When people think, or talk, about Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 period-piece gangster drama that revolutionized American movies, it’s almost always in terms of everything the film did that was bold and audacious and new: the infamous bloody shock and poetic realism of its violence, which ignited a tempestuous social debate about screen violence that lasted for decades (how quaint it all seems now, when even “sheltered” children grow up completely blasé about playing first-person-shooter videogames); the bracingly fresh, ’30s-meets-’60s sexual charisma that Warren Beatty and (especially) Faye Dunaway brought to their roles as bank robbers living out a vintage outlaw version of free love; the colorful, angular pop sharpness of its visual vocabulary, which borrowed much of the spirit of the French New Wave; and the fearless (and funny) way that the movie tweaked, and undercut, the whole mythology of the American tough-guy hero by having Clyde, a ruthless criminal played by Hollywood’s most coveted ladies’ man, turn out to be a man suffering from impotence. Bonnie and Clyde was so novel in so many ways that when you look back, it’s easy to see that, yes, all the seeds of the New Hollywood were there.
Yet every time I watch Bonnie and Clyde — and it really is one of those rare movies, like Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Blue Velvet, that you could watch forever — what strikes me as unique about it, and what I cherish about it, is that all that newness is nestled within a Hollywood framework that is just so rigorous, so finely and meticulously structured, so (there’s no other word for it)…old-fashioned. Fantastic as the movie is, it’s not the kind of ripped-from-an-artist’s-guts personal-cinema game-changer that, say, Mean Streets or McCabe & Mrs. Miller were. Its pace and design and structure are downright classical. The special magic of Bonnie and Clyde is that, as revolutionary as it undeniably was, it was also, in its very form and aesthetic, the last great movie of the studio system. It had one foot in each era. And that’s the quality that Arthur Penn, the brilliant and daring craftsman of a director who died Tuesday at 88, brought to it. He came out of the studio system, and he had that rigorous, orderly way of making movies imprinted on his DNA.
There were two great tectonic-shift movies of the 1960s: Psycho, the Hitchcock horror classic that, at its deepest, literally took the spirit of movies (and maybe that of the whole culture) from the religious to the secular; and Bonnie and Clyde, the picture that infused the formal, symmetrical magic of half a century of Hollywood filmmaking with a cathartic new feeling of authenticity. It was, as EW’s Mark Harris definitively captured in his great book Pictures at a Revolution, one of the most intensely collaborative movies ever made, with assorted creative heavyweights — Penn; the screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman; and Beatty the hyper-controlling star doubling, in prophetic fashion, as producer — pushing and pulling the movie into its final shape. Yet with all of that input, when I watch Bonnie and Clyde, what I see is an intoxicating story of freedom — of youthful American nihilism, of love on the run, of the violence that fuels and finally destroys it — as seen through the eyes of a storyteller who is too wise and observant and detached from that freedom to give into it entirely. Those eyes were Arthur Penn’s. We saw what he saw, which was one era changing into another, so that the movie literally pulses in every frame with life and death.