For 1967, I feel like this is a pretty radical image. It’s two friends, one white and one black, sharing a gun. They used to own a farm together, but the bank kicked them off, so now they’re firing randomly at their former house. It’s an impotent expression of rage, sure, but it’s better than nothing—it does seem to give them a strange feeling of empowerment and satisfaction, at least. When the powers that be screw you over, sometimes impotent rage is the best you can do. Then you just have to bundle up your family and possessions, and move on.
This tale of two old men whose land has been snatched out from under them is one of the many note-perfect, poignant vignettes of Depression life squeezed into Bonnie and Clyde. The film’s episodic structure lets it meander around the Midwest, following the infamous Barrow Gang along their route of crime while occasionally stopping to glance at the assorted characters in their periphery: the other poor farmer who says, “They did right by me!”; the laconic, grudge-bearing Texas Ranger Frank Hamer; the young couple Eugene and Velma; and of course Bonnie’s sad, brittle mother, who was played by a schoolteacher discovered on location. (Her name was Mabel Cavitt. She would never act again.)
I love all these minor details of Bonnie and Clyde. Somehow, these people all ring so true, even when the film becomes a little affected. Arthur Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey so unforgettably distilled the Midwest down into a series of earth tones and worn-out faces. As a lifelong Midwesterner who’s spent enough time in rural areas, I have to admit: they nailed it. Visually, it’s the Dust Bowl, and politically? A black man and a white man, both impoverished and dispossessed, borrow a gun from some bank robbers and take aim at bank property. Judge for yourself.
Oh, and another part of Bonnie and Clyde I love? The reaction shots. Like how Clyde’s famous “We rob banks!” brag is greeted with nothing but a blank stare from the white farmer as he walks back to his waiting family. Clyde looks at him expectantly, as if he’s going to force a grin out of this world-weary, fed-up old man. Well, at least he gets Bonnie to smile. I’ll close with a very nice picture of Warren Beatty, because that’s always the right choice.