WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Bonnie & Clyde.‘
Bonnie and Clyde marked the arrival of a new generation of American directors whose freer style of filmmaking was a departure from the old studio conventions of classical Hollywood.
Expensive productions such as Cleopatra had flopped, bankrupting the old Hollywood studio system, which loosened the studios’ grip on production. Desperate financial times meant greater creative freedom, and everything about Bonnie and Clyde, from the movie’s frequent use of unsettling close-ups to its jagged editing style, was designed to upset the status quo of traditional filmmaking.
Arthur Penn’s story of a young couple on a bank-robbing rampage, based on the real-life crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker between 1932 and 1934, exhibits a more realistic violence than had previously been seen on screen. It also treats its outlaw protagonists sympathetically, giving them an innocence and a naivety that represented a new way of telling stories about bad people.
The movie frames its characters as tabloid newspaper stars, who are first glamorised and then vilified. As each of their escapades is reported in the next day’s press, Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), Clyde (Warren Beatty), and even Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) see how the papers sensationalise the facts and exaggerate the crimes.
At first, Clyde laughs off the attention, and he and Bonnie take playful, gun-toting photos of themselves for the press, playing along with the media game and enjoying their celebrity. But as the law closes in, and the pair’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the barrage of lies told about them in the newspapers begins to wear Clyde down, most noticeably when an article falsely accuses him of robbing the Grand Prairie National Bank—which enrages him so much that he promises to actually do it.
The relentless attention of the media ultimately robs the two thieves of their sense of self, leaving them powerless to present their true selves to the world. Only as the movie nears its bloody end are they given a reprieve of sorts, when a short, charming poem Bonnie has written, telling of her pride in knowing a decent man like Clyde, is published in a newspaper. Their side of the story is told, just once.