In the following interview with Cineaste magazine Arthur Penn discusses the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the social and mythical background to the film, and the famous final sequence.
Cineaste: ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was an enormously popular film but also an enormously controversial film. How do you account for the absolutely vociferous critical response, at least from some critics, which condemned the film? Were you disappointed that your artistic intentions were so misunderstood?
Penn: No, I was delighted because they were misunderstood by people who should have misunderstood, like Bosley Crowther, an old wave New York Times critic who at that time was on a crusade against violence in films in general. When he saw Bonnie and Clyde at the Montreal Film Festival, where it was first shown, he is alleged to have said to somebody that he was going to blow that film out of the water. Which he did, in his review, but it was the best advertising we could have had because people wrote scores of letters to The New York Times, which published them. Then Crowther wrote another attack, a Sunday piece, and more letters poured in, and Crowther responded again, and the more he frothed at the mouth, the more it enlisted support for the film.
It was not a film about violence, it was a metaphorical film. Violence had so little to do with it that it didn’t even occur to me, particularly, that it was a violent film. Not given the times in which we were living, because every night on the news we saw kids in Vietnam being airlifted out in body bags, with blood all over the place. Why, suddenly, the cinema had to be immaculate, I’ll never know. Crowther had philosophically painted himself into a corner by arguing that art, and particularly the cinema, has a social responsibility for setting certain mores and standards of behavior, which is a terrible argument, it just collapses in ten seconds. He was in that corner and couldn’t get out of it and it cost him his job…
Cineaste: How do you account for the film’s enormous popularity, especially with young people?
Penn: I think it caught the spirit of the times and the true radical nature of the kids. It plugged into them, it just touched all the nerves, because here were these two who, instead of knuckling under to the system, resisted it. Yes, they killed some people, but they got killed in the end, so they were heroic and martyred in that respect. I must say, in our defense, we knew a little bit of what we were doing, because the studio asked us if we wanted to do it in black and white, and Warren and I said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s gotta be a film about now. This is not a re‑creation of Bonnie and Clyde, they were a couple of thugs. We’re talking about two kind of paradigmatic figures for our times.’
Cineaste: So historical accuracy was never really a concern of yours?
Penn: Never tried, never came near. Of course, they weren’t like that. We were flagrantly inaccurate and said, right off the bat, this is metaphoric.
Cineaste: So when critics wrote that the film romanticized ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, that’s exactly what you were trying to do.
Penn: Exactly. Far from trying to do anything accurate.
Cineaste: And yet the film is not without social commentary on the period. The screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, who have readily acknowledged you as the true auteur of the film, commented that they were more concerned with the mythology and that you were more concerned with social context and commentary.
Penn: What caught my fancy about the script was what I remembered as a child from the Depression, which was people in New York neighborhoods being kicked out of their homes. When I was doing research by reading newspapers from the period, what struck me was the enormity of the banks’ naiveté in holding these mortgages and then foreclosing on farm after farm after farm. It was stupidity of a monumental, punitive nature. They created a nation of displaced people who essentially began heading to California.
These kind of bucolic figures like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were called bank robbers by the FBI in order to aggrandize the agency when they tried to capture them. But they were really just bumpkins, who said, ‘The banks are foreclosing on the farms, so let’s go knock off the banks.’ It’s a very simple, retaliatory response, and on a small scale.
Cineaste: So the sequence with the dispossessed farmer was your contribution.
Penn: Yeah, that was a scene I built.
Cineaste: Robert Towne received a credit as ‘Special Consultant’. What was that for?
Penn: He wrote certain little scenes in the film as well as some additional dialog, but very telling dialog. In the family reunion scene, for example, when they go back to visit Bonnie’s mother, that scene was in the original script, but it didn’t include Clyde’s explanation to Bonnie’s mother about how as soon as everything blew over he and Bonnie were going to settle down and live right down the road from her. And she says, ‘You do that and you won’t live long.’ That’s Towne. He made some very salient contributions.
Cineaste: There is much made in the film of the media blowing the Barrow Gang’s exploits out of all proportion. Hoover was in office then…
Penn: Yes, but the FBI had not really been granted a national status, they were not able to go beyond state lines, and very few crimes were called national crimes. I think the Lindbergh kidnapping was one of them, so they began to call almost anything kidnapping and that gave them jurisdiction. It was an effort on Hoover’s part to build a national police force. But in this case, it was the local sheriff, Sheriff Hamer, who eventually did track them down to Louisiana – that part of it is accurate – and did blow them away. They fired something in excess of a thousand rounds of ammunition at them. It’s amazing, the pent up rage must have been enormous.
Cineaste: It’s a remarkable scene in the film, and even in film history. How was it conceived?
Penn: I had a kind of epiphany on this film where I saw the ending, literally frame by frame, before I even came near shooting it. In the earliest days, when Benton and Newman and I got together to discuss the script, I suddenly saw how that scene should look. I thought we had to launch into legend, we had to end the film with a kind of pole vault, you know, some kind of great leap into the future, as if to say, ‘They’re not Bonnie and Clyde, they’re two people who had a response to a social condition that was intolerable.’ So I thought, gee, the best way to do that is to be somewhat balletic, and, having seen enough Kurosawa by that point, I knew how to do it.
What I did do, which I think had not yet been done, was to vary the speeds of the slow motion so that I could get both the spastic and the balletic qualities at the same time. Technically, it was an enormous problem because we had to gang four cameras together, shooting simultaneously from the same vantage point. The cameras were literally joined side by side on a stand. The problem, because of the very fast speeds needed for the slowest slow motion, was that we were using up gigantic magazines and we didn’t even have time to say ‘action’ because the film would go through the camera so fast. So we said, ‘OK, when Warren squeezes the pear, that’s our cue, and everything goes.’
Cineaste: How were the bullet hits applied?
Penn: 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.
Cineaste: How long did that scene take to shoot?
Penn: It took three or four days. We would get one take in the morning and one take in the afternoon, because it took that long to prepare. It was one of those insane moments where, as a director, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I see it this way, I see it no other way, so I’m not going to economize,’ and, meanwhile, you can see people whispering on the set, ‘This guy is nuts. What the fuck is he doing?’
I just had this vision. I knew what it would look like and, when I got into the editing room, it turned out to be a true one. Dede Allen edited the film but Jerry Greenberg, one of her assistants, edited that scene, and he was just shaking his head. I came in and I said, ‘Here’s how it goes – this shot, to this shot, then to that shot.’ It was as if I was reading it out of some other perception. I knew exactly what it would look like.
Cineaste: The various scenes of violence in the film escalate progressively in a very clear dramatic purpose. How would you describe your esthetic strategy?
Penn: The best example I can give, quoting from the film itself, is the sequence where Bonnie and Clyde, with C. W. Moss driving the car for the first time, go to rob a bank. They say ‘Wait here,’ and go into the bank, and C. W. proceeds to park the car. Now, everybody in the audience is titillated by that, and is meant to be. Then the bank alarm goes off, and out come Bonnie and Clyde who are asking, ‘Where’s the car?’ It’s wedged in between two cars, of course, because C. W. has parked it beautifully. So, into the car they go and scream, ‘Get out of here!,’ and this enormous comic tension is built up. We’ve got you laughing and laughing, and C. W. finally gets the car moving and, at that point, the guy comes out of the bank and jumps on the running board. Clyde, in a paroxysm of fear, turns and fires, and that first killing is the one that knocks you right out of the chair, because it’s a guy getting it right in the face. The intention was to disarm the audience to that point where, bam!, the shooting occurs, and then comes the scene in the movie theater where Clyde is hitting C. W. and saying, ‘You dummy,’ because he’s expressing his own remorse and panic about having killed somebody.
Cineaste: In that scene Bonnie seems relatively unaffected.
Penn: She doesn’t mind. In our choice of what we were doing, Bonnie had a more romantic view of danger. Once she’d made the determination, from the very first scene, that she was going to go downstairs and join up with this guy, she was on the qui vive.
Cineaste: Is that why you begin the film with her point of view?
Penn: Yes, it begins with a big close‑up of her lips, her hungry lips. I’m sorry it sounds so corny, but that’s what it is – a hunger for something more than her present existence.
Cineaste: Was the film’s visual style influenced by the work of Walker Evans?
Penn: Yeah, we used a lot of his photographs in the titles. The man who did them, Wayne Fitzgerald, kept saying, ‘God, there’s something not right here. I’m going to take the credits home tonight and I’ll bring them back tomorrow.’ What he put in was the sound of that box camera click and suddenly it evoked the memory we all had from our childhoods of that clicking noise of the Kodak camera shutter, and it just made the titles come alive.
– ‘The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn by Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton’. First published in Cineaste, Vol. XX, No. 2/December 1993.