Jean-Luc Godard famously said: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” While that may seem like an extremely reductive take at first, a closer look at the statement reveals the auteur’s disgust for the spectacle of cinema which American films had completely mastered. In Arthur Penn’s vastly influential masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, that very spectacle is broken down into tragic vignettes which come into focus and fade away from the screen but only after firmly embedding themselves into our memories.
Over the years, there have been several cinematic interpretations of the beloved mythology of Bonnie and Clyde. From William Witney’s 1958 crime drama about the infamous duo to the relatively recent John Lee Hancock Netflix production The Highwaymen, Bonnie and Clyde still hold onto their status of being an indispensable symbol of love in the mainstream consciousness. Even after all these years, Penn’s iconic rendition of the essential American legend remains the definitive film on the subject.
Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the two title characters, Bonnie and Clyde might occasionally stray from the historically accurate version of the duo’s lives, but its seminal experiments have transformed the film into a historical artefact itself. When it was first released, critics and audiences jumped to criticise Penn’s penchant for the cinematic stylisation of violence. Some scholars still blame Bonnie and Clyde for inspiring other filmmakers to use the cinematic medium for the glorification of brutality.
On the other side of the spectrum, visionaries like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael hailed Penn’s masterpiece as one of the greatest American films in recent memory and provided further evidence that the two were among the best film critics of the 20th century. Bonnie and Clyde became an integral force behind the rise of the American New Wave, inspiring the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to recreate the film’s bold artistic risks.
“It was a time,” Penn said, “where, it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, then we would be obliged to really to depict it accurately; the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence… The intention there was to get this kind of spastic motion of genuine violence, and at the same time, the attenuation of time that one experiences when you see something, like a terrible automobile accident.”
Penn himself was inspired by the French New Wave, following in the footsteps of Godard. Bonnie and Clyde’s editing paved the way for the employment of new visual grammar in American cinema, one that was fashioned after the beautiful subversions of cinematic conventions in European masterpieces like Breathless. Even the writers of the film, David Newman and Robert Benton, cited Godard as well as François Truffaut as primary influences for their 75-page treatment and even approached the two for advice on the material.
Just as the death of Bonnie and Clyde turned them into martyrs, Arthur Penn’s vision crystallises their image as two attractive lovers who decide to carve out their own American Dream by rejecting the failing economic systems during the Great Depression. “We rob banks,” they proudly announce to anyone who is willing to listen because the vast majority of common people were frustrated by the predatory operations of banks. In a period where the land of liberty was littered with property foreclosures, and helpless people were driven from their own lands by banks, it is no surprise that Bonnie and Clyde became cultural icons.
The film is well-aware of the larger than life symbols that are enmeshed in its narrative framework and attempt to conduct symbolic examinations in the subtext, including the famous contrast between Clyde’s affection for phallic symbols like guns and his overwhelming sexual impotence. These contrasts form a major element of the film’s investigations, highlighting the hypocrisy of the glamorous lies sold by newspapers when poverty was the crushing reality. Even though Bonnie and Clyde were romanticised as enduring signifiers of freedom, they were always trapped under the repressive force of the State.
Bonnie and Clyde’s famous ending scene has been described as “one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history.” While that may be true, that is certainly not the focus of the iconic conclusion. Along with their perforated bodies, we are presented with a terrifying vision of unfulfilled ambitions and perforated hopes. In addition to being a fantastic commentary on the widespread desensitisation towards violence, Penn conducts a visual translation of the ways in which mythologies are formed and propagated. When Clyde tells Bonnie that she “made [him] somebody they’re going to remember,” it isn’t just a romantic gesture but a metafictional address to audiences who cannot forget them.
According to multiple reports, the writers wanted Godard to make the film but he passed on the project because the producer would not let him shoot in New Jersey in winter. He famously walked away, complaining: “I’m talking cinema, and you’re talking weather. Goodbye.” Godard could probably have made a fantastic film with a gun and a girl, but I doubt that it would be nearly as American as Penn’s masterpiece.