Bonnie and Clyde is a 1967 crime drama written by David Newman and Robert Benton, loosely based on the early-to-mid-thirties crime spree of the Barrow gang. The film was directed by Arthur Penn; it stars Warren Beatty (who also produced it) and Faye Dunaway, and costars Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard. All five of these actors were nominated for Oscars, with Parsons winning.
Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of filmmaking (New Hollywood), with its shockingly bloody gunshot wounds (produced by squibs), jump cuts (courtesy of the direct influence of the late fifties/sixties French New Wave; in fact, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were consulted during the making of the film), and sexual innuendo, helping to bring the old, prudish Production Code to an end and replacing it with the MPAA ratings system.
As good and ground-breaking as the film is, though, don’t expect that watching it will leave you well-informed about the real history of Bonnie and Clyde. The film not only romanticizes the crime spree, making the Barrow gang into social rebels and heroes to the late sixties counterculture, but it also plays fast and loose with what actually happened back in the early-to-mid-1930s. The real crime duo’s meeting place was totally different (at the home of Barrow’s friend Clarence Clay, not at Bonnie’s home); they robbed far fewer banks (mostly grocery stores and gas stations); there’s no evidence that they robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; Bonnie was already married (to Roy Thornton, who was in prison himself during and after the crime spree), and the real Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle) and Blanche Barrow (Parsons) were totally unlike the weak, humiliated portrayals seen in the film.
The film was reviled on its first release, most audiences being disgusted with the excess violence. But over time, it has become a classic, to the point where Quentin Tarantino said film history can be divided into films made before and after Bonnie and Clyde, that is, that the cinema of the seventies started with this late-sixties movie.
A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here.
Though the writers denied intending any deeper meaning behind their movie, their having changed so much of the history, and indulgently so (they were originally even going to have Clyde be bisexual!), to suit their purposes, suggests at least unconscious motives. Therefore, I feel free to interpret the film’s meaning as I will.
The film’s mythology of the Barrow gang, who “rob banks,” portrays them as sympathetic to the poor, and as society’s rebels who are sticking it to the Man. I will carry that line of thinking a little further, and say that their crime spree is symbolic of a revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists. Their being shot and killed by the police thus represents a counter-revolution and restoration of capitalism.
We see black-and-white pictures of Bonnie, Clyde, et al during the opening credits, establishing a photograph motif symbolizing the fixed image, the idealized myth, of the Barrow gang, as opposed to who they really were. This contrast between ideal and real is reinforced immediately after in the opening scene, with Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) nude in her bedroom and looking at herself in the mirror. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which we have the contrast between the idealized mirror reflection (her ideal-I), a unified totality (just as in those photos), and the woman looking at it, she who feels lacking, fragmented physically and psychologically, and discontented with her life.
Her inner fragmentation is related to her fragmented relationship with the outside world, that is, her social alienation and that of her species-essence. The jump cuts in this scene, the deliberately choppy editing, symbolize her fragmentation. The shot of her lying on her bed, with her head between the bars of the head of her bed, make her look imprisoned. She bangs her fists in frustration on the bars like a prisoner wanting to be free, for she has a dull job as a waitress, and she wants more out of life.
Then her chance to be free arrives, outside, by her mother’s car.
She looks out the window and sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mom’s car. Her choice of words to address him is significant: she calls out, “Hey, boy!” She’s up there, calling down to him from the second floor, addressing the young man as “boy.”
This moment introduces another theme of the movie: the reversal of sex roles. She hollers down at him, rather than, say, him looking down at her and calling her “girl.” This role reversal, many more examples of which we’ll see soon enough, symbolizes–by challenging the validity of traditional sex roles–a movement towards the equality of the sexes, which in turn is a necessary part of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.
She quickly gets dressed and goes down to meet him. They walk together, buy bottles of Coke, and the sexual innuendo between them commences as we see her with her lips around the bottle top, sensuously drinking in a way suggestive of fellatio. She’s skeptical of his claim to be a thief until he pulls out a pistol, then lowers it to his crotch area, giving the gun obvious phallic symbolism. The sexual innuendo continues when she touches his gun, as if she’d like to masturbate him.
He goes off and robs a store, firing his gun as he and Bonnie race off in a car. She’s so thrilled with his daring that she wants to make love with him. They pull over by some trees, and she jumps on him and covers his face with kisses.
Here we have another reversal of sex roles: she is the sexual aggressor, not the man. In fact, the reversal is carried even further when he has to fight her off…for we learn that he is impotent.
Making Clyde impotent is yet another indulgent invention of the scriptwriters, who earlier considered putting Clyde in a scene involving a bisexual ménage à trois with Bonnie and CW Moss (Pollard). This earlier idea was scrapped for being obviously too risqué even for the radical sixties, especially since the Production Code, though moribund from an increasingly lax enforcement, still wasn’t quite dead yet.
I wonder if the scriptwriters’ inspiration, for bisexuality on the one hand and impotence on the other, came from the fact that the real Clyde Barrow, while incarcerated in Eastham Prison Farm from 1930 to 1932, was raped by an inmate. Either way, this all adds to the theme of sex role reversal by making (or at least seeming to make) Clyde, in one sense or another, sexually passive.
In any case, he does feel emasculated, and his chopped-off toes symbolize such a castration. Small wonder he needs to fire that phallic gun of his, ejaculating bullets to compensate for what he feels to be his incomplete manhood. On the other hand, his giving Bonnie his gun to practice firing at a tire, behind a home they’ve squatted in (repossessed by a bank), is symbolically giving her a phallus, thus once again bringing about a sex role reversal.
When the fledgling duo of thieves see the family that has lost their home to the bank, they show their sympathy. Clyde fires bullets into the sign saying that the family’s home is now the bank’s property, and he tells the father, “We rob banks,” with a proud grin.
Clyde gives his gun to the father and a man named Davis (who worked there with the family), allowing them to fire bullets at the sign and house windows, to release their frustration at the bank’s taking it away from them. Davis is black, incidentally, and he is treated with pleasantly surprising respect, given the time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the American south. He is referred to by name, not as the ‘coloured fellow,’ or the ‘Negro,’ or any other word beginning with n. This sympathy and comradeship against such capitalist institutions as banks and against racism shows how the Bonnie and Clyde of the film represent socialist expropriators of the ruling class, as well as friends of the people.
Later, Clyde–after telling Bonnie not to be nervous about their next job (while he is the one obviously nervous)–attempts a robbery of a small bank that has gone out of business and lost all of its money due to the Depression. When she learns of the bank’s lack of money, Bonnie laughs at Clyde as they hurry away in their car. His embarrassment is another symbolic emasculation, a lowering of him from the unattainable male chauvinist ideal, showing him to be her equal. He fires a few ejaculatory bullets in the window of the bank in a pathetic attempt to save face.
They begin to build up the Barrow gang by adding CW Moss, a composite of WD Jones and Henry Methvin, as their getaway driver. First, Clyde shows his inadequacy during their next bank heist by only weakly saying, “This is a stick-up,” then saying it again loud enough to be heard by all in the bank. Then, Moss demonstrates his incompetence by parking their getaway car where Bonnie and Clyde can’t find it.
Both men’s failings once again show the myth of male superiority, showing Bonnie to be their equal.
While we don’t see any signs of incompetence in Bonnie, who is far less experienced as a criminal than Clyde or Moss, Parsons’s portrayal of Blanche, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), is most unflattering. Her hysterics so annoyed the real Blanche, who was alive to see the film, that she complained of the writers and Parsons making her “look like a screaming horse’s ass!”
And Parsons, of all the nominated actors in the film, was the one to win an Oscar, which must have embittered the real Blanche all the more.
While, on the one hand, we have the lowering of men from their chauvinistic high horse, we also have the urge to raise women higher, where we see Bonnie succeeding and Blanche failing. Bonnie, the liberated woman of the movie, naturally loses her patience with Blanche and her traditional womanhood. As unpleasant as it may be to watch Bonnie verbally abusing Blanche, still, the demand for her to toughen up is as necessary–for the sake of sexual equality–as it is to see the men humbled.
Speaking of Bonnie as a feminist icon in the film, another reversal of sex roles happens when Clyde takes that famous photograph of Bonnie with his cigar in her mouth and his gun in her hand, leaning against the car. The gun and cigar make her into the phallic woman, an idealized, strong version of herself making the photo comparable to the ideal-I she saw in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the film.
The ideal of those photos, still images showing people as unified totalities instead of the fragmented people we all feel ourselves to be, is a motif in this film connected with the image of Bonnie at the mirror. The pictures are representative of the Imaginary Order, establishing the self as an illusory, idealized ego.
The photos of the real Bonnie and Clyde that were discovered in their hideout in Joplin were published in the newspapers, adding to the grandeur of the myth of the Barrow gang. The contrast between, for example, the photograph of Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and the real Bonnie, who didn’t smoke cigars, demonstrates this difference between the ideal and the real. That photo may have made her look like a cigar-chomping, gun-brandishing moll, but the real Bonnie wasn’t as tough as all that.
So the screenwriters were perhaps a bit more justified in their mythologizing and romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde than it would seem, since the media of the 1930s were doing a mythologizing and romanticizing of their own. This is a story of idealized images, as contrasted with the disappointing reality of (in the film) an impotent Clyde, a dim-witted Moss, and a screaming, weak Blanche. The movie’s idealizations, in turn, contrast with the disappointing reality that these thieves were no Robin Hood and his band of merry men, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but were just common criminals, Clyde having been especially hardened by the traumatizing prison rapes he suffered.
Added to the deliberate falsifying of history is the film’s anachronistic use of bluegrass banjo music, which hadn’t existed until the mid 1940s.
More romanticizing of the Barrow gang occurs when they rob a bank, but let a poor man keep his money. They’re violent only to those who try to protect the wealth of the establishment–the cops. Hence, my allegorizing of them as socialist revolutionaries.
The stolen money is divided up fairly among all the members of the gang. Even Blanche, who sticks up for herself and demands her share, gets hers. Unlike in capitalist society, where banks can seize a poor family’s home and transfer wealth up to the 1%—real robbery!–the socialists that our expropriating revolutionaries represent here understand the principle, “From each according to his ability [i.e., Bonnie, Clyde, and Buck, who’ve robbed the bank], to each according to his needs [i.e., Moss and Blanche, who were outside or in the car].”
Texas Ranger Frank Hamer follows and tries to catch the gang, but he’s caught himself, then humiliated in photos taken of him with the gang and later sent to the newspapers. This never actually happened. Hamer was a well-respected law enforcer, inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame; his posse shot and killed Bonnie and Clyde not out of a wish for revenge over his wounded pride, but out of their need to stop a gang of violent cop-killers. In fact, his widow and son sued Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character, getting an out-of-court settlement.
The Barrow gang needs a new car after that bank robbery, so they steal one owned by an undertaker, Eugene Grizzard (played by Gene Wilder). The theft of Grizzard’s car, and the kidnapping of him and his girlfriend, Velma Davis (played by Evans Evans), seem to be based on those of Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone.
Eugene and Velma have been making out when the car theft occurs, so the two lovers race out after the Barrow gang in her car. Furious, Eugene puts on a phoney show of macho bravado in his shouting that he’s “gonna tear them apart!” But when Velma, the driver, warns that the thieves may have guns, he immediately loses his courage and tells her to turn around so they can inform the police.
In this comic scene, we see another reversal of sex roles. He is all emotional, while she is keeping her cool. She is driving because it’s her car, of course, but the visuals of a woman driver and male passenger, as opposed to the traditional vice versa, still reinforces the role-reversal theme. Ultimately, though, the Barrow gang’s possession of phallic guns (including the women) vs. Eugene’s not having any is a symbolic emasculation for him, a male humiliation comparable to Clyde’s impotence, Moss’s slow-wittedness, and Hamer’s photos with the gang.
Just as a little boy experiences a symbolic castration when confronting the nom (or Non!) du père, with its prohibition against Oedipal incest with Mother, so is Eugene experiencing a kind of ‘legal prohibition,’ if you will, against getting his stolen car back; for in the world of the Barrow gang, a world symbolic of the proletarian dictatorship, the poor have the ‘legal’ right to expropriate the bourgeoisie. Eugene and Velma are, by their appearance and their nice-looking cars and house, clearly middle-class.
The Barrow gang chases after, catches, and kidnaps Eugene and Velma, and at first they’re friendly with the two, Buck telling them his silly joke about the cow’s milk mixed with brandy, and the gang buying them hamburgers. But when Eugene tells them he’s an undertaker, an instance of foreshadowing of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s fate, she gets apprehensive and insists on kicking them out.
Scared and craving a reunion with her mother, Bonnie runs off. The gang finds her, and they agree to a visit with her family. This visit, with her mother’s fear for her clearly apparent, strengthens our sense of sympathy for her and for the rest of the gang.
Clyde tries to reassure Bonnie’s mother that he’ll find legitimate work as soon as the Depression is over. Here’s the thing: economic hardship has a way of turning desperate people into criminals, for it’s capitalism’s inherent nature to lead to crises, due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
The gang finds another temporary hideout, and Moss and Blanche go off to a restaurant to get takeout; but someone there recognizes them and calls the cops. Another shootout and escape leave Buck with a gunshot wound to the head, and Blanche with a bullet breaking the car window and blinding her in the left eye. They camp somewhere in the bush, but the cops find them and another shootout ensues, with the death of Buck and the arrest of grieving, hysterical Blanche. Both Bonnie and Clyde have been shot in the arm, but they and Moss get away. (In the film, by the way, we at no point see Bonnie get that crippling, third-degree leg burn that she got in real life.)
Now, if we see their bank robbing, shooting policemen, and showing mercy to the poor as allegorical of socialist revolution, then we can see the police raids as symbolic of counter-revolutionary attempts to restore capitalism. Consider, as historic examples, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the suppression of the weakly-defended, short-lived Paris Commune.
The injuries the Barrow gang have sustained, including the loss of Buck and Blanche, remind us of how important a good defence is. Similarly, during the Cold War, the USSR, China under Mao, and the DPRK learned of the necessity of having a strong nuclear defence. The Barrow gang has had only getaway cars and easily found hideaways to protect themselves in.
Moss drives wounded Bonnie and Clyde to an open-air place by a lake where a group of poor people, those that the Depression has cast aside, are staying. Moss asks them for some water. They huddle around the car to look on sympathetically at Bonnie and Clyde. Again, this solidarity among the poor and among society’s misfits shows how the Barrow gang can be seen as representative of socialists.
After that, Moss drives them to the house of his father, Ivan Moss (played by Dub Taylor). His pa is furious that he’s got a tattoo on his chest, the influence of Bonnie and Clyde, whom Ivan would give over to the police in a heartbeat, though he gives the two thieves dissembling grins the whole time.
The conflict between father and son here is a reflection of the generation gap of the late sixties. CW Moss’s tattoo says “Love,” suggestive of the hippies, while Ivan’s disapproval of it suggests the conservative parents of that later decade.
Dim-witted CW should know better than to put the care of his fugitive friends in the hands of his arch-conservative father; but he doesn’t have anywhere else to take them. This is why a better defence is so important.
Smiling Ivan, always pretending to be a hospitable friend to Bonnie and Clyde, is like the kind of fifth-column traitor that used to sneak into the socialist states and tear them apart, bit by bit, on the inside.
And CW is just weak-willed enough to allow his father and Hamer to set a trap for the crime duo, just as Blanche–both eyes bandaged, instead of only the one injured eye–is blind to Hamer’s scheming and tells him CW’s name. Such weak-willed people in the socialist states used to help the fifth-column traitors, too, in their efforts to restore capitalism, leading in turn to today’s neoliberal nightmare.
Bonnie’s and Clyde’s injuries heal, and she writes a poem on their life together. It is sent to the newspapers, a poem that foreshadows their deaths; but as a communication of who they are to the media, it replaces photographic images with language, a far more meaningful expression. Instead of still photos giving the illusory, unified egos of the Imaginary, we have the therapeutic language of the Symbolic.
Clyde is delighted with her poem when he sees it published in the papers; he feels she has told his story to the world. This makes him feel integrated with society, rather than alienated from it. The linguistic, expressive world of the Symbolic has healed him, and he can finally make love to Bonnie. He’d also like to marry her.
The problem is that Ivan has made a deal with Hamer to set a trap for our two lovers. The police will be lenient with CW in return for Ivan’s help in catching Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde are going in their car to where the ambush has been prepared. Clyde is wearing sunglasses with the left eye glass broken out, symbolic of his inability to see straight and anticipate the danger he and Bonnie are in (In fact, it parallels Blanche’s wounded left eye).
As they’re approaching the trap, she gets a pear and eats it, sharing it with him; they look rather like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and making themselves nakedly vulnerable to the death sentence they’re about to suffer.
Ivan’s truck is on the side of the road, and seeing them nearing their death trap, he waves at them and gives them another dissimulating smile. Clyde stops the car and goes over to help Ivan with his apparently broken down truck.
In this scene, just as in the beginning one of nude Bonnie in her room, we see a number of jump cuts symbolic of fragmentation. This fragmentation, however, is not that of the Imaginary, but that of the Real, in which a chaotic lack of differentiation resides, the traumatic, non-differentiated world of terror and death. The language of the Symbolic cannot express this experience.
Ivan slips under his truck for safety, just after we see a flock of birds fly out from the bushes where Hamer’s armed men are hiding; these birds are a bad omen, but the warning is too late for Bonnie and Clyde.
The jump cuts show the two lovers looking about in suspicion, then at each other one last time as they resign themselves to their fate. This looking in each other’s eyes is a mirroring of their love for each other, paralleling Bonnie’s looking in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the movie. In their love, they see themselves in each other.
Then the bullets fly out.
Since guns in this film are phallic, the bullets are symbolic ejaculations. Hamer’s sense of manhood has been humiliated, especially by Bonnie’s kiss on his lips when the photos are taken of him with the gang (hence his ejaculatory spitting on her afterwards), so his and the posse’s shooting of her and Clyde is him taking his revenge and regaining his sense of manhood. It’s his wish to humiliate them back in, symbolically, a similarly sexual and emasculating way, by raining, if you will, bukkake bullets all over their bodies, spraying red semen on them.
The two lie there dead, a physical fragmentation to complement their psychological fragmentation at the start of the film. Hamer and his posse emerge from the bushes and look at their bloody work, reminding us of the executions of the roughly 20,000 Communards, 147 of whom were shot against what’s now called the Communards’ Wall. We see Hamer’s men through the bullet-riddled glass of Clyde’s car, glass which gives some reflection of the trees behind, reminding us of Bonnie’s mirror from the beginning scene.
In all of these ways, we see the first and last scenes of the movie as doubles of each other: an opening scene of fragmentation, the alienation of capitalism; the middle of the film’s capers representative of socialist hopes; and the end as the brutal, bloody restoration of the original, fragmentary estrangement of society that is caused by capitalism.