(This is about the 1967 film, not the 2013 remake.)
When I first saw the film ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I was fifteen years old. I liked it so much, I went to see it again the following week. I didn’t know a lot about Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway at the time. I had never heard of Estelle Parsons, Gene Wilder, or Gene Hackman either. I thought I recognised the strange face of Michael J. Pollard, but I didn’t know where I might have seen it. The man playing the Texas Ranger was Denver Pyle, and I knew him immediately, from old westerns. The same applied to Dub Taylor, who played the father of C.W. Moss in the film.
I had been going to the cinema for as long as I was old enough to sit up straight in the seat. I had seen all kinds of films, including many gangster classics. But I had never seen anything like this. I didn’t care that Beatty and Dunaway were too good-looking to be realistic in the parts, or that events and incidents had been altered or compressed. I just knew that I loved it. And I sensed it was cool.
In later life, I would appreciate the varied pace of Arthur Hill’s direction, and realise just how effective Charles Strouse’s musical score was. But I was fifteen, and it was all about sitting back, and letting this marvellous new style of film just wash over me.
For anyone unlucky enough to have never seen it, the story is simple enough. Based on the real-life adventures of the Barrow Gang, bank robbers who ranged across a wide area of the USA during the early part of the 1930s, at a time when America was in the grip of a nationwide financial depression. Clyde has just been released from prison, and meets Bonnie, who is a slutty waitress at a nearby diner, with dreams of a better life. He heads off with her, teaming up with his brother Buck, and Buck’s snobbish wife, Blanche. They enlist the help of a garage mechanic, C.W. Moss, and begin to rob banks in states all over the country. They are soon being hunted, and constantly move from place to place to avoid capture, becoming involved in car chases with the police, and shoot-outs where most of the gang are injured.
The film cannot decide whether they are romantic figures, Robin Hood characters, or just plain bad. It seeks to supply reasons for the choice of a life of crime, and at times to suggest that they helped poor people, at the expense of banks and financial institutions. They were not averse to shooting first, and wounded and killed many police officers, and some civilians too. Bonnie is shown as a frustrated poet, Clyde as a man uncomfortable with his sexuality. None of this matters. The cast all do a fine job with their roles, and even the cameo from Gene Wilder is priceless. Laced with comedic moments, exciting set-pieces, tragedy, and an ever-present sense of doom, it was a standout film, at least when I was fifteen. The sense of period is also immaculate, and never once did it feel like a set.
I would argue that it still holds up today. The flawless casting, the sharper moments in the script, and the fast-slow-fast pacing all comes together so well, offering a near-perfect gangster film, a million miles from the B-Movie roots of the genre. If you have never seen it, you are missing out.