With its sympathetic focus on two anti-heroes, heavy debt to the European art film of the ’60s and appeal to a younger, disaffected audience, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is often credited (along with The Graduate and Easy Rider) with ushering in a new era in American film. That association assures B&C’s place in film history, but can it stand alone apart from that significance? Put simply, is it any good?
Its status as a “classic” does not answer that question. Plenty of “classic” movies are both bad and dated. Datedness becomes an issue, however, only for those who cannot recognize the conventions of their own time and place. Ironically, the very qualities that make for immediate success are what doom work to future quaintness. What is popular is so because it answers to temporary, transient preoccupations, attitudes and fashions. As a result, as the social environment shifts, what seemed so “real” and transparently moving one moment is suddenly apparent as the stylization it always was.
Not that B&C represents a triumph of style. Even with creamy stars like Beatty and Dunaway to wear the fedoras and berets, it is too uneven to appeal on sparkle alone. More an intelligent, ambitious borrower than a natural stylist, Penn was capable occasionally of finding an apposite combination of form and content (as, for example, in B&C’s infamous, slow-motion denouement) but in anything other than his work with the actors, he was too self-conscious to be consistently effective.
Perhaps, then, the film can be appreciated for its uncharacteristically Realistic depiction of the American past. Certainly the film’s gritty lumpenproletariat settings, vaguely leftist politics, location photography and violent action seem like Realism itself compared to the shiny disasters coming out of the studios in the ’60s. While that “Realism” is at best relative (just compare the publicity still above with the photograph of the real Bonnie and Clyde at left), B&C’s Realistic gestures probably look more foreign to contemporary audiences because the inflated “production values” of ’60s white elephants are so similar to contemporary Hollywood’s over-produced vacuity. As the sickness of slickness has become endemic, glossy surface has cast all other qualities into the shade. Even a star vehicle like B&C looks shopworn by comparison because of its mildly experimental approach.
In short, it is surprisingly tough to extricate the film from the period that produced it, perhaps because it actually has something to say. If you can enjoy the unevenness, relative lack of polish, raw emotions, downbeat drama, social criticism and open form that herald the coming norm, Bonnie and Clyde continues to resonate. If you require tidy stories in which all reaction has been pre-planned and safely contained, you will at best be bemused by it. Which is, I suppose, another way of saying that the film does not have sufficient stature to stand independently. It will always be a signpost pointing to something else—which is also what continues to make it interesting.