Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde

Are Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) supposed to be sympathetic?

I ask because the classic film helmed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway appears to engender some sort of sympathy for the title characters–at least among those who esteem the film, which is a not unsubstantial majority. That is a response that I cannot quite figure.

Never mind that the actual criminal pair preferred to rob rural gas stations and convenience stores as opposed to the more heavily guarded banks, and that they murdered civilians as well as police officers. There are plenty of good films that deviate from the historical material on which they draw. Arthur Penn’s film, however, is an odd pastiche of a gangster film, too literal to allow all but the most easily swayed audience members to romanticize the pair, yet lacking a moral point of view of its own from which to critique (or even understand) their actions.

Sympathy for the gangster is not impossible, but it is usually engendered by one of three elements, each of which is lacking in Bonnie and Clyde. A character might do bad things but struggle against his or her nature. As all of us know that struggle, we can often empathize, even if our own struggle does not play out on a moral canvas quite so large. In The Godather, for instance, Michael Corleone doesn’t merely give lip service to wanting to avoid a life of crime. He enlists in the army. He tells Kay, that he is not his family. He foolishly thinks he can participate in one act of vengeance without it ensnaring him, and over the course of three films he learns how wrong he is. But this life is not his first choice. Even if he does choose it eventually, he spends some time and effort trying to avoid it.

There is no such struggle in Bonnie and Clyde. She is shown desperate for another life, pounding the bed in frustration. When offered a chance to back out, before her name is learned, she declines. When Barrow warns that since he has now killed a man, their life will be one that is always on the run, she famously replies, “Promise?”

Even if a character does not actively struggle to do right, sometimes his or her conflicted nature can be enough to engender sympathy. Witness Tony Soprano, the fictional New Jersey crime boss whose panic attacks belie a deep rooted, psychological inability to reconcile his own justifications for what he is doing with his own moral horror at it. In one famous early episode, Tony finds out that a coach at his daughter’s high school has been molesting members of the team. Trying to suppress his urge to kill, yet also knowing there is no way to isolate that one decision from a lifetime of decisions that has created a psychological house of cards, he returns home, drunk, torn up, yelling, “I didn’t kill nobody…” Though not a gangster, Tom Ripley (from The Talented Mr. Ripley) articulates the horror of those who have lost the struggle against self but not yet lost the consciousness of guilt:

Don’t you just take the past and put it in a room in a basement and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do, And then you meet someone special and all you want to do is to toss them the key and say; open up, step inside, but you can’t, because it’s dark, There’s demons and if anybody saw how ugly it is. I keep wanted to do that, fling the door open just let light in and clean everything out.

Archival photo of Barrow and Parker from Wikipedia.

Here, once again, though, neither Bonnie nor Clyde appear at all conflicted about what they do. Towards the end of the film, Bonnie asked Clyde if he could wipe the slate clean and start over, what he might do differently. His answers are strictly tactical–rob banks in a different state, better protect his identity. Not only is there no taking of responsibility for his moral failings, there appears to be no recognition of them. After the first murder, Barrow’s brother asks for some reassurance that “it was either him or you, right” to which Clyde replies “I had to do it.” This is a lie not just in the abstract sense that he did not have to do the predicate crime that caused the man to come after him but in the very concrete sense that the man, hanging on to the car and shot through a window, was not an immediate threat to Barrow’s life.

Barrow seems momentarily shaken that he has crossed a line, but nowhere do we ever see him attempt to cross back over the line, to reestablish a moral boundary. Perhaps I have read too many case studies from John Douglas or watched too many episodes of Criminal Minds, but if anything, the source material (as opposed to the tone taken by the film) suggests Barrow’s profile is more garden variety sadist/sociopath than anything else. Witness one scene where the gang steals a car and are momentarily chased by the couple who owns it. When the couple turns around, and when the gang realizes they are not a threat, the gang turns from fleeing to chasing, running the civilian couple off the road and leering through the car window taking glee at their terror.

Another way of creating sympathy is by showing the gangster with a code. Even if that code is different from the code of conventional morality, the principled adherence to a code can make us feel that the criminal has a moral compass that has become twisted rather than simply lacking one at all. Tom Hanks’s killer in Road to Perdition recognizes that the obligation to family trumps loyalty to his boss. Jason Bourne has a code against killing civilians which, while violated early in his career, keeps him from becoming totally lost. Barrow will occasionally make a gesture designed to rationalize his narcissistic choices–during one bank robbery he asks a civilian whether the money he holds is his or the bank’s–but these are neither consistent nor coherent. His gesture at the bank is undercut by the fact that the majority of his thefts are from small shopkeepers or of property (such as cars), and predicated by his needs or desires. He tells Bonnie’s mother that once the “bad times” (i.e. the depression) end, he will stop robbing, but she recognizes this for the self-serving blather that it is.

None of this makes Bonnie and Clyde a bad movie. I don’t object that the film should present the characters sympathetically and doesn’t, but rather that the film never quite makes clear what it is it wants me to to think about its subject matter. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (in)famously called the film “[…] a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” While it is trendy to claim that time has vindicated the film (Crowther was replaced as the primary critic for The Times the year after the film was released), even many of the film’s defenders admit the direction lacks control (Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader), while a small but persistent minority echo Crowther’s complaints, albeit in less strident rhetoric, claiming the film “rides off in all directions” (Time Magazine), or is “inconsistent” (Dave Kaufman, Variety).

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey won an Academy Award (as did supporting actress Estelle Parsons), and the film’s climactic, stylized violence is unquestionably important in the the evolution of the visual language with which American cinema speaks of violence. Even here, though, I was confused by what the intended response was supposed to be. After the slow motion ballet of bullets and bodies finally bring down the criminal lovers, a crowd closes in to look at them. The film cuts to “The End” before we get much of a response, leaving us to infer that the film here, and indeed throughout, is more interested in showing us something (usually violence) in a unique and stylish way than it is in showing it for a purpose. If we are supposed to think something about the film or the couple that inspired it beyond or besides “well, that was pretty cool,” I”m at a loss as to what it might be.

And as for the “pretty cool” itself, yes, perhaps momentarily. But even for those who might get caught up in the aesthetics of the whole thing, I am skeptical that this response can be sustained past even cursory self-reflection or examination.

Because it’s not cool. None of it. And it’s not tragic, either, except,perhaps, in the generic way that any life wasted is tragic.

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