Within the realm of American Cinema, one can’t overstate the shock of seeing Bonnie & Clyde for the first time. I can imagine it: it’s 1967, and you’re digging on this bouncy crime caper that coasts along on the red-hot chemistry between Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (neither of whom were ever more beautiful than they were here), and Charles Strouse’s music makes the whole endeavor feel like an especially expensive episode of Hee-Haw or The Dukes of Hazzard—
–except twenty-seven minutes and fifty-three seconds into the film, a robbery doesn’t go quite as smoothly as the titular characters hope, and a bank clerk jumps on the runner-board of the getaway car, only to receive a bullet to the head that splatters most of his face against the window and explodes any preconceived notions American audiences had about graphic violence in film. And so Bonnie and Clyde begets The Wild Bunch, which begets A Clockwork Orange, which begets Dirty Harry, which begets Taxi Driver, and so on, right down the line.
Here’s the thing, though: I can only imagine this sensation. By the time I started coming of age in cinema, I had to contend with Robocop and Natural Born Killers. In terms of violent content alone, these two (and many more like them, whether better or worse) far outpaced any of Bonnie and Clyde’s carnage. More importantly, they offered a far more nuanced (and all the more disturbing) blend of humor and bloodshed.
What strikes one about Bonnie and Clyde today is how moralistic it feels. We laugh until director Arthur Penn wants to shut us up, thrusting us millimeters from the violence so we’ll retch. For all his innovations in gory action, Penn is peddling a message that dates back to Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery: crime doesn’t pay.
This approach is no less effective; Martin Scorsese used his gangster triptych of Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed to argue the exact same point. But it does make Bonnie and Clyde seem downright quaint. I know – no movie can be all that quaint when we see one of its leads get part of his head blown off à la the JFK assassination – but at least we recognize the hand of a somewhat recognizable ethical force.
Rewatching it, I noticed, too, how Penn and his screenwriters (officially David Newman and Robert Benton, although Beatty and Robert Towne made significant contributions) subtly unsettle the tone before that first bloody gunshot. I’d forgotten those uneasy silences as Bonnie and Clyde idle in their car just before a robbery, or how Bonnie can’t seduce a impotent Clyde. He’s more turned on by vice than by her, and he pays for his desire in lead.
By comparison, films like Robocop and Natural Born Killers stubbornly resist demarcating between humor and horror, mixing the two until we’re laughing at the most abominable things, and wondering where the real monsters lie – on the screen or watching it.