Film Analysis: Bonnie and Clyde

Written on December 10, 2010 – 9:12 am | by jwolpoe

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was directed by Arthur Penn, produced by Warren Beatty and distributed by Warner Bothers. The film tells a fictionalized account of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as bank robbers in the South during the Great Depression. The film was meant to appeal to audiences in a time of poplar anti-government sentiments and for most of the film Bonnie and Clyde are dashing young heroes laughing at the world and the government alike. However, the overall theme of the film comes down to consequences of their actions, and the losses that come with those consequences. The scene that most reflects that message is later in the film when Bonnie goes back to see her family after the gang has establishing a reputation famed bank robbers and murderers. The theme of consequences is reflected in the setting, color palate, visuals and use of sound.

The scene opens with a wide shot of a sandy field with some stunted trees and unidentified machinery in the background. The location is obviously isolated and abandoned, and was chosen as a meeting place for precisely those reasons. The field is a transition location – it contains none of the comforts of home, but it also has none of the glamour and riches of the life on the road. It is empty of life, growth and production, and represents a kind of limbo for the gang, unable to go back and hesitant to move forward.

The sand of the field provides a bland and blank palate for the scene to take place. The people in the scene are mostly dressed in black, contrasting with the white dresses Bonnie wears for most of the film. Here she and the rest of the gang are dressed in black, as if they are mourning the innocence they have lost through their actions. The scene is coded strongly for a funeral, with the whole family coming together for the first time with Bonnie while mostly dressed in black. The coding clearly foreshadows the funeral to come for the members of the gang who will die by the end of the film.

The first thing one might notice upon the transition to this scene is the way the scene is matted and blurred to provide an ethereal, fantasy-like quality. This scene is part of Bonnie’s attempt to go back to the childhood she abandoned at the beginning of the film, and it is presented similarly to a flashback, even though it happens sequentially. Most of the shots contain two or more people interacting in casual interactions. The focus is extremely shallow, and the background for every close-up shot becomes an indistinct blur. The people themselves appear a little fuzzy around the edges in large crowds, blurring into a masses of a family event. Bonnie’s family is never introduced as individuals, and they truly become a collection of bodies and children, representing a full family. Each member of the Barrow Gang is more recognizable and distinct, and never quite manages to blend in with the rest of the family.

Arguably the most important element of the scene is the use of sound. The scene is introduced by non-diegetic sound, a slower orchestral tune that starts before the scene fades in. Then there is a brief moment of the film’s banjo music theme while Bonnie and her mother see each other for the first time. The orchestral music sets the tone for the whole scene, setting up the whole melancholy flashback tone even before the color change. The banjo comes in as a quick reminder of the underlying tension of the scene – Bonnie has left her family and no longer truly belongs with them.

The rest of the scene is mostly soft muted sounds, of laughter and chatter and a general good time. It directly accompanies the muted visuals, the blurred sounds and sights combining to make the scene a surreal contrast to the sharp reality of the rest of the film. The sound is also not synchronized for most of the scene, the background chatter unconnected with any individual people. If you watch carefully, most of the sound in the first half of the scene is non-diegetic, even if it appears to be, because characters lips normally rarely match the words they are saying. The general sound of the shot will play, but it will not match perfectly. For example, the moment when the family gathers to say grace is non-diegetic, as grace is still being heard while they break and begin reaching for food. That shot is also a good example of overlapping sound used to transition between shots, which happen three times in the scene. In this example, the shot after everyone reaches for the food is a shot of Clyde bringing a plate to another member of the gang, CJ, who is standing guard. We still hear grace still being said as Clyde tucks a napkin into CJ’s shirt and gives him the plate, even though is is over. The constant overlapping sound in the first half of the scene makes the shots blend together in a kind of wave of emotion and memory. The first half of the scene is about the kind of general family atmosphere of the event, and the Barrow Gang enjoy themselves.

When Bonnie’s family begins packing up to leave, the scene has a dramatic shift. There is still the background murmur – this time of a mother calling her sons from the sand dunes – but the sound is diegetic as Bonnie speaks to her mother with Clyde. The scene turns from more happy fantasy to more painful reality during this conversation. Clyde babbles awkwardly while Bonnie is suspiciously silent while he talks. Bonnie’s mother delivers her opinions with a slow, reluctant tone, but brings both protagonists back from their castles in the sky when she tells them that they, “best keep running,” or they, “won’t live long.” Bonnie stands shocked and silent as her mother walks away.

The scene ends with Bonnie’s family drives away, leaving the Barrow Gang alone in the desolate wasteland. Clyde’s bother Buck is standing with his wife, Blanche, and Bonnie grabs onto Clyde in a mirror image, splitting the gang into their tiny family units. After a scene filled with children, laughter and chatter, the moment is lonely, silent and desolate.

The Barrow Gang tried to recapture their lost innocence and youth in the empty field, but it was a place of paralyzing limbo for them. It was there that they discovered their inability to return to their pasts, and they are forced to move forward toward their inevitable destruction as they leave. They have tried to hide or avoid the consequences of their actions, which include bank robbing, abduction and murder. However, as the film eventually proves, it is impossible to keep running forever, and this failed attempt is the turning point of the film. In the next scenes, the gang will hunted and eventually killed. The setting, colors, blurred visuals and careful use of sound heavily enforce that theme in this scene. The horrific ending to come was definitely an abrupt shock for the audiences of the 1960’s, who identified strongly with the heroic anti-establishment freedom of the gang, making the theme that much more difficult to accept.

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