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crime dramas of cinematic history, Arthur Penn's 1967 Bonnie and Clyde exhibits many hallmarks of accomplished filmmaking. Mainstay elements like character development, pacing, and screenwriting combine with the subtler aspects of moviemaking like mis-en-scene, cinematography, and sound editing. Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow fulfill their most iconic roles. The film is based on the outlandish but true story of a heterosexual bank robber couple, and holds nothing back when it comes to violence or immorality. As such, the film is perfectly situated and representative of the historical and cultural context of 1960s America. Because of its moral ambiguity, Bonnie and Clyde remains one of the most classic and enduring films in Hollywood history.
Sexual tension between the two titular protagonists is well developed in Bonnie and Clyde. The tension is achieved by the actors' performances, writing, and direction. Bonnie is scripted as a strong, confident person who defies gender stereotypes, roles, and norms. Gone are the gender roles of the 1950s and earlier, in which women were idealized as homemakers. Here, Bonnie serves in a position of self-determination as she chooses an alternative lifestyle and independent financial success. She partners with Clyde not because she wants a man to take care of her, but because she wants to remain independent of the patriarchal and capitalist system. As Bonnie and Clyde fall in love, the audience experiences catharsis because the film builds up to their tragic union. The writers and filmmakers also depict Clyde as having progressive gender norms, given the way he comes to trust Bonnie as his partner in crime.
When they first meet, the filmmakers capture the chemistry between the couple using symbolism as well as relying on clever dialogue and the actors' talents. Both Bonnie and Clyde are confident individuals; neither one is depicted as chasing the other, or as being submissive in any way. Clyde suggests to Bonnie that he chopped off his toes to get off work duty, and her interest is piqued. Clearly, Bonnie is attracted to danger. Both she and Clyde share a mutual mistrust of authority and established social institutions. Bonnie wants to know what armed robbery is like, and when she asks, she sucks on a bottle of coke suggestively. The innuendo is apparent, and the filmmakers do well to establish the relationship between Bonnie and Clyde as being one that is electrifying and treacherous.
In one scene, they meet C.J. Moss, who becomes part of their bank robbing team. Moss services the car, while Clyde goes inside and Bonnie takes charge of the situation. Her deft ability of handling tricky situations shows that she is not serving a stereotypically subordinate role, but rather, a leadership position. Bonnie remains seated in the driver's seat of the car: a symbolic position. Clyde remains on the periphery, also symbolic of the reversal of gender roles. The director allows Bonnie to remain in the center of the action, even while the perspective of the scene shifts from her to C.J. Moss, to Clyde. For example, one shot's mis-en-scene depicts three distinct layers, with C.J. In the foreground, Clyde in the background by the gas station store. Bonnie turns meek C.J. into her prey, luring him with her sexual allure and her temptation to leave behind his gas station life to pursue the more romantic life of an outlaw. As the car is huge, so too looms Bonnie's personality. She unabashedly tells C.J. that the car is a "stolen" four-cylinder Ford coupe, just a few minutes before Bonnie boldly introduces herself to C.J. Moss with the phrase, "we rob banks."
This same scene develops the moral ambiguity that is a necessary underpinning of the movie. After telling C.J. Moss they rob banks, Bonnie and Clyde continue to play him. Clyde pipes up and asks rhetorically, "You ain't scared are you?...There ain't nothing wrong with it, is there?" The question beckons the viewer to consider the morality of bank robbing, especially considering that the film took place in the early twentieth century during a peak of tycoon businesses, monopolies, and corruption in banking. Bonnie and Clyde are set out as pursuing an ironic justice. They are modern Robin Hood characters, who target impersonal large institutions and not ordinary people like C.J. Moss. Of course, later the ethics of Bonnie and Clyde start to deteriorate as their behavior gets out of hand and the law catches up with them. But they still emerge as romantic postmodern heroes.
A softer side of Bonnie and Clyde emerges at key moments in the film. From an editorial and directorial perspective, such softening is necessary for plot and character development as well as for pacing. For instance, Bonnie and Clyde are relaxing in the car while rain pours down outside. The sound of the rain adds emotional depth to the scene, creating a stereotypically romantic setting as the couple is huddled together protected from the elements. A thin beam of light shines through the window illuminating Bonnie's blonde hair. Clyde is in the front seat, but turns around to face Bonnie and thus, his back is to the camera. Bonnie is once again the star of the scene. She is writing in her journal, and Clyde wants to know what it is she is doing. When she tells him she is writing a poem about them, he immediately interrupts her to ask if perhaps it might be printed in the newspaper. With Bonnie reading the poem as voice-over, the director cuts between several scenes: from the scene inside the car on a rainy evening, to a dark scene in which the sheriff reads the newspaper containing the printed poem, and finally to a bright daylight picnic scene in which Bonnie concludes reading the poem printed in the newspaper. All this time, Bonnie's voice-over reads the entirety of the poem. The poem speaks of their eventual deaths. The foreshadowing does not bother either of them. In fact, Clyde is overjoyed. "You told my story…you made me somebody they're gonna remember." What motivates Clyde includes recognition, popularity, and respect. Bonnie seems motivated more by freedom and excitement. Regardless, they both bond over their mutual desire to live on the fringes of society.
The love between Bonnie and Clyde is forged in a fantasy world. Bonnie intuits -- and perhaps also knows intellectually -- that the couple will die young. Her poem reads like an epitaph, which is why its being published in the newspaper is a deeper foreshadowing. As a newspaper article, the poem becomes an obituary. Whereas Clyde can only think of his own fame and immortality, Bonnie's face hides a deeper truth. She does not look as excited or elated as Clyde, but she does bear a smile of contentment. Bonnie wants nothing more than to remain free. She would rather die than go to prison, or live a mundane life.
The final scene of Bonnie and Clyde is its most memorable and intense. C.J. Moss's father betrays them. He flags Bonnie and Clyde down by the side of the road, and they trust him. They think he needs something. Clyde gets out of the car and walks over to Ivan. Ivan looks in the distance for the cop car and ducks. Before he does, a flock of birds suddenly flies from the trees overhead. They are a symbol of death: like the souls of Bonnie and Clyde being set free. Even then, Bonnie has no idea that they are about to die because she looks pleased to see the birds. A close-up on her face reveals nothing but the joy she typically wears. Hence, the film retains its core theme of moral ambiguity up until the final scene. It is implied that Ivan's betrayal of Bonnie and Clyde is an immoral act:…[continue]
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