To speak of Arthur Penn is to address the question of what might be termed, somewhat paradoxically, the "post-classical" American cinema. On the one hand Penn belongs with that group of post-World War II directors which came to cinema from the stage and from the early days of television – people like Nicholas Ray, Sam Peckinpah, Franklin Schaffner, Martin Ritt, and Joseph Losey. In that respect Penn is indeed an inheritor of the traditions and forms of the classical Hollywood cinema, the Western (The Left Handed Gun), the biography picture (The Miracle Worker), the gangster/detective film (Night Moves), etc. Perhaps Penn's loyalty to Hollywood tradition is most clearly seen in his frequent reliance upon the star system to infuse his films with certain qualities of intensity and resonance – Dustin Hoffman's performance in Little Big Man and Marlon Brando's and Jack Nicholson's in The Missouri Breaks stand out in this regard. Yet on the other hand Penn is also frequently associated with the more overtly intellectual traditions of the European art film, especially those of the French New Wave films of the early 1960s. Penn's Mickey One, for example, is frequently discussed in such "art film" terms. But arguably it was with Bonnie and Clyde that Penn's special status as a post-classical director was most forcefully asserted and confirmed.
In her classic essay on the film, Pauline Kael situates Bonnie and Clyde's place in American film history by reference primarily to Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once, itself a version of the Bonnie and Clyde story, and to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. Kael's essay was written in reply to those who saw Bonnie and Clyde as a glorification of violence as personified in the actions of Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie Parker, and Kael quite rightly points out that "Bonnie and Clyde are presented not as mean and sadistic, [but] as having killed only when cornered." Indeed, most of the film's explicitly graphic violence is directed not at society but rather at the members of the Barrow gang. This is especially clear in the film's last two ambush scenes, the first of which concludes with Buck Barrow's death throes and Blanche Barrow's agonized screams, the last of which sees Bonnie and Clyde riddled with machine gun fire. Kael's larger point, however, involves the particularly American theme of innocence at hazard and on the run, which makes Lang's melodrama and Capra's screwball comedy spiritual ancestors of Penn's alternately comic and tragic parable of the outlaw couple. The central characters in all three films long mightily, often awkwardly, to realize aspirations of spiritual and social stature. But in Lang and Penn society provides no real outlet or model for the realization of such dreams. And even in Capra it takes an act of theft (like Bonnie and Clyde, Gable and Colbert literally steal a car at one point; Ellie's father has a "getaway" car standing by during the wedding ceremony) to ensure the dream's survival.
In terms of its story, then, Bonnie and Clyde is quite properly considered a classical Hollywood film. But this story of Bonnie and Clyde is mediated by or through a very self-conscious form of visual discourse; hence the critical commonplace of Penn's indebtedness to the generically-derived film of Truffaut and Godard. Partly this self-consciousness is seen within the film's depicted world: Bonnie writes her own legend in doggerel verse throughout the film, and she and Clyde both willingly pose for Buck Barrow's Kodak. Or consider the moment after the first killing, after the scene in the movie theatre, when Bonnie dances in front of her motel room mirror while singing "We're In The Money," as if she were herself a character in a film, La Cava's Golddiggers of 1933 perhaps. The limited self-consciousness of Penn's characters is set in thematic context by the more inclusive self-consciousness of the film's discourse. For both the characters and the director, it's a matter of images – of living up to them, of taking responsibility for them.
Perhaps the greatest irony in Bonnie and Clyde is the degree to which the characters drift into big-time crime, without real premeditation. Clyde's first hold-up is undertaken in response to Bonnie's sexually loaded dare. And the first bank job – from which all else follows inexorably – evolves from a similarly innocent responsiveness on Clyde's part. He and Bonnie are taking target practice when a farmer and his family pull up in their truck to take a final look at their repossessed farm. Out of sympathy Clyde puts a slug into the Midlothian State Bank's "No Trespassing" sign. Clyde offers the gun to the farmer and to his black field hand. As the farmer turns to leave, Clyde says, almost hesitantly though somewhat boastfully, as if to cement the bond between them, "we rob banks." He hasn't robbed one yet – but now he is committed to trying; though the first bank he tries is empty both of money and customers. More significantly, in wanting to live up to his "bank robber" image, Clyde unknowingly begins the progress of his own entrapment, an entrapment made chillingly clear in Penn's images. As Clyde steps through the door, gun drawn, Penn frames him through the teller's cage. Perhaps Clyde thinks of the holdup as an expression of his own freedom from restraint; but Penn's framing of him within the constriction of the teller's cage and through its bars shows how wrong Clyde is. This motif of freedom delimited and constrained is elaborately developed through the course of the film via a whole range of internal frames – windows, mirrors, doors, car windows, etc.
Implicit in Penn's framing is the question of responsibility – of Clyde's for stepping into the frame, of Penn's (and ours) for standing on the other side and choosing to see him framed. The film's self-awareness is most clearly evident in the way it critiques the camera, as if our need to see Bonnie and Clyde as images of a freedom we both envy and fear were very directly responsible for their deaths. "Shooting" with a gun and "shooting" with a camera are explicitly equated in the sequence with Texas Ranger Hamer, where Bonnie proposes to humiliate Hamer by taking his picture ("He'll wish he were dead," as Buck puts it). In the credit sequence, moreover, Penn's name is immediately preceded by a snapshot of three riflemen kneeling, as if he (the camera) were a gunman. And in the final ambush sequence we see Bonnie and Clyde's agonized death from a vantage point almost identical to that of Hamer and his deputies, from across the road, as if we, like Penn, were "shooting" the scene. No wonder the film was condemned; who wants to take that kind of responsibility? Arthur Penn, for one.
Release Date: 1967
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Evans Evans, and Gene Wilder
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: David Newman and Robert Benton
Source Citation: Poague, Leland. "Bonnie and Clyde." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 161-163.