Why Bonnie and Clyde Won't Die

The duo lives on in film after film because the ordinary couple's desire for fame, not riches, resonates through the decades.

A&E / Joseph Viles

“Who were Bonnie and Clyde?” asked the great novelist Nelson Algren in his introduction to a 1968 reissue of The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Emma Parker, Bonnie’s ma, and Clyde’s sister, Nell Barrow Cowan. His answer:

They were outcasts of the cotton frontier. They were children of the wilderness whose wilderness has been razed; who came to maturity in the hardest of times. Clyde might have survived to a sad old age by chopping cotton. Bonnie might have knocked about as a sharecropper’s wife or a prostitute until worn out by hard use. The two chose, instead, to give everyone a run for their lives. And, having once committed themselves, made a run which verged upon the uncanny.

“Verged upon the uncanny.” I can think of no better description to explain why two individuals are remembered eight decades after their deaths. Their story has been adapted and reimagined time and again, including in recent biographies, a 2011 Broadway musical that was also staged in Seoul this year, and a new made-for-television two-part production directed by Bruce Beresford. (Part One aired last night simultaneously on the History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime. Part Two airs tonight.) Each retelling has turned Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker into avatars for the society’s shifting notions about what, exactly, makes seemingly normal people break bad.

As Algren hints, part of the duo’s appeal was that they stood the American dream on its head, using violence to achieve fame in a society that otherwise excluded them because of their low beginnings. Clyde was described by one biographer as “short and scrawny,” and Bonnie, said a family friend, was “a cute little old girl.” They met in the poverty-ravaged campground of West Dallas, known to respectable locals as “the Devil’s back porch.” Clyde already had a record as a petty criminal; his first offense was stealing chickens. He later graduated to gas-station and grocery-store holdups, one of which got him sent to the filthy hellhole of Eastham prison farm, where he was raped by a prisoner. (He took revenge by clubbing the man to death.) Parker was an out-of-work West Dallas waitress when she met Clyde, with whom she immediately felt a spiritual bond.

The two became celebrities from Texas to Alabama to Iowa, where newspaper stories and radio accounts of their bank robberies and armory break-ins (to steal automatic weapons and ammunition) fascinated the poor and desperate people struggling with the Great Depression.

The two might have been forgotten today if they had simply been captured and prosecuted. Instead, the special posse that had been tracking them for nearly a year ambushed them on a back road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. In that moment, Bonnie and Clyde transformed, forevermore, from real people into pure cultural spectacle.

“Officers had arrived to control the crowd,” Algren wrote. “Bonnie’s hair had been clipped off, her bloody dress had been torn to shreds, and her purse rifled. Somebody was prying off her rings and somebody else was trying to cut off one of Clyde’s ears when a doctor got there.” At Bonnie’s funeral, some of the crowd, estimated to be around 40,000, “would have hacked the wooden casket to splinters for the sake of having souvenirs. Hot dog and soft-drink vendors turned a pretty penny.”

People tend to think that it was Arthur Penn’s divisive 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway that reestablished Barrow and Parker in the public’s mind. But in fact, by 1967 Bonnie and Clyde had already inspired enough movies to stock a film festival. The first few were based on a little-known classic of American literature, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. The book, a retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story published in 1937, earned critical comparisons to both Hemingway and Faulkner. Raymond Chandler called it “one of the great forgotten novels of the thirties.”

Anderson, wrote critic Lawrence Block, “captured wonderfully the ordinary quality of criminals. Bowie [the Clyde figure] and T-Dub and Chicamaw [the gang members] are neither the exploited downtrodden souls of typical proletarian novels of the period or warped misfits … They see themselves as working men whose work is robbery, and see everyone in the street world—lawyers, politicians, businessmen, Wall Street capitalist—as thieves like us.”

Curiously, Anderson’s novel remains obscure even though it has inspired three well-received films. The first and most popular is Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, made in the year Anderson’s book was published. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are Eddie and Joan, lovers forced into criminal actions by the indifference and cruelty of society; Eddie, who’s been in jail three times, wants to find a job and be respectable, but “they”—the law and criminal justice establishment—won’t let him. Wrongly accused of a murder, he escapes from jail when Joan smuggles him a gun and kills his first man in self-defense. It ends the way all Bonnie and Clyde films end. Well made, well acted, with a sociopolitical view so simple that no one could fail to get its message, You Only Live Once is still regarded by many critics as one of the best films of the 1930s.

They Live By Night (1949), by another legendary director, Nicholas Ray, and starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, has been called “possibly the most romantic crime film ever made.”  For this interpretation, Ray saw the lovers/bank robbers as reflecting rebellious and misunderstood youth. (It was a theme he would explore again in Rebel Without a Cause.)

That same year saw another take on the Bonnie and Clyde story, the first not to be made from Anderson’s book. Gun Crazy featured John Dallas an ex-con and Peggy Cummins as an ex-carnival girl who seduces her new boyfriend into a life of crime. It was the first version of the story to portray Bonnie as the chief protagonist. Directed by B-movie master Joseph H. Lewis, Gun Crazy (which was remade in 1992 with Drew Barrymore and James Le Gros) has a cult following among lovers of film noir. Bonnie and Clyde would then go into something of a hibernation during the Eisenhower years, only showing up in a low-budget abomination, The Bonnie Parker Story starring Dorothy Provine in 1958.

By far the best film version, 1974’s Thieves Like Us, directed by Robert Altman, is also the most literal adaptation of Anderson’s novel. For the first time, the young lovers, played by Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, are given the names of the characters in the book, Bowie and Keechie. “Made in the vegetating old towns of Mississippi, the movie has the ambiance of a novel,” Pauline Kael wrote of the film. “It seems to achieve beauty without artifice.” Altman’s movie suggested a nostalgia for the 1930s devoid of the sentimentality of, say, John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath.

All of this, though, now seems like a warm-up for Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, which hit mainstream America like a dum-dum bullet to the subconscious. The film’s radical depiction of violence and seemingly nihilistic spirit outraged many mainstream critics, most notably The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who called it, “A cheap piece of bald-face slapstick … reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort.”

It had few defenders on its initial release, though. One of them, The New Yorker’s Penelope Gilliatt, wrote, “The movie is full of scenes of giggling and show off, but the mood belongs to the characters, not the film.” To charges that the film “glamorized” the outlaws, Gilliatt answered that “Bonne and Clyde could look like a celebration of gangster glamour only to a man with a headful of wood shavings.”

But the critic who had the biggest impact was Pauline Kael, whose 10,000-word essay, also in The New Yorker, might be the most famous movie review ever written. Kael was the first to notice that Bonnie and Clyde used material from the Depression in a way that made the film feel contemporary—“The most exciting American movie since The Manchurian Candidate,”she called it. “The audience is alive to it … Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frightening public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about.”

Bonnie and Clyde came after the racial disturbances of the mid 1960s and a year before the rioting in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention. Less than two years away were the Manson murders and the killing of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State. All of these events did not happen live on TV, but they seemed to. The movie appeared to reflect a nervous America that recoiled at the notion that such horrific violence might be caused by people who seemed in most ways, again, to be “ordinary.” As Kael put it, “The brutality that comes out of this innocence is far more shocking than the calculated brutalities of mean killers.”

The audience for Bonnie and Clyde was shocked not because the killers were sadistic, which they weren’t, but because their primary impulse seemed not to be the acquisition of money—that would be at least be rational—but the desire to be famous. Bonnie wrote poems and sent them to newspapers, including a legendary piece of verse that foretold their fate:

“Some day they’ll go down together,
They’ll bury them side by side,
To few it’ll be grief,
To the law a relief – But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”

Clyde wrote letters to Henry Ford praising the performance of his automobiles: “ even if my business hasn’t been sricly [sic] legal, it doesn’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine you go in the V-8.”

Beatty and Dunaway were the first cinematic Bonnie and Clyde to mock their own public personas, posing for photographs—images of Clyde as a desperate gunman and Bonnie as a shotgun-wielding moll—and sending them to newspapers. This was not a conceit of Beatty or Penn or the film’s scriptwriters, David Newman and Robert Benton, but was in fact what Bonnie and Clyde actually did. More than any of the bank robbers of the 1930s they saw themselves in the tradition of legendary western outlaws: Bonnie paid homage to Jesse James with her poetry, and in the back seat of the car in which they were slaughtered there was a copy of The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns, the book that helped create Billy’s myth.

The newest rendition, Bruce Beresford’s televised Bonnie & Clyde, adheres to the historical record more closely to than any previous version of the story except for one curious fact: In this film, Bonnie is not the product of a hardscrabble West Dallas background, but is middle class—or what passed for the middle class in Texas in 1934—and raised by a doting mother (Holly Hunter). But like the real Bonnie Parker, the one played by actress Holliday Grainger wants fame. She yearns to be a movie star, a dancer, something or someone who is the center of attention. Essentially, she creates her own story and stars in it with Clyde (well played by Emile Hirsch in an underwritten role) as her enabler. The movie’s trailer proclaims, “He held the guns. She called the shots.”

But since Bonnie is the only character in the film who isn’t trying desperately to pull herself out of the cesspool, there seems to be no reason for her desperation. Luckily, Grainger, who was a vivid Lucrezia in The Borgias TV series, has the acting chops to make up for what the script is missing. Whether frolicking at a Saturday night barn dance, firing a Thompson submachine gun, or posing for photographs, she always knows who is looking at her and from what angle. She’s the main attraction, and she knows it. The real Bonnie Parker also knew she was crafting an image for the ages, but she couldn’t have foreseen just how profoundly she’d succeeded.