Arthur Penn and his creation of the most influential film of its time: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) at the 57th Annual Berlinale International Film Festival | Courtesy of Gettyimages
Director of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) at the 57th Annual Berlinale International Film Festival | Courtesy of Gettyimages

It was summer in 1967, and Bonnie and Clyde the film was the first American movie to kick off the Montreal film festival in Canada. This showing was a huge success as people loved the comedic violence that the film fused together. Bonnie and Clyde film produced a whopping $22.7 million in domestic sales and influenced the audience and film industries as the movie’s content refused to be censored. Arthur Penn, the director, was shocked at the movie’s growing success, due to the challenges involved in getting the film released. The organic way that Penn became a part of the story behind the Bonnie and Clyde film is genuine and raw, as it was another unexpected success story with trials and tribulations throughout its journey.1

The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow | Courtesy of Mashable Entertainment

Arthur Penn was first associated with the Bonnie and Clyde film when the producer, Warren Beatty, who also played Clyde Barrow, hired him to be the director. He immediately got a feeling of apprehension because he was not fond of creating a film about gangsters.2 What made him finally get passionate about the content of the film was the Great Depression era that surrounded the Bonnie and Clyde duo, and how he remembered seeing the Wanted posters of the original couple during the 1930’s when he was a child. Penn’s vision for this film was not to recreate the violent behavior of the original couple, but to romanticize it to get a better connection with the audience. During the 1960s, going against the norm was always favored, and this film presented two characters who did just that in a way that seemed glorified. A lot of extraneous work was put in to capture action and violent scenes in this film, such as the use of slow motion to create chaotic and graceful movements throughout the major fight scenes. The cameras had to shoot concurrently from the same point, which made it difficult to know when to begin a scene. One of the most complicated special effects that was involved in the violent scenes was how the bullet shots were going to be interpreted. Penn described this extensive process in an interview stating that, “There were bundles of wires going up their legs and a special effects guy would trip them by making electrical contact with nails sticking up in a row connected to a battery. Meanwhile, as the bullets are going, someone else was pulling an invisible nylon line that took off a piece of Warren’s head. They were both going through contortions with their bodies, and all of this filmed in various slow-motion speeds in four cameras.”3 The effects needed to capture the violent scenes would take days due to the preparation process, and people on set would think Penn was crazy for being so specific on what he wanted to capture. Arthur had a vision coming into the film and he had a “no one can tell me I can’t” attitude towards his creation process.4

The Bonnie and Clyde Death Car on display at a museum in Nevada | Courtesy of Flickr.com

The film was a surprise to everyone, but Warmer Brothers had something to say about the film. The guy in charge of distribution at Warner Brothers called the film “complete crap,” and debated even releasing the film. After Penn and Warren Beatty pushed for the film to come out, Warner Brothers only let the film stay in theaters for a week with minimal promotion. There were also critics who disliked the film due to their misunderstanding of what the film was supposed to encapsulate. Bosley Crowther was a well known New York Times critic, who already had a vendetta against violence in films. He first saw Bonnie and Clyde at the Montreal Film Festival, and immediately was ready to do his damage on the creation. Crowther succeeded in bashing the film but did not prepare for the interaction of the people sending letters to the New York Times. Even after seeing people supporting the film, his critique persisted, but this only created more positive fan mail.5

Through all the negativity, there was plenty of positive feedback that came from this film being released. This movie was said to be one of the most popular and influential films of the 1960s. The Bonnie and Clyde film was unapologetically graphic and open towards violence and sexual content, which would later impact many other films after it to follow the same bluntness in the creative process. This film caught the attention of the youth, due to the rebellious nature of Bonnie and Clyde, and teens were asking to watch the film even when it wasn’t showing in the theaters anymore. The success continued with an impressive amount of awards given for this movie including, Academy Awards and Oscar nominations for best supporting actress, in addition to Penn getting an Oscar nomination for best director.6 Arthur Penn unfortunately died of congestive heart failure in 2010, but the legacy of Bonnie and Clyde will live on forever. It is said that only Penn could have combined the 1930s and the 1960s in such a successful and collaborative process. Bonnie and Clyde is a unique, well thought out picture, and Arthur Penn had a piece of it.7

Actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) | Courtesy of Film.it.com
  1. Tim Gray, “Bonnie and Clyde Stole the Show-And Changed Hollywood,” Variety, August 2016, 106.
  2. “Arthur Penn (director),” Television Academy Foundation, accessed October 31, 2018, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/arthur-penn.
  3. Crowdus Gary and Richard Porton, “The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn,” Cineaste 20, no. 2 (March 1994).
  4. Crowdus Gary and Richard Porton, “The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn,” Cineaste 20, no. 2 (March 1994).
  5. Crowdus Gary and Richard Porton, “The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn,” Cineaste 20, no. 2 (March 1994).
  6. Devin McKinney, “Review of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde,” Vol. 55, Issue 2, (2001): 61-70.
  7. “Arthur Penn: a gentle man and a master of violence,” The Guardian, accessed September 31, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2010/sep/30/arthur-penn-bonnie-clyde-tribute.

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This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Madeline Torres

    I absolutely loved this article! I have never seen the movie Bonnie and Clyde but I hope one day to see the great movie. I loved the detail provided about the director and the making of the movie as well. Bonnie and Clyde are seen are icons nowadays and many people refer themselves as the characters. As for the car used in the movie, I have seen it before but I never knew it was from this movie. Great article!

  2. Christopher Hohman
    Christopher Hohman

    Nice article. I have heard of the movie Bonnie and Clyde before, but I have never actually seen the film because its just too old. It sounds like it was quite the groundbreaking film. It must have set the standard for many other films in the future. It is really cool that the Penn was able to capture what life was like in both the 1930s and the 1960s. Those were two very special times in the history of our nation, and this movie captured both to a tee

  3. Avatar
    Christopher Vasquez

    I didn’t know that the movie Bonnie and Clyde was only released for a few weeks and that a member of Warner Brothers thought of it so poorly. Regardless of the critics, people couldn’t seem to get enough of it. I liked their spin on the tale of Bonnie and Clyde: that Arthur Penn would make the film more about the romanticism rather than the intense violence. I also liked their attempt to push the boundaries of what was accepted in the time; it’s sure made a huge impact to this day!

  4. Avatar
    Mariah Cavanaugh

    The story of Bonnie and Clyde is an intriguing one, and for good reason. Your article on the movie Bonnie and Clyde was a fun read. Penn’s vision to romanticize their violence to connect with the audience is definitely something that would draw the attention of the audience. I know that when I watched the History Channel miniseries on Bonnie and Clyde I was hooked!

  5. Avatar
    Avery Looney

    This article was a great read! Everyone knows about the famous Bonnie and Clyde, but I personally have never seen the film. I have heard only good things about the film and was unaware that it had created so much negative feedback. Arthur Penn took on a big challenge by creating this film, and in most people’s eyes his work was a complete success. The uncensored violence and sexual content was new to movies in that time period, and Penn’s movie would not only shape how other movies would be made but it would be known as one of influential films of the 1960’s.

  6. Avatar
    Micaela Cruz

    I’ve heard of Bonnie and Clyde’s story before and although the crimes they committed weren’t right, I enjoy their story. This article goes in depth into the background of the movie released in 1967 and I enjoyed that the most as I was not aware of what it took to film this movie and the hard work put in by Arthur Penn. Arthur Penn was not given enough credit when this movie was released but his determination to never give up and to see this movie be released is amazing. Great article! Short and sweet.

  7. Avatar
    Montserrat Moreno Ramirez

    I’ve heard of this movie before but never got the change to actually watched it. I know the story of this two robbers due to many previous projects I had in High school. Talking specifically about the movie, it came as a surprise that it was such a controversy between goo and bad critiques and in spite of the bad comments from very important people it still was a major success.
    Very interesting article, just raised my wishes to watch the movie!

  8. Avatar
    Sebastian Carnero

    Interesting. I had no idea this movie had so much negative feedback. Penn’s requests were indeed specific, four cameras, electrical contact, and invisible nylon lines just to cover the bullets. But that makes the film more valuable and a passionate director. I think one of the most important aspects an artist is to have a strong appreciation for what he thinks is worth regardless of people’s comments, to avoid caring up to some extent of other people’s praise.

  9. Avatar
    Robert Freise

    The story of two outlaw lovers Bonnie and Clyde is a American classic. I was not aware that the movie generated so much publicity. I have seen pictures of the infamous car they used to try to get away in, and how the police shot up the car with hundreds of bullet holes. The police knew how much these two got away, so I figured when they ran into them, it was gonna be a immediate shoot out. This article was great from start to finish!!

  10. Avatar
    Pamela Callahan

    Great article! This article was short and to the point and I really enjoyed reading it. It was interesting to read how the filming process was carried out and about all the special effects. Bonnie and Clyde are such a well-known duo that I think it must have been very intimidating for the director and the producer to even consider making their lives into a film, but I am glad to see that their hard work paid off and their film was a success.

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