gang, until he sees his son’s tattoo. The tattoo is a symbol for the youthful rebellion which the otherwise liberal father cannot comply with.
The overtly depicted violence comes from the graphic influence of the French New Wave. With the happenings in the world, the war and the assassinations, the old genre conventions of the gently dying victim became unacceptable. The success of Bonnie and Clyde has proven that the audience wanted a disillusioned display of death. That is why the final sequence is an exaggerated bombardment and uses slow motion to visualize the effects of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s blood and torn bodies that slowly move in strange angles. The ripped of part of Clyde’s head even refers to Kennedy’s assassination. Bonnie and Clyde had an impact on the violence in all following Hollywood films.
Another new element in crime was the road movie; Truffaut suggested the car scenes and the downward shots. Character motivation and cause and effect relations, old classical conventions, were replace with unexplained happenings on the road trip, motivated by outside influences that the viewer does not see. In the film, the appearance of the chief and hi investigation afterwards is barely explained. New Wave films counteracted classical convention in this way. This appealed to audiences because of their “revulsion of mass society and establishment values” as explained before.
Bonnie and Clyde not only combines slapstick, romance and psychological insight, but also the gangster and the western. That is apparent in the landscape, the towns, the recurring banjo music on the road and the western-style final showdown, which as other westerns is influenced by Akira Kurosawa. Even the chief looks like a western sheriff with his moustache and other props. The success of that probably lies in the flourishing western style in the post-war period, also utilizing with anti-heroes.
The analysis has revealed that Bonnie and Clyde changed the crime genre radically due the social and political environment of the 60s. This, however, was not done easily, as it took much convincing to get Warner Bros. to fund the film. That was only possible because of the economic climate described. The reception of the first release was also mainly negative, until some reviewers started to see the potential in the film. These beliefs proved correct when it was re-released at the end of the year since it was extremely successful. It is this success which furthered its importance in the coming years, introducing the New Hollywood. Important features first seen in Bonnie and Clyde became standards in Hollywood practice and not only in the crime genre. Especially the anti-hero became important for crime films of the rest of the post-war period.
Hunter, Ian, Counterculture, (Lecture,) from FILM2008 Hollywood. De Montfort University, Clephan Building on 12th November. Available from: Blackboard. [Accessed 29/11/10]
Williams, Linda Ruth, and Michael Hammond. Contemporary American Cinema. Illustrated edition. (Open University Press, 2006), pp.3-4.
 Russell, James, Hollywood after 1948, (Lecture), from FILM2008 Hollywood. De Montfort University, Clephan Building on 15th October. Available from: Blackboard. [Accessed 29/11/10]
I remember experimenting with hypertext writing back in the 1990s, actually.
One attempt was my first stab at the 'Star Patrol' universe, where there was one main narrative line, but links within that would branch off to character service records, historical documentation, or optional flashback scenes.
The other was an attempt to write my own 'choose your own story' type of game, where the reader plays the part of a main character and can influence the plot by participating in a few key choices - or by clicking on an image map to simulate 'random chance', because they don't know which parts of the icon will lead to a good outcome or a bad outcome.
By the way, good luck on the A to Z challenge - I'll try to drop in to see how you're doing, and I'd love it if you take a look at my blog too!