Bonnie and Clyde is the greatest gangster movie off all time. There, I said it. Go ahead: Read it again, if you want. It’s better than the best Godfather film (Part II), and I have it narrowly edging out Once Upon a Time in America. It’s a movie that contains no flaws. It is also one of the greatest character studies ever depicted in cinema.[1]

 “[Y]ou may be the best damn girl in Texas.”—Clyde Barrow

There is a moment near the beginning of the film where Bonnie is considering going back home. She just learned that Clyde is essentially impotent, and she is wondering why she is risking so much to be with this man. And then it happens: Clyde cold reads her.

He tells her that she is interested in “different things,” that she became disenchanted with school because she was smarter than everyone else. He tells her that she is a waitress, but that she is worth more than her lousy job. And he knows that she knows this, too. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know where the man she considered marrying worked (cement plant) or what color her waitress uniform is (pink); all the important stuff is there.

And as we are watching Clyde charm Bonnie, we also realize that he could be speaking to us, because who doesn’t fancy themselves as “different” from the rest of humanity? Who doesn’t feel, in some capacity, undervalued by society? Who isn’t acquainted with the horrible banality of life, and who doesn’t want to get away? We understand why Bonnie is enticed by this. I mean, hell, in a parallel universe, maybe we would have ran off with Clyde, too, especially if he looked like Warren Beatty.

“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”—Clyde Barrow

You know this, right? We all know this. And so this is the juncture where we should probably make something clear: Bonnie and Clyde were not good people. Again, they robbed banks—at gunpoint. Why did they do this? Because it was something they were uniquely constituted to do, I guess. Because it sounded like a cool thing to say.[2] Because banks can often look like the enemy.

The point is: They are populists. They know the common man’s struggles, and they are on his side. They wouldn’t dare steal money from a man’s wallet, only banks. They may be crooks, but they are crooks with principles.

And here is where we get to the truly authentic depths of their character. Both Bonnie and Clyde are obsessively preoccupied with their image, which, in the age of Facebook, seems particularly trenchant:  When Clyde finds out the bank he is trying to rob has gone out of business, he makes the clerk go out to the car and tell Bonnie, lest she thinks he chickened out; when he reads about a remark about him in the newspaper that he finds to be libelous, he is livid.

And yet the image that they espouse doesn’t always jibe with their ethos. Look at this picture of Bonnie (the great Faye Dunaway) brandishing a firearm and smoking a cigar. Observe the straight-up beatific pleasure she derives from striking this pose. Now consider that when a bank robbery is in progress, violence is avoided at all costs. If the Barrow Gang shot anyone, something went dreadfully awry.

They like the power that guns symbolize, but they shudder to think about the application of said guns. They rob stores and are flabbergasted if one of the employees retaliates with violence. They just don’t realize the implications of their actions. “Why’d he try to kill me?” asks a grief stricken Clyde. “I didn’t want to hurt him. . . . I ain’t against him.”

Although controversial at the time, Bonnie and Clyde is a movie that is distressed by violence. As a viewer, you hope that everyone can find some kind of nonviolent way to coexist. Sure, there are some gruesome scenes in the movie (arguably the most groundbreaking portrayal of violence on the silver screen,) but their inclusion isn’t prurient. It is for the sake of verisimilitude. Nothing is being glorified.

In fact, the Barrow Gang themselves aren’t glorified. They appear to be miserable most of the time. Sure, it was fun in the beginning when everything was limitless, but that vision quickly recedes. All of their time is spent holed up inside hideouts. Clyde traded one prison for another. And at least at prison you didn’t have to endure the same joke being told umpteen times or, even worse, Blanche Barrow, his brother’s shrill wife.

The only time they enjoy themselves is when they can fantasize about their celebrity, usually accomplished by reading about their exploits in the newspaper. They need people to care. What else is there? The money? It isn’t about the money, man. It’s about being somebody. It’s about telling your story.

Don’t you want to tell your story?



[1] This review is primarily concerned with the Bonnie and Clyde as portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, not the actual people.