Or, The AFI List Project, #42: Bonnie and Clyde
It’s a kind of heresy for a student of film to admit, but I’ve never been particularly inspired by French New Wave cinema. Outside of Jean-Pierre Melville’s obscure, abstruse masterpiece Bob le Flambeur, which is one of those movies that doesn’t strike you as anything special until the credits roll and you realize ex post facto how cool it was, the landmarks of the New Wave haven’t really done anything for me. The 400 Blows? I could take it or leave it – and, really, ending a movie with a freeze frame like that? Breathless, meanwhile, may have one of my favorite lines that I’ve seen in the movies (“What is your greatest ambition in life?” “To become immortal, and then die”), but do Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg really have to spend so much time having interminable conversations in bed?
That being said, I’ve always tried to hold off on expressing that opinion too strongly, because it seems like so many critics and cinephiles who love these movies so much must be catching something that I’m not. Now, after watching Bonnie and Clyde, I feel like I’ve found some semblance of an answer: if the best legacy that I can find for Breathless is that it gave Arthur Penn the critical freedom and cinematic vocabulary to make Bonnie and Clyde, that’s a good enough justification for it to exist.
If you have the time to read, I doubt that anyone will ever write a better or more thorough treatment of Bonnie and Clyde than Pauline Kael did in her name-making defense of it for the New Yorker when it first came out. If you don’t have the time, and you haven’t seen the movie, the story proceeds more or less thusly: Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meets young drifter Clyde Barrows (Warren Beatty) in her podunk hometown in Texas. He says he is a bank robber, and she tells him to prove it to her; he does, and bound together by crime and by a strange sudden love, they go on the run. They form a gang with a dimwitted mechanic and Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman in his first major role). But their good fortune cannot hold forever, and in the end they are brutally shot down by the police.
Bonnie and Clyde is an absolutely American story, but it may nonetheless be the greatest movie to come out of the French New Wave. The movie is noted for being among the first to break certain cinematic taboos, with its frank depiction of sex and scenes of extreme violence, but it is more interesting stylistically. Like Breathless, it is a story of forbidden love, and director Arthur Penn appropriated some of that movie’s narrative looseness in structuring his story: we are not given a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, but invited to come along this strange journey with our gun-toting protagonists. There is in spades that great sense of freedom that is considered to be hallmark of the New Wave, both in the content of the story (because what are Bonnie and Clyde seeking so much as an escape from the restraints of their small-town lives?) and in the way that it is filmed, eschewing the painterly compositions of earlier eras in favor of what is more like a flickering eye watching events unfold before it. It is, in other words, almost willfully imperfect, to the point that even its resolution is shut off as an ambiguous moment of time rather than as the culmination of a causal sequence of events. The story has come to an end, but not even Penn is willing to put forward an argument about what it means.
Yet it is also About Things, about youth and violence; perhaps most of all it is about fame and the birth of celebrity culture. There is nothing that Bonnie and Clyde like so much as posing with their guns to have their picture taken, and the thrill of robbing banks seems secondary to the thrill that comes when they see their names in the paper. Still, those themes are not arguments but, simply, part of how the lives of the characters proceed. Like the ambiguity of the movie’s final shot, they are open to interpretation, elemental to the film’s causality but not in any way that can be unequivocally demonstrated. The only causality in the film is this: Bonnie and Clyde shoot people, and so they themselves are shot.
What makes Bonnie and Clyde remarkable, however, is not that it is a New Wave movie but that it appropriates the characteristics of the New Wave and applies old-school Hollywood craftsmanship to them. Breathless and The 400 Blows have the same sense of pulling you along that Bonnie and Clyde does, but they lack its import, its depth of meaning. From a technical standpoint, further, they are unsophisticated, even choppy. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad – It Happened One Night, indeed Frank Capra’s entire filmography, have the same lack of interest in technical brilliance, and part of what made those New Wave movies so revolutionary in their country anyway was precisely their desire to move away from the traditional French ‘cinema of quality’ movement.
But the hallmark of American cinema from the earliest days of Hollywood has been that, even when our movies aren’t better than those made in other places, they’re still made better. Put in a less chauvinistic way, no country has put as much time and energy and money into figuring out how to get movies to look a certain way, and then trying to make sure that every movie meets those standards. Arthur Penn managed to walk the fine line between the freedom and spontaneity of the New Wave while maintaining the technical standards and cinematic scope of the best of American film.
All of which, applied more broadly, is simply to say that even movies that are deathly boring or downright false may yet have something of significance and value to contribute. The New Wave? I may not be in love with its movies, but it gave me Bonnie and Clyde, so I guess they can’t be all bad.