Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow the criminals were considered minor hoodlums whose notoriety far outweighed their criminal prowess. Bonnie and Clyde the movie was taken as nothing short of a cinematic revolution in 1967. Or as once noted by some film historian whose name now slips my mind, it was a revelation in that it suddenly brought American movies to where European cinema had been for a decade, if not longer. (Indeed, the entire project was originally pitched to François Truffaut, who instead chose to helm Fahrenheit 451.) But Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde probably owed less debt to the jazzy, violent works from across the pond than to the jangled social experience at home.
Stylistically, Penn’s crime epic doesn’t do anything that hadn’t already been seen in any number of runty, skuzzy teen epics, all of which firmly established the paragons of good (i.e. “The Law”) as being the new antagonists. More violent content had already been committed to film—admittedly not so often in Oscar-nominated blockbuster territory, but certainly in some of the films by Roger Corman and Herschell Gordon Lewis. Even the film’s beatsick emotional tone, treating death and destruction against a Dust Bowl backdrop previously defined by the works of John Steinbeck, was presaged by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which sort of bested everything that could’ve ever imaginably followed in the questionable-taste department by turning nuclear winter into humanity’s final glorious sunrise.
What Bonnie and Clyde added to this mix of preexisting ingredients was all but spelled out in the love-childish tagline: “They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people.” So while Dub Taylor, Estelle Parsons, and a tightly-coiled Gene Wilder (in his movie debut) all carried on in service of the proud Paranoid Age tradition of Looney Tunes caricature (buttressed by that incessant bluegrass chase music), Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway pouted and sulked and looked all around fabulous at the center, resulting in an oddly self-absorbed bit of slapstick romantic fatalism, in every imaginable way a counterpart to the movie it most often gets lumped together with, The Graduate. (That Bonnie and Clyde couldn’t bridge the generation gap probably had a lot less to do with the film’s violence than it did the film’s seeming indifference to the class implications of the pair’s criminal acts.)
If Bonnie and Clyde’s blood and guts seem a tad more digestible now than the watery pools, aquariums, and fountains of The Graduate, it could perhaps be because surface beauty and reckless violence committed with the name of retribution taken in vain are much closer to our current experience than a smug but excoriating dissection of the central soullessness of the American post-adolescent psyche. And though Bonnie and Clyde may have been conceived as a proto-European hybrid and The Graduate a California thoroughbred, the violent hemorrhage that closes the Depression-era/Vietnam-era touchstone makes as good a case as anything in filmed entertainment that American mass media operates in the declarative.