In some ways Bonnie and Clyde was a startling revelation that might be considered the beginning of modern American cinema. Its graphic violence (and a certain candor about sex) was the immediate sensation, but it also led to a cinema that fundamentally questions basic American conservative values and capitalism itself. This, of course, could be traced at least as far back as John Ford’s brilliant 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (which is screening this Sunday and Tuesday in our The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part 2 exhibition). In one of that film’s more memorable moments, Okee farmer John Qualen has just had his land seized by a bank. In his frustration at being told that there are no alternatives open to him, he blurts out, “Then who do I shoot!?” The scene is played by Ford for its poignancy, but Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, also set during the Depression and in a similar locale, essentially advocates this kind of anarchy. Ford, whose directorial career ended two years before Penn’s film was made, tempered his ending with an FDR lookalike providing a reassuring presence at a California camp where Qualen and the other displaced people end up. Ford does, however, wind up with Tom Joad’s (Henry Fonda) great populist speech, foretelling his progressive vigilante future. Penn, of course, was a New York liberal, but Ford—father figure to the archly conservative John Wayne though he may have been—was a committed New Deal Democrat.Penn, a product of television and Broadway, had made four films before Bonnie and Clyde. He had worked with Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, and this was his second film with Warren Beatty, then still in his 20s. Beatty’s role as Clyde Barrow established him as one of the most ascendant stars in Hollywood, soon to make McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, and Shampoo. Faye Dunaway was almost a neophyte, but Bonnie Parker established her, leading to Chinatown, Network, and, of course, Mommie Dearest. Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton had hoped to interest Francois Truffaut in Bonnie and Clyde, but he was just coming off Fahrenheit 451, his only English-language film, and it is probably fortunate that he did not undertake a story so fundamentally American. Andrew Sarris still thought the film too “Europeanized,” even though another critic felt that “few directors are more utterly American.” The film owes much to its supporting cast, to cinematographer Burnett Guffey (whose career dated back to the mid-1940s and included many classic films noir), and to editor Dede Allen (who would become Penn’s regular editor, and who would later cut the Beatty-directed Reds.)
Critic Pauline Kael became famous largely through a long and prescient piece she wrote on Bonnie and Clyde. Kael recognized the revolutionary nature of Penn’s film and contrasted it with the Warner Brother gangster films of the 1930s and earlier adaptations of the Barrow/Parker story by Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray. She concluded that it was “an entertaining movie that has some feeling in it, upsets people…. Maybe it’s because Bonnie and Clyde, by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back into death.”
Arthur Penn went on to make several important films critically appraising America. My favorite, although hardly a film at all, was his next, the revolutionary Alice’s Restaurant, based on Arlo Guthrie’s song that captured the anti-war/anti-authority zeitgeist of the Woodstock period. Penn’s movie, Arlo’s song, and Arlo’s life and subsequent career can all be viewed as an indirect tribute to Arlo’s father, Woody—the troubadour/poet of the period of Bonnie and Clyde—whose life is captured lovingly in Hal Ashby’s 1976 Bound For Glory. Although Penn was never able to fully transcend his TV and stage origins, he does offer intermittent visual rewards in later films like Little Big Man, Night Moves, and The Missouri Breaks.