MORAL PANIC MONTH #3: Bonnie and Clyde, by Arthur Penn (1967)

Type of Media: Film

Most of the time, when you look at a piece of media that caused a moral panic, it seems silly in hindsight. Maybe it hasn’t aged well, or the thing that caught people’s fear was some minor detail blown out of proportion. But with Bonnie and Clyde, you immediately get it. Even today it’s a movie that’s still kind of shocking and dangerous. The way it portrays its title characters - as a young couple in love making a series of stupid, deadly decisions out of mutual insecurity - makes them endearing to an almost frightening degree. Even when you condemn what they’re doing, you’ll still be silently wishing they make it out of everything okay.
Bonnie first meets Clyde when he’s trying to steal her mother’s car. They quickly bond, with Bonnie’s dissatisfaction with her life as a small-town Texas waitress drawing her to Clyde’s ex-con slickness. They become partners in crime, performing small robberies until they gather a few accomplices: car mechanic C.W. Moss, Clyde’s brother Buck, and Buck’s prim wife Blanche. Soon they become famous bank robbers, constantly making the papers and achieving a folk hero status, while the law becomes more and more desperate to stop them.
When Bonnie and Clyde came out a lot of older critics derided it for its violence and amorality. Whenever the main characters rob a place the movie shows them having a grand ol’ time, laughing and shooting as they drive away to the jangly chords of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, respectively, and they’re gorgeous and glamorous and funny. They occasionally have to beat someone bloody or shoot someone, but the brutality of the act doesn’t seem to bother them.
And yet we also see them and their partners when they’re vulnerable. When things get hot and heavy with Bonnie, Clyde struggles with impotence. The young C.W. cries with fright when the gang crosses some new line that digs them into deeper trouble. Buck puts on a front as a wild partier, but one of the most distressing moments of the film is when he gets shot and seems to lose touch with reality, weakly crying out to Clyde that a dog has run off with his shoes. Hell, the entire crime spree starts when Clyde nervously tries to impress Bonnie by robbing a general store, and Bonnie is so lacking in confidence she invests her self-worth entirely into Clyde’s opinion of her. Bonnie and Clyde feels so transgressive because it humanizes its outlaw protagonists so well.
It was a movie that scared a lot of people, especially with how divisively it was received. While older people generally thought it was trash, young audiences loved it. Similar to the controversy surrounding violent films in the 1930s like Scarface, people feared that Bonnie and Clyde would inspire disaffected youths to emulate its savagery. That didn’t happen, but it did kickstart a whole new wave of Hollywood movies aimed at young people - movies like Easy Rider, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver - that ratcheted up the violence and embraced the counterculture.
Bonnie and Clyde absolutely still holds up. Though it doesn’t hit as hard as it did in the 60s, some of its violence is still shocking, and it tells its story in a way you still don’t see often in movies. If you’re at all interested in film history it’s an absolute must-watch, as it’s an accessible piece of classic American cinema.