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Great American Gangsters

They’ve been the subject of numerous films, documentaries, books – not to mention a song recorded by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. On the 23rd of May this year, it shall be precisely eighty years since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the most notorious outlaw couple to emerge from America in the Great Depression, met their fate under circumstances that many would say were inevitable. The story of The Barrow Gang, like most outlaw stories, is prone to exaggeration, even outright fictionalisation.


Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 motion picture directed by Arthur Penn, takes numerous liberties with the real-life story of its subjects, most likely due to typical considerations of running time and to reduce production costs (I hesitate to cite dramatic purposes as a reason – much of what was omitted from the 1967 movie is fascinating in its own right, making one wonder why it didn’t figure in the picture). That said, Bonnie and Clyde makes for spectacular cinema – it really is one of the landmark motion pictures of its time, and helped usher in what many consider to be the true Golden Age of Hollywood that started in the late 1960s and continued throughout the 1970s.

The film features Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker alongside Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, leader of the infamous Barrow Gang. In the real history, Bonnie met Clyde under rather innocent circumstances: through a mutual female friend in January 1930; but in the film, their fateful first encounter occurs as Clyde is attempting to make off with an automobile that belongs to the Parker family. Even the chronology of real-life events is greatly skewed – for example, the incident where an incarcerated Clyde has toes severed from one of his feet to avoid hard labour actually occurred after he met Bonnie. Placing its focus squarely on the daring crimes executed by its eponymous outlaw couple (and even some of this material is fictionalised), Bonnie and Clyde provides little insight into the years before the two met each other. In reality, Parker had numerous options available outside the world of armed robbery, as did Barrow – at least in the early days. However, once Bonnie fell well and truly in love with Clyde, for her, there was no turning back. As for Clyde, numerous stints in jail (one such prison sentence included being sexually molested by a fellow inmate), combined with the economic misery of the Great Depression, must have convinced him that there was no way out of the criminal lifestyle. Struggling against circumstances partially of their own creation, but largely due to pre-existing circumstances, Bonnie and Clyde took to the roads of the South, embarking upon a crime spree that lasted several years and perplexed authorities across the southern states.

One of the highlights in the picture – something that is certainly not a work of fiction – is the poem that Bonnie Parker wrote whilein prison, ‘The Story of Bonnie and Clyde’. As poignant as it is prescient, the piece is but a small sampling of Bonnie’s poetic talent – at once hinting at the life that could have been, and foretelling the end that would be.

For ardent cinephiles, I recommend Bonnie and Clyde most highly; largely for its dazzling cinematic prowess, particularly the editing by Dede Allen. As for a more accurate, detailed description of the legendary 1930s outlaws, several books have been published since the year 2000 including; The Family Story of Bonnie and Clyde (co-authored by Marie Barrow Scoma, sister of Clyde Barrow, and Phillip W. Steele); Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend (Paul Schneider), and My Life with Bonnie and Clyde, based upon the memoirs of Blanche Caldwell Barrow, wife of Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow.

Best fashion films - Bonnie and Clyde 1967
Readers who have already experienced Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde might like to take a look at film reviewer Ken Anderson’s very personal recollections on the film, which he first took in at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco back in 1968!

As for those of you who haven’t experienced this landmark of American cinema, please do take the opportunity to catch it!

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

Bonnie and Clyde screens in a double feature with The Getaway on Sunday May 11th 7pm.

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