1967 in film: Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967_1

1967. It was a stellar year for film, and it’s being celebrated with a blogathon hosted by the wondrous Rosebud Cinema and Silver Screenings. Catch up all the entries over here: how many have you seen?

Bonnie and Clyde can be whatever you want them to be: glamorous, cold-hearted, callous, likeable, cruel, desperate or (in Arthur Penn’s film adaptation) devastatingly stylish. Maybe the real-life Depression era duo shared none or all of these attributes, but that doesn’t matter – this is how the duo live on in popular consciousness. Although Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde divided opinion on its release in 1967 – critics were particularly concerned about the ‘realism’ of the violence and ‘historical inaccuracies’ – it cemented the notoriety of two gun-toting nobodies who killed people and robbed banks. The film resonated with the young movie-going public, conditioned by violent images from the Vietnam War that were broadcast on the nightly news and splashed across the front of newspapers. Their tastes had changed, and this film, with its New Wave influences and disregard for Production Code conventions, ticked all the right boxes. As Pauline Kauel concluded in her influential review for The New Yorker, perhaps audiences were drawn to Bonnie and Clyde because ‘…making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back into death’. In short, we’re like them, but we don’t want to. As characters, Bonnie and Clyde are a paradox.

BONNIE AND CLYDE

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Of course, Penn’s film isn’t just about controversial characters. His slow-motion photography and quick-cut editing were revolutionary at the time, and emphasised the dramatic getaways and the moments of violence. Shot in location in Texas, the film is visually rich, rendered in a dusty palette of dusty yellows, greens and blues; a romanticised and nostalgic nod to the 1930s and an effective device that places Bonnie and Clyde firmly in the ‘real’ world. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have a wonderful on-screen chemistry, and parts of the film read almost like a classic love story in the vein of It Happened One Night. Interestingly, Dunaway wasn’t Beatty’s first choice, and several other actresses were considered, including Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, and Carol Lynley. As co-producer (he was looking to kickstart his career following several poorly-received films), Beatty had more say than was usual, and production was often held up as the actor and director argued about scenes and dialogue.

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes also helped to amp up the nostalgia. Although the film took longer to garner praise (and revenue) her costumes were an almost overnight hit, with copies of Bonnie’s garments available to purchase in department stores. Whilst the American public were unwilling to endorse violence, they were willing to dress the part – and that included jaunty berets, ballet flats, neckties and mid-length skirts. According to Van Runkle, the success of the ‘Bonnie and Clyde look’ was that they wore mix-and match ensembles, ‘clothes people could wear to work and in their real lives’. The costumes have an easy familiarity – the 1930s viewed through the lens of the 60s. Dunaway is probably sexier and more alluring that her real-life counterpart (some scenes captured the attention of the censors, who were convinced Dunaway’s breasts were visible through one flimsy vest) but she originally envisaged the look as very different:

‘I thought jeans, maybe, pants of some sort since they were robbing banks and making quick getaways. But Warren and Arthur wanted to put her in dresses, great costumes that would give her style…the look for Bonnie was smack out of the thirties, but glamorised and very beautiful…’

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Jeans do seem like an obvious choice, not only for practicality but because Bonnie resembled independence – something women in the 60s, keen to take control of careers and relationships, were likely to appreciate. Very few films before Bonnie and Clyde had explored femininity within the gangster genre; Bonnie sits somewhere between 1930s ideals and 1960s-borrowed radicalism. Many of Bonnie’s character traits feel very contemporary – she’s aware of her sexuality, craves a life of adventure and independence, and gets turned on by violence. Whilst Bonnie is presented as a sexual object from the start – the opening shots pans her lips and naked body – she’s never a ‘sex object’. Clyde, who claims ‘I ain’t no lover boy’, is overwhelmed and dazzled by her sexual advances and when he’s unable to perform she channels her unrequited passion into crime. To retain sympathy for her character, the audience needed visual reminders of her femininity – and that’s where Van Runkle’s trouser-free wardrobe is essential.

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

In the opening scene, Bonnie wears a loose, crumpled button-down dress and flat ballet shoes. The soft peach colour softens her sexuality and makes her seem unthreatening. Cut on the bias, it’s loose and flattering; although it’s threadbare status reinforces her poverty. Van Runkle scoured vintage shops for individual pieces; their pre-loved status suited the travelling wardrobe she was trying to create. During production, Van Runkle met Edith Head who advised her use flowered chiffons to recreate a 1930s vibe. But the designer remained unconvinced, and chose instead to rely on her own research which suggested that once Bonnie and Clyde began to earn money from bank robbing they began to shop at more ‘upmarket’ establishments – including the Marshall and Fields catalogue.

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie’s clothes become more tailored as finds confidence in her new life and embraces a life of (successful) crime. One of the most recognisable shots of the film (and a recreation of an actual photograph) is when Bonnie poses on Buck Burrows’ (Gene Hackman) car, cigar clamped firmly between her lips and gun resting comfortably at her hip. She’s wearing a fitted black jacket and a full skirt – so far, so business-like. But tucked into the skirt is a cream silk blouse with an embroidered yoke detail. Even once Bonnie has fully embraced her new persona there’s a visual link back to the small-town girl with the big dreams that the audience met at the start.

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

The final component of that look is the beret. The beret emphasises Bonnie’s sex appeal and gives her the confidence she needs to be an outlaw – a sartorial signature that tells everyone exactly who she is. According to Van Runkle: ‘the beret was the final culmination of the silhouette. In it, she combined all the visual elements of elegance and chic’. Berets were popular amongst movie stars (including Garbo) in the 1930s, but they had mostly fallen out of fashion by the 60s. So successful was Bonnie’s look that the accessory made a comeback following the film’s release and beret production in the French town of Lourdes reportedly shot up from 5,000 to 12,000 per week. Neckties also saw a surge in popularity, and skirts were lengthened to mimic Bonnie’s style.

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Bonnie-And-Clyde-1967

Of course, the influence of Bonnie and Clyde stretches far beyond beret production. Today, the film stands as a pop-culture landmark and its influence resonates in everything from Sonny’s bullet-ridden Godfather death to Thelma and Louise. It’s hard to gauge how radical and how fresh it must’ve seemed to audiences in 1967, but the fact that its broader themes still seem fresh and relevant indicate its differentiation from the norm and how far removed American cinema had been from contemporary values.

Further reading: Hollywood, Nihilism and the Youth Culture of the Sixties: Bonnie and Clyde by Lawrence Murray / Blasts from the Past by Patrick Goldstein / Arthur Penn: cerebral subversive by Peter Biskind

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22 thoughts on “1967 in film: Bonnie and Clyde

  1. I have always loved Faye Dunaway’s wardrobe in this film. She looks utterly fabulous in every scene.

    Thanks for contributing such a thoughtful, well-written post to the blogathon. I liked the background info on Van Runkle and her scouring of thrift stores. Next time I find this film on TCM, I will pay closer attention to the costumes.

    1. If you do my work is done 😉 Every time I go to a vintage shop I look for the sweaters she wears but they’re not easy to find.
      There was so much to say about this film, I could have gone on for ages…I’m enjoying reading all the blogathon posts so much – thank you for co-hosting!

  2. I loved this film ever since I saw it back in 1967. Warner Brothers originally did not want to release the film, they thought they had bomb on their hands. When first released it died and it was only upon a second chance the film hit big with the young audience of the day. The film ruined the career of the NY Times film critic who dismissed the film as a piece of violent junk. Once the raves began to pour in his career would soon be over as the lead critic for the most influential paper in the country. A must see film for anyone seriously interested in cinema. Obviously, this was a great choice.

    1. I read a hilarious story about how Beatty crawled around on his hands and knees in the Warner Bros office to convince Ben Kalmenson to finance it. True or not, I love the dedication that Beatty had to get it made. Roger Ebert made some very astute observations about the film upon its release, it’s just a shame some of the other journos (NYT, as you mention, and I think Newsweek) didn’t show some more imagination!

  3. I think you make a great point in pointing out how sexy Bonnie/Dunaway is, but that she is not a sex object. You can even see Bonnie as feminist-oriented, in that she’s equal with Clyde, and that she herself is a desiring subject – the film opens with her gazing lustily at Clyde outside her window. Could the beret that was part of Dunaway’s wardrobe have also been influenced by the 1949 film noir Gun Crazy? Peggy Cummins (who with John Dall play characters based on Bonnie & Clyde) also sports a beret in that film.

    1. I love that Bonnie is so open about her sexuality and that Clyde can’t deliver. I think they talked about making his character gay (or at least bi-sexual) but it didn’t really get written in. And Gun Crazy – that’s a great shout – I totally forgot about Peggy Cummins. Have been meaning to do a costume post on that film, but haven’t actually got round to writing it yet!

  4. If you can believe it, I just saw this film last year for the first time. I thought it was well-made, but, like EASY RIDER, it glorified the basically evil, solipsistic behaviour of scum-bag losers in a way that doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sorry that she was bored, and I’m sorry that he was basically mentally ill, but like the drug dealing sociopaths in E-R, none of what they did was cool or worth applauding.

    A very nice post, though…as a film it’s very solid work.

  5. Faye was never sexier than she was here. I love how this film gained steam and you have to give credit to Beatty for pushing it and all the stories of him fighting Jack Warner to get it out there. Like other films of the time that were of a serious and violent nature it still has moments of comedy and the Gene Wilder interlude is a highlight. Then of course there’s Gene Hackman. The man delivers. Just a wonderful cast put together for this classic.

  6. Love this post! The 60s influence on the film makes it so interesting and! like you said! the wardrobes are just wonderful! Great piece, thanks for participating!

  7. Bravo, girl!
    Bonnie’s style in the film is flawless. I was actually shocked and disappointed to see a picture of the REAL Bonnie :0
    I loved a subtle detail in this film: how Bonnie and Clide sneak into a movie theater that is showing Golddiggers of 1933! This musical summons the Great Depression so well…
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

    1. Haha, me too. Hopefully it’s because they spent so long posing for the photo it took out all the personality 😉 And that’s a great detail that I forgot to mention – just too much to say with films like this!

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