By Caleb Brown
When looking at the evolution of filmmaking over the generations, one of the fiercest debates was over censorship and the limits of taboo subject matter in Hollywood. It was a problem that dramatically reshaped Hollywood throughout the 30’s and 40’s, when the Hays code dictated strict guidelines on the adult content of films. The code frustrated executives and filmmakers alike, and led to much of the violence and sexual content of golden age Hollywood filmmaking being reduced to innuendo. But as the moral climate of the 50’s faded, and the radical 60’s counterculture changed consumer attitudes, a new style of cinema was needed to fit the times . While no one film can be pointed to as definitively breaking cinematics taboos clearly pushed American cinema in a new direction. Bonnie and Clyde is one of those films. For its sheer popularity, the controversy is caused, and its refusal to censor violence , Arthur Penn’s smash hit Bonnie and Clyde remains one of America’s most important films. In both its stylistic and historical significance, few films can compare to this ultra-violent blockbuster.
When Bonnie and Clyde took the nation by storm in 1967, the first murmurs of New Hollywood had already begun to stir. But within the upper levels of studio filmmaking, things remained stagnant. The general public had become burnt out on the standard Golden Age musicals and historical epics, and desired new forms of entertainment. Ironically, Bonnie and Clyde would draw inspiration from discarded genres of Old Hollywood, like the classic gangster film. In the 1930s, gangster films like the violent and morally ambiguous Scarface ruled the box office. The Hays code brought their reign to a swift end. Yet this style of violent, boldly mythologized was exactly what the countercultural zeitgeist of the late 60’s demanded. Bonnie and Clyde was a movie where the time it came out explains as much about its popularity as the content of the movie itself. Bonnie and Clyde was a film very much of its time. That, as well as its content, was the reason it was a smash hit.
In a move that would become standard fashion for the directors of New Hollywood, the advancements in cinematic technology met the tropes and structure of 30’s Hollywood. As in the films of Howard Hawks or Will Wellman, the action in Bonnie and Clyde is the draw. its use of squibs, explosive pockets of fake blood, in particular was revolutionary for depictions of bodily violence on screen. The film’s chaotic and assertive sound design also warrants mention; the rattle of the duo’s machine guns still sharp and terrifying to this day. It affords the movie a level of spectacle that the 30’s gangster film directors could only have only dreamed of. It applied decades of progression in audio and visual effects to realize in graphic detail what had previously been limited by technology and the demands of censors. Many films followed in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde’s example, Sam Peckinpah’s Western The Wild Bunch and Coppola’s The Godfather would use similarly stark, sleek, modern filmmaking tools when directing their violence to similarly impressive effect. Through its blend of cutting edge filmmaking and genre revivalism, Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of genre filmmaking.
Finally, no retrospective of Bonnie and Clyde can avoid mentioning the incredible casting, both from a marketing and artistic perspective. The photogenic couple of Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway certainly endeared themselves to advertisers, yet it was the contrast of such pretty, norma-looking people portraying such deranged psychopaths that drew in audiences. Dunaway’s Bonnie was a star-making performance, riding the fine line between oblivious child and cold blooded sociopath effortlessly. The presence of Gene Hackman offers another stark reminder that the 70’s were just around the corner, and that Bonnie and Clyde would have a strong hand in shaping the coming decade.