How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours--not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies--go too far for some tastes --and Bonnie and Clyde divides audiences, as The ManchurianCandidate Candidate did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard. Though we may dismiss the attacks with "What good movie doesn't give some offense?," the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it--perhaps a law should be passed against it. Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about. And once something is said or done on the screens of the world, once it has entered mass art, it can never again belong to a minority, never again be the private possession of an educated, or "knowing," group. But even for that group there is an excitement in hearing its own private thoughts expressed out loud and in seeing something of its own sensibility become part of our common culture.
Our best movies have always made entertainment out of the anti-heroism of American life; they bring to the surface what, in its newest forms and fashions, is always just below the surface. The romanticism in American movies lies in the cynical tough guy's independence; the sentimentality lies, traditionally, in the falsified finish when the anti-hero turns hero. In 1967, this kind of sentimentality wouldn't work with the audience, and Bonnie and Clyde substitutes sexual fulfillment for a change of heart. (This doesn't quite work, either; audiences sophisticated enough to enjoy a movie like this one are too sophisticated for the dramatic uplift of the triumph over impotence.)
Structurally, Bonnie and Clyde is a story of love on the run, like the old Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert It Happened One Night but turned inside out; the walls of Jericho are psychological this time, but they fall anyway. If the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed almost from the start, and even to them while they were living it, to be the material of legend, it's because robbers who are loyal to each other--like the James brothers--are a grade up from garden-variety robbers, and if they're male and female partners in crime and young and attractive they're a rare breed. The Barrow gang had both family loyalty and sex appeal working for their legend. David Newman and Robert Benton, who wrote the script for Bonnie and Clyde, were able to use the knowledge that, like many of our other famous outlaws and gangsters, the real Bonnie and Clyde seemed to others to be acting out forbidden roles and to relish their roles. In contrast with secret criminals--the furtive embezzlers and other crooks who lead seemingly honest lives--the known outlaws capture the public imagination, because they take chances, and because, often, they enjoy dramatizing their lives. They know that newspaper readers want all the details they can get about the criminals who do the terrible things they themselves don't dare to do, and also want the satisfaction of reading about the punishment after feasting on the crimes. Outlaws play to this public; they show off their big guns and fancy clothes and their defiance of the law. Bonnie and Clyde established the images for their own legend in the photographs they posed for: the gunman and the gun moll. The naïve, touching doggerel ballad that Bonnie Parker wrote and had published in newspapers is about the roles they play for other people contrasted with the coming end for them. It concludes:
Someday they'll go down together; They'll bury them side by side; To few it'll be grief-To the law a relief-But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.
That they did capture the public imagination is evidenced by the many movies based on their lives. In the late forties, there were They Live by Night, with Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, and Gun Crazy, with John Dall and Peggy Cummins. ( Alfred Hitchcock, in the same period, cast these two Clyde Barrows, Dall and Granger, as Loeb and Leopold, in Rope.) And there was a cheap--in every sense-- 1958 exploitation film, The Bonnie Parker Story, starring Dorothy Provine. But the most important earlier version was Fritz Lang You Only Live Once, starring Sylvia Sidney as "Joan" and Henry Fonda as "Eddie." which was made in 1937; this version, which was one of the best American films of the thirties, as Bonnie and Clyde is of the sixties, expressed certain feelings of its time, as this film expresses certain feelings of ours. ( They Live by Night, produced by John Houseman under the aegis of Dore Schary, and directed by Nicholas Ray, was a very serious and socially significant tragic melodrama, but its attitudes were already dated thirties attitudes: the lovers were very young and pure and frightened and underprivileged; the hardened criminals were sordid; the settings were committedly grim. It made no impact on the postwar audience, though it was a great success in England, where our moldy socially significant movies could pass for courageous.)
Just how contemporary in feeling Bonnie and Clyde is may be indicated by contrasting it with You Only Live Once which, though almost totally false to the historical facts, was told straight. It is a peculiarity of our times--perhaps it's one of the few specifically modern characteristics--that we don't take our stories straight any more. This isn't necessarily bad. Bonnie and Clyde is the first film demonstration that the put-on can be used for the purposes of art. The Manchurian Candidate almost succeeded in that, but what was implicitly wild and far-out in the material was nevertheless presented on screen as a straight thriller. Bonnie and Clyde keeps the audience in a kind of eager, nervous imbalance-holds our attention by throwing our disbelief back in our faces. To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they're not stooges--that they appreciate the joke--when they catch the first bullet right in the face. The movie keeps them off balance to the end. During the first part of the picture, a woman in my row was gleefully assuring her companions, "It's a comedy. It's a comedy." After a while, she didn't say anything. Instead of the movie spoof, which tells the audience that it doesn't need to feel or care, that it's all just in fun, that "we were only kidding," Bonnie and Clyde disrupts us with "And you thought we were only kidding."