In 1967, several films were released that I believe helped change the course of American cinema. “In the Heat of the Night”, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year, was a gritty crime drama dealing with racism. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” also dealt with racism, but in a lighter way in the context of interracial marriage. And Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” was an incredibly innovative and yet incredibly risqué love story from which comes the immortal line, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” But one of my favorite movies from this year is another gritty yet creative crime film, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and although all the films I listed are now considered classics, this film stands out among them, and I want to share it with you today.
The film takes place in Texas during the Great Depression, a time when crime occurs quite often, if out of desperation. But it’s not always out of desperation for Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), a man who’s been in jail and proud of it, as he stops by a nearby house to steal a car. This is the home of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), who seems to be turned on by Clyde’s spirit when she finds him outside. The two of them talk for a little while as Clyde convinces Bonnie that a life of crime is much more exciting than her current life as a waitress living with her folks. Bonnie agrees to go with him and leave her current life—which in a way reminded me of another movie I’ve written about on this site, Terrence Malick’s “Badlands”.
Clyde proceeds to rob a grocery store as the two of them take off and start a life together, accompanied by one of the coolest musical scores I’ve ever heard in a movie: a country band, led by a banjo, pretty much going nuts. Look it up, it’s good music. Anyway, along the way, Bonnie and Clyde meet up with accomplices ranging from young gas station clerk C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to Clyde’s brother and his wife, Buck (Gene Hackman) and Blanche (Estelle Parsons) Barrow. On the one hand, this means that the team of outlaws can now get away with larger crimes. But on the other hand, since Blanche is an annoying nuisance that Bonnie believes could give them away at any moment, tension begins to grow within the group.
This doesn’t stop them, however, from living their life of crime and loving it. They rob banks, steal cars, and even take hostages. Bonnie and Clyde even go so far as to humiliatingly take a picture with one of them, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), who vows to capture the outlaws one day. Eventually, as their heists continue to grow in number and in violence, the gang is caught in a raid that leaves Buck dead and Blanche blind. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. flee to C.W.’s father’s house, where C.W. speaks with his dad Ivan (Dub Taylor), who tells him that Bonnie and Clyde are corrupting him.
Long story short, Hamer makes a deal with C.W.’s father to catch Bonnie and Clyde, after Blanche blew their cover in an interrogation. And sure enough, the film ends with Bonnie and Clyde left in a car on the side of the road as Ivan Moss has fled and the police riddle the outlaws’ bodies with bullets in a pretty disturbing scene. Hamer and the police come out from hiding, and the film ends. I know I didn’t take a whole lot of time in describing the film, and I apologize, but it’s honestly been a while since I’ve seen “Bonnie and Clyde” the whole way through.
The reason I wanted to write about it today, though, has to do with a paradox contained within the film. Bonnie and Clyde and their team are criminals plain and simple, and in the real world, we usually root for the law saving the day and giving the bad guys their just desserts. In this film, however, that idea is turned on its head. The couple stands out as independent, confident figures in a time in history when a lot of people were suffering and poor. And not only that, but they even have their own standards: in one scene where they rob a bank, Clyde lets a poor farmer making a deposit keep his own money, while they take the rest of the bank’s money. Later in the film, this farmer speaks this line that stood out to me in the film:
FARMER: All I can say is, they did right by me—and I'm bringing me and a mess of flowers to their funeral.
It’s a minor line of dialogue, but it still makes a cool point. Because of these standards, there were people who saw Bonnie and Clyde break the law that were okay with it. Why? Because they were still shown respect. It’s a huge paradox, but it sort of makes sense why that farmer or other characters would think that. And as crazy as it sounds, it almost makes Bonnie and Clyde look like Christ figures in the film.
You see, when Jesus came to this earth, he called out those who thought they were wise and made them humble, challenging them to have a purer faith. But to the “poor in spirit”, to the people who believed even though they were not perfect, Jesus gave blessings. Of course, the difference between Jesus and Bonnie and Clyde is that Jesus did not sin. But in ways, Bonnie and Clyde showed “love” (if you can call it that) to people who were struggling, making them criminals to the law but heroes to the public.
And this idea of Jesus loving the poor can be best summed up in a passage from the Gospel of Luke, as Christ hangs on the cross about to die. The criminal to his right curses him, but the other acknowledges that he is the Son of God. “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (23:42-43) Even as he was dying, Jesus reached out to the poor in spirit that was dying with him, and as we come out of Easter, I pray that you will come humbly before Christ and trust that he indeed has the power to restore you.