Bonnie and Clyde 2: Genre and New Wave

Ever since Nick posted a short piece on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and its links to the French New Wave, we’ve been inundated with visitors searching for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ – and some days 20-25% of hits on the blog have been associated with the title.

Was this a 'wired photo'? (from Wikipedia, public domain).

Recently I heard a short item on the radio about a new book on the couple: Go down together: the true, untold story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn. The book further debunks the myth of what were essentially a pair of inept criminals who would not have received any attention without the power of narrative in news reporting. In other words, there was little in what they did, but a great deal in how it was reported. Two of Guinn’s points seem remarkably topical. One was that this was the period (early 1930s) when the wired news photo was becoming the first medium to allow visual communication quickly over national and international networks. In some ways, the parallel today has been the the rapid take-up of mobile phone images as part of ‘citizen journalism’ around the time of 9/11. Guinn uses the example of Bonnie Parker photographed smoking a cigar as an iconic image.

Guinn’s other point in the radio interview was the antipathy of most ordinary people towards a banking system in 1930s America which was collapsing and abandoning savers – sounds familiar? In this context, the two criminals took on the role of folk heroes.

All of this makes me think about the ingredients of the Bonnie and Clyde story and the power of a generic narrative. I was about to suggest that the French New Wave connection is possibly overemphasised in the explanation for the success of the 1967 film. But when I think about it, Jean-Luc Godard was spot on with his line that all you need to make a movie is “a girl and a gun”, something that he proved several times over in films ostensibly about a young couple on the run (but often, of course, about a lot more).

As far as Hollywood is concerned the generic line of boy/girl on the run includes:

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

A French DVD cover for one of the most underrated films of the late, great Robert Altman (with terrific use of 1930s radio broadcasts)
A French DVD cover for one of the most underrated films of the late, great Robert Altman (with terrific use of 1930s radio broadcasts)

Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974 – from the same novel as They Live by Night)

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

and no doubt several more titles, some of which will overlap with other repertoires (e.g. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) and The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah, 1972) and some, like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), that transform it completely.

Anyone want to suggest other titles and indicate how they utilise the various genre repertoires?

One thought on “Bonnie and Clyde 2: Genre and New Wave

  1. I’ve taught “killer couples on the road” films for several years as part of A Level Film Studies courses. We’ve approached it in various ways, using different films, but usually focussed on conflicts explored by the narrative (couple, killing & road) & how these are resolved by the ending -which is always unsatisfactory & ideologically revealing. They also raise interesting issues about the relationship between auteur & genre, genre labelling, the retro use of history, sexuality & “l’amour fou”, gender & class, justice & law etc. Here’s a list of films we’ve looked at, though some are only marginally related & some very trashy.

    You Only Live Once
    Guncrazy (Remake)
    The Getaway (Remake)
    Sugarland Express
    U Turn
    Wild at Heart
    Down in the Valley
    The Honeymoon Killers
    Pretty Poison
    Something Wild
    Too Young to Die
    Normal Life
    Jimmy & Judy
    Love & a 45
    Kiss or Kill
    Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
    Heavenly Creatures
    The Brown Bunny
    Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
    Pierrot Le Fou

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