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'Bonnie And Clyde:' A Gangster Flick That Gave Us A New Hollywood

Entertainment | August 13, 2020

Bonnie and Clyde changed American cinema. The film didn’t just serve as a dividing line between new and old Hollywood, but it created a shockwave of freedom both on and off screen that lasted well into the ‘90s, long after the American New Wave era was in the taillights of modern filmmakers. The unique nature of Bonnie and Clyde isn’t just in its paradigm-shifting romanticizing of violence or the way that it makes the audience fall in love with a group of criminals. The biggest demarcation that sets this Warren Beatty film apart from major film produced in the United States before the late ‘60s is that the Beatty and his team were in charge of the movie, not the studio. Bonnie and Clyde was the beginning of a glorious era of filmmaking where anyone with a dream and the drive to make something could become a star.

The studio was falling apart by the 1960s

source: Warner Bros.

Every major movie produced in the United States prior to the 1960s is considered to be a part of Classic Hollywood cinema. It doesn’t matter if it’s a silent film, Citizen Kane, or a big blown out musical like West Side Story - all of these movies were put together by the studio system. Basically, a studio like Paramount, MGM, or RKO had a collection of contract players, directors, and writers who made the movie that they were told to make. They were paid a baseline fee and they didn’t take part in profit sharing and they didn’t decisions about the film’s content. Even directors were at the mercy of the studios.

By the 1960s Old Hollywood was falling by the wayside. For every massive success like The Sound of Music there were three flops like The Pleasure Seekers. Studios were in an economic downtown and doing whatever they could to lure viewers to the theater. Aside from using 3D and Cinemascope, studios started to hire young, untested directors with more European sensibilities to make low budget films with little oversight from the studio.

Many of the writers, directors, and actors who made up the initial wave of New Hollywood had either all been a part of the studio system at one point in time, or they worked for Roger Corman on his low budget, quick turnaround films. New Hollywood filmmakers like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Warren Beatty all knew that the studios only cared about making money, and they used their populist sensibilities in combination with their more artistic leanings to create a new era of film that was as influenced by the films of Godard as they were John Ford.

'Bonnie and Clyde' was written for a French director

source: Warner Bros.

As much as Bonnie and Clyde is Warren Beatty’s baby he didn’t come into the film’s pre-production until the writers thought the film was dead in the water. David Newman and Robert Benton were, like a lot of young cinephiles in the 1960s, huge fans of French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. The quick pacing, non-linear editing, and heightened realism of French New Wave spoke to Newman and Benton, and they felt that the short lived crime spree by Bonnie and Clyde would make a perfect fit for this new style.

They actually approached Truffaut about directing the film and he gave them Godard’s contact info. Godard loved the script but allegedly he wanted to shoot the film in New Jersey in the dead of winter rather than in Texas where the film takes place. When the writers brought this up to the pioneer of the French New Wave movement he backed out of the production noting that he was talking cinema while they were talking weather.

As luck would have it Warren Beatty was visiting Paris shortly after Newman and Benton spoke with Truffaut. He told Beatty about the project and the young actor bought the rights to the project. He knew that while the film was influenced by European cinema that the film was uniquely American and that it needed someone from the states behind the camera. Beatty spoke to a handful of directors, but it was Arthur Penn who finally agreed to take a risk on the film.

There were major culture clashes on set

source: Warner Bros.

If you look close enough into the production of any film you’re going to find some kind of argument, whether it’s about the scene, the direction of the film, or something extremely petty. When you’re working in close quarters with people for 12 hours a day that’s just the kind of thing that happens. After casting himself as Clyde Barrow, Beatty filled out the rest of the cast with Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Michael J. Pollard - all young actors who were ready to do something new. That wasn’t the case for people behind the camera.

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey was an old school guy who was entrenched in the studio system. He began as a camera assistant in 1923 and won an Academy Award for From Here To Eternity in 1954, a classic of Old Hollywood if ever there were one. Guffey and director Arthur Penn argued constantly about the lack of control that Guffey had over the lighting while shooting on location, as well as some of scenes in which Guffey felt that Penn wanted to be underlit for the same of drama. However, the biggest arguments were between Penn and Beatty.

No matter the era a director usually has the final say on the film, but when that film’s lead actor is also the producer who hired the director? All bets are off. Beatty and Penn bickered constantly during the making of Bonnie and Clyde, so much so that they wasted hours arguing over small details. Michael J. Pollard remembers:

Warren would be talking with Arthur for hours about how a scene should be done; every scene. And we’d [Hackman, Dunaway, Estelle Parsons and himself] be sitting in the car.

When Warren Beatty was asked about the shoot stopping arguments that he had with Penn he laughed them off as something that was necessary for the filmmaking process:

I had one little provision [with Arthur, before filming started]. I said, I would like to have an argument with you every day. If we don’t have anything to argue about, let’s find something to argue about. And then at the end of the argument we’ll end up doing what the director says, but I have the right to beat you up in a kind way.

Jack Warner hated the movie

source: Warner Bros.

Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros., he of the famous water tower was never a fan of Bonnie and Clyde. Conceptually, he felt that it was too similar to the gangster films of the 1930s, a genre that he felt was passé by 1967. When Beatty explained that their film was poking fun at those gangster films Warner wanted to know what was so funny about them. Aside from his general disdain for Beatty, Warner thought the film was made up of non-sympathetic lead characters and that the rough cut that came in at just over two hours was way too long. After screening it in his home theater he actually called it a “three piss movie,” because he had to go to the bathroom three times while watching it.

Jack Warner was wrong about Bonnie and Clyde, but at the time he didn’t have way to properly contextualize what he was seeing. It may seem like old hat now, but in 1967 Bonnie and Clyde was revolutionary for focusing on lead characters who are doing bad things and making it look fun. As bad as everyone in the Barrow gang is, you root for them because the police are so antagonistic.

It wasn’t just the characters that Warner and the people of his generation thought were off putting, but the way violence is portrayed in the film is something entirely new for cinema. Some scenes juxtapose the violence with funny music, or they tonally blindside the audience by shifting from comical to extremely realistic. And then there was the editing. Choppy and fast paced. It didn’t allow the audience to be passive, and for film goers who hadn’t seen Breathless seven years earlier it could be confusing. Warner wasn’t happy about the movie even after it was cut for time and he did everything he could to bury it.

Warner Bros. refused to promote 'Bonnie and Clyde'

source: Warner Bros.

After spending $2.5 million on Bonnie and Clyde, Warner Bros. sought to push the film to a few theaters and forget about their bloody mistake. Warner refused to give the film a national release and dumped the movie in a few regional theaters. It was technically a flop in its early weeks, but the people who saw the movie raved about it, and when the people raving about it are Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert serious film fans take notice.

Even if Warner Bros. refused to market the film, Warren Beatty wasn’t going to sit on his hands and do nothing. He shopped the film across the world - personally going to England to secure its success - and making sure projectionists played the film at a higher volume that the other films they were showing. He explained:

I wanted to shock the audience with the first gunshots. The problem was that when the projectionists would first hear our music, they’d turn the sound down. So when you mixed the sound, you had to deceive them. You’d raise the sound levels slowly so by the time the gunshots came along, the projectionist would be asleep or off watching TV.

One critic changed his mind and in doing so changed the fate of 'Bonnie and Clyde'

source: Warner Bros.

While the film was still in theaters something completely unexpected happened. Critics began to see the film again, this time with an audience. Joe Morgenstern initially panned the film as a "squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade,” but when the saw the film for a second time he understood what it was trying to do and realized that he had to act fast. In 1997 he told the LA Times:

I think I subconsciously sensed that I’d missed something. When we went out on Saturday and my wife asked what movie I wanted to see, I said Bonnie and Clyde. The audience just went wild, and the cold sweat started forming on my neck. I knew I’d blown it.

On Monday morning, I went into Newsweek and wrote a six-column review. It began with a description of the previous review, and then I said, ‘I am sorry to say I consider that review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate. I am sorrier to say I wrote it.’

Warner Bros. used this to their advantage and turned Morgenstern’s turn as a key part of their marketing once they decided to push it out on a national level. Bonnie and Clyde went from a flop to a major success, earning a Best Supporting Actress award for Estelle Parsons and a Best Cinematography award for Burnett Guffey.

'Bonnie and Clyde' changed cinema and it changed the world

source: Warner Bros.

It’s not just that Bonnie and Clyde opened the floodgates for film violence and erratic editing, it affected a generation of viewers who were hungry for something new. When Faye Dunaway writhes in her bedroom, full of unbridled sensuality and nowhere to go she was giving vision to a feeling that every young person was feeling (and has felt) in the modern era.

Bonnie and Clyde isn’t just about the spectacle of violence, it’s about longing and the search for meaning in a cruel world. It may not have made sense to the Jack Warners of the world but it wasn’t for them. It was an extremely experimental film for American audiences at the time, and a gamble for Warren Beatty. The gamble worked and it showed studios that they could make money on New Hollywood productions AND it showed filmmakers that they could make something personal and if it was good enough there would be an audience for it. Perhaps Warren Beatty put it best when he said:

The great thing about Bonnie and Clyde was that it gave me a freedom I’ve never relinquished. It gave me the confidence to know that if I wanted to make a movie, I could just go out and make it. There are some movies where you didn’t always know what went on or whose idea it was--everything just comes together. It’s like Victor Hugo said, ‘There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.’

Tags: Bonnie And Clyde | Faye Dunaway | Warren Beatty

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.