The true story of Great Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde has been a source of inspiration for filmmakers throughout the history of the crime genre. In fact, some of the most revolutionary and innovative Hollywood thrillers have used the infamous American killer couple as a template.
You Only Live Once (Lang, 1937)
After making his name as an icon of the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s, Fritz Lang started making films in America in 1936. His first Hollywood effort, Fury (1936), received an Academy Award nomination. He followed Fury up with You Only Live Once. It stars Henry Fonda as Eddie, an ex-convict who can’t seem to keep out of trouble. He is joined by his wife Joan (Sylvia Sydney) as they begin a life on the run after Eddie is framed for murder. As one of the first films to use the lovers-on-the-run crime trope, You Only Live Once lays down much of the iconography for the sub-genre, and its influence can be seen throughout the rest of the films covered in this article.
Lang’s film juxtaposes romantic scenes between the two main characters with the violence of the film noir genre in a way that would influence many other killer-couple films. The reason that Bonnie-and-Clyde-type characters are compelling are their contradictions. They are presented as passionate, caring, and loving towards one another, but at the same time they are brutal and heartless toward any individual that gets in their way. This set them apart from the criminals often depicted on screen, as they were afforded complexities that typical outlaw characters were not.
More so than the films that it would influence, You Only Live Once offers the audience a deep understanding of Eddie and Joan’s love for each other. Sydney is completely believable as the wife of Fonda’s outlaw. Her performance deftly balances her character’s desire for her husband to go straight alongside her willingness to defend him when he is unable to. As one of the first Hollywood films to use the Bonnie and Clyde story, You Only Live Once signalled the beginning of a style of cinematic crime thriller which combined romance and violence in a way that shocked mainstream audiences. It holds up today as one of Lang’s best American films, and its influence is readily apparent in succeeding interpretations.
Gun Crazy (Lewis, 1950)
Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy pushed the boundaries of Hollywood noir just as the genre was coming toward the end of its popularity. It stars Peggy Cummins and John Dall as a Bonnie and Clyde-inspired couple who meet at a carnival and leave together to start a crime spree. Based on a short story of the same name by MacKinlay Kantor, the film’s male protagonist, Bart, has an obsession with guns. Despite this, he is not a violent person, and refuses to kill living beings. The same cannot be said for his wife and partner-in-crime, Annie. She has a history of violence, and it quickly becomes clear that she will do anything to avoid being caught.
It’s an interesting dynamic, as it reverses the gender roles of Fritz Lang’s film, making the female outlaw the ruthless and bloodthirsty one. Lewis’ film makes a number of other noteworthy stylistic decisions as well. The couple represents two different criminals in noir history. On one hand we have Bart, the victim of circumstance, reeled in by a femme fatale and looking for a way out. As the violence escalates, Bart gets in over his head, and he realizes he has gone too far. Conversely, Anne is a ruthless killer who shows no remorse. This juxtaposition allows for the film to represent the whole range of noir anti-hero archetypes. On the one hand, we empathize with Bart as a gun-obsessed maverick out of his depth, but that means we also have to support Anne, a cold-blooded killer. They are tied together by their love for each other, and this is their weakness
A central element of Gun Crazy is its focus on gun violence. Bart is obsessed with shooting, and the early scenes focus on this obsession developing in his younger years. The film closely observes the link between guns and violence in American society, presenting crime in a much more violent and brutal way than the typically stylized noir. It is Bart’s shooting ability which first catches Anne’s attention, when he beats her in a competition at the fairground. The film’s use of violence becomes almost hypnotic, as Bart realises how quickly his fascination with weapons could lead to him becoming an actual killer.
This film was also a rejection of the polished look of the traditional film noir, with its relentless cutting style and awkward camera angles. For these reasons, it is often cited as a heavy influence on the French New Wave. In fact, it is often suggested that both François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard went to see the film again in 1964, at a time when the former was in talks to direct the next film on this list.
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967)
Arguably the most important and impactful use of the Bonnie and Clyde story was Arthur Penn’s 1967 thriller, which spawned the ‘New Hollywood’ era. The film was celebrated for its inventiveness, and earned the attention of critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, both of which saw it as a masterpiece. Despite this, many saw it as glorifying violence and the murderers on which the lead characters are based.
Even before the release of this film, Arthur Penn had proved his willingness to provide a counter-cultural representation in his films. Mickey One (1965) was a French New Wave-inspired crime thriller which focused on a stand-up comedian (Warren Beatty) on the run from the mob. This was followed by The Chase (1966), which starred Marlon Brando as a sheriff, who hears that criminal Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped prison. These films both display Penn’s ability to create innovative, youth-focused crime thrillers.
With Bonnie and Clyde, he took this one step further, creating a killer couple that would become symbols for the forgotten, disillusioned youth. In breakout roles, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway set the bar for the exceptional careers they would go on to have. Amongst the violence and cruelty of their crime spree, Beatty and Dunaway are energetic, funny, and heartfelt as the famous couple. Dunaway’s performance is perfect as the small-town waitress who jumps at the opportunity to escape her boredom. Her transformation from easily-impressed young girl to desperate and ruthless criminal coincides with an increase in hostility between the couple, as she grows frustrated with the people who end up joining them on their spree.
Bonnie and Clyde is also one of the first major Hollywood films to deal with the celebrity of criminals. Their prominence within national media is a focus of the film, with a poem Bonnie writes even ending up in a newspaper. The film explores the concept of infamy within media discourse, playing with the idea of the glorification of criminals. However, for many critics this was the exact crime that the film was, itself, guilty of. They saw the violence as unnecessary, and it was condemned by many mainstream reviewers as exploitative. Younger critics and audiences saw these views as out-of-touch, and the film spawned a New Wave of American filmmaking.
The Post-Penn Bonnie and Clyde Thriller
Badlands (1973), dir. Terrence Malick
Upon examining these films, one thing has become clear – the Bonnie and Clyde story has most often been adapted by filmmakers looking to expand the boundaries of the Hollywood crime thriller. This is a trend that has continued throughout the rest of the century following Bonnie and Clyde’s release. In 1973, Terrence Malick introduced the poetics of the American wasteland to the equation, with Badlands, in a slower, yet still-powerful iteration of the killer-couple narrative.
In 1988, Michael Lehmann’s Heathers brought the concept into the American teen comedy, with a dark, satirical edge. The nineties saw the Bonnie and Clyde story re-imagined a number of times. Firstly, Ridley Scott’s female-led re-telling Thelma and Louise (1991) saw two best friends flee after murdering a rapist, offering a feminist interpretation of the sub-genre. This would become one of the most successful adaptations of the story, compelling audiences with an anti-misogyny thriller that rebelled against gender roles in American society. Two years later saw the release of True Romance (Tony Scott), which, followed by Natural Born Killer (Stone, 1994), highlighted the ability of the genre to utilize creative and stylistic storytelling in Hollywood.
Natural Born Killers (1994), dir. Oliver Stone
For almost a century, the Bonnie and Clyde thriller has been a constant in mainstream cinema. A recognizable archetype, killer couples offer audiences sympathetic anti-heroes who are often much easier to support than most of cinema’s crime-doing solo acts. This style of thriller allows filmmakers to humanize their law-breakers in order to better understand the circumstances that have led to their life on the run.
In reflecting upon the contemporary crime debates in American culture, Bonnie and Clyde thrillers also demonstrate the ways in which gun violence can become romanticized by the society they live in, through the media, or the laws that they exploit. In a society that likes to see victims and perpetrators as binary opposites, the genre provides alternative assessments, presenting complex characters who are defined by how they see each other, rather than by the laws they break.