The New Hollywood, it was called. Inspired by similar movements in Europe, a new generation of filmmakers took advantage of the faltering studio system to produce personal, vital, politically relevant cinema. It was the late 60s, when the pacific pipe dreams of the earlier part of the decade were being violently ruptured. So the films were violent. Two in particular, released six years apart and thus covering both the dawn and the zenith of the New Hollywood, examined the careers of famous outlaw couples. Each pair cut a swath through the American heartland, building off the myths that came before and forging their own legends. The crime sprees are brought to life through the synthesis of two iconic Hollywood genres. These are modern westerns, rural gangster films. They’re quintessentially American, with their fast cars, soda bottles, and brusque slaughter.
Bonnie and Clyde was the passion project of the screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, an attempt to revitalize the gangster genre after seeing how much appreciation it got from the French New Wave. Directed by Arthur Penn, the film is a jaunty descendant of the nouvelle vague, fast-paced, funny, and fatalistic. The title characters form a small gang in Texas and perform armed robberies in the surrounding states. They pointedly don’t want to hurt anyone, but the stakes are raised with every bank they rob. Set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the film suggests that the banks, which have evicted farmers from their land, have it coming. Eventually, the older generation rises up to oppose Bonnie and Clyde and restore conformity. Not before the crooks have told their story and “printed the legend” themselves, though.
As played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are one of my all-time favorite movie couples. Their chemistry is evident from the very first scene, an aggressive, intimate pas de deux of exploration and temptation that calls to mind the fundamental male/female pair, Adam and Eve. It’s immediately clear that neither of them would be nearly as dangerous alone. But they join forces, “looking for suitable employment.” When Clyde almost gets himself cleaved while stealing groceries, they enlist a service station attendant to drive the getaway car so the two of them can watch each other’s backs on their jobs. Clyde’s brother and his wife later join them, much to everyone’s sorrow. It wouldn’t be quite right to say the movie “romanticizes” the outlaws, although the romantic passion and the violence are certainly intertwined. These characters make foolish and dangerous mistakes, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes not. If they aren’t romanticized, though, they’re certainly mythologized — added to the national folklore. The premonition of their demise hangs over the entire film like a curse, but the inevitability of the famous final scene doesn’t blunt the brutality of it all. Still, back comes the French New Wave influence to add a wry grin to the horror. Beatty sports sunglasses with one lens popped out (very Jean-Paul Belmondo), and during the flash cuts before the guns go off, Bonnie smiles at Clyde. The emotion on her face is ecstasy, of all things: the consummation of their doomed romance. They were together to the end.
Arthur Penn is thanked in the end credits of Badlands. The director was already a veteran when he made Bonnie and Clyde, getting the ball rolling before the next generation of filmmakers took over. One such aspirant was Terrence Malick, fresh off his studies at the American Film Institute and married to a former assistant of Penn’s. His feature-length writing/directing debut would follow a fictional couple based on the serial killer Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Badlands was just one of a string of films with Bonnie-and-Clyde-like protagonists, but its story has interesting parallels with the earlier film’s even as it conveys a strikingly different mood. Both films open with their female leads resting on their beds, in a kind of gestation before the exciting, threatening young men arrive to get their lives started. They all turn to crime to escape the boredom of normal jobs. Holly (Sissy Spacek), like Bonnie, has a penchant for lyricism that mythologizes Kit (Martin Sheen) in explicitly “Hollywood” fashion — it’s said numerous times that Kit looks like James Dean. The two cinematic couples also share a skewed sense of ethics, holding a special disdain for bounty hunters. Once again, we’re put in the shoes of antiheroes.
Malick’s impressionistic style, with its evocative voiceover and spontaneous visual magic, was fully formed right out of the gate. It didn’t leave room for the high-spirited deconstruction of Bonnie and Clyde, instead exposing the underlying disease in lightly rueful fashion. Kit and Holly aren’t bank robbers, of course, which renders their outbursts of violence even more senseless. Kit pulls the trigger when the moment seems to call for it, without forethought or regret. Bonnie and Clyde cross state lines to elude the law, but Kit and Holly drive from South Dakota to Montana with no consistent sense of direction, just a pressing need to escape wherever they were before. What they think of each other is likewise opaque. The ethereal narration in the film always impresses me when I’m watching it, and yet I’m somehow always hard-pressed to recall much of it afterwards. These outlaws are sad and unreachable. They don’t meet a firing squad at the end, but in a strange way their fate is even sadder because Holly turns herself in rather than going to the limit with Kit.
The darkness, starkness, and individuality of these films was largely new in American cinema. Nearly fifty years later, it’s largely been abandoned again, at least by the Hollywood studios. Warner Bros. released both films, extending its brand as the tough studio — the studio where even musicals (like Gold Diggers of 1933, which makes an appearance in Bonnie and Clyde) were socially conscious — into a new era. Like all film movements, the New Hollywood was a self-contained period of ferment, but its influence stretches to later generations of filmmakers. The films themselves haven’t lost their power, either. They speak to the national character, telling of enterprising individualists who set out to conquer the wide open spaces. We still have pride in our outlaws, even when we condemn them. And we’re certainly still shooting each other. We can’t stop.