"Bonnie Clyde" was not supposed to be a hit movie and it nearly wound up as a feature to be re-discovered as a "cult film" years after its release. It took several years to bring it to the screen, at a time when American movies were evolving away from the standard Hollywood back-lot, classic-narrative style and toward the more informal and abrupt techniques pioneered by the French New Wave.
Both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were offered the direction of the film by co-producer Warren Beatty. But Truffaut wanted nothing to do with a film actor telling him what to do behind the camera and Godard apparently thought the movie should be made as a low-budget effort as close to New York City as possible, rather than the states of Texas and Oklahoma where the actual crime spree of the Barrow Gang took place.
The American director of "The Miracle Worker", Arthur Penn, was chosen. He had worked with Beatty on an earlier homage to the New Wave, "Mickey One", which had died a quick death at the box office and left audiences confused.
The studio that made it "Warner Brothers" thought the idea of a bank robbery film set in the 1930's making any money in 1960's America was very unlikely. Jack L. Warner, who had been boss of production for over three decades, saw it as an old-fashioned story of bank robbers and cops in the style of the Cagney and Bogart urban dramas that had gone out of favor after World War II. He gave Beatty a large percentage of the potential profits on the picture, thinking it would likely play quickly in cities, die a sub-par death and then get put into drive-ins.
It turned out that the realistic violence and honest depictions of sexuality did go over well with a lot of audiences, although many critics like Bosley Crowder of the New York Times thought it a "film for morons". Younger critics like Roger Ebert found it to be outstanding. The studio, however, initially refused to give it a wide release. Beatty managed to talk the new owners of Warner Brothers into ignoring the mixed reviews and letting a wider audience see it.
On the second release the film took off, eventually making $40 million dollars. The stark violence and bloodiness of the movie matched what people were seeing on their television screens as the Vietnam War was being reported on the evening news in America night after night.
Gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were legendary anti-heroes in their own times--the Great Depression, when banks foreclosed on houses and farms. In the same way, disaffected and mostly younger 1960's film-goers saw the couple and their gang of bank-robbers as figuratively setting out to tweak the failed establishment. In other words, the movie clicked in ways that couldn't be anticipated by executives in suits looking for the next "Sound of Music".
The ultra-violent ambush ending of the film is probably one of the most memorable in film. I saw as a kid in 1972 in theater just before the film went to television. I remember being stunned by how realistic and appalling the shoot-ups were. If this was what shotguns and revolvers actually did to people's bodies, it was news to me.
I had only seen movies before where people who were shot simply fell over dead, clutching their chests in a bloodless swoon before landing nicely on the floor. The first time I saw a character in "Bonnie and Clyde" get shot square in the face, and actual red blood came out of his forehead, it was a realisation that this was more a mere entertainment but a film with a purpose: to show gun violence without the old conventions, the old lies.
The real Bonnie and Clyde were a rather mangy looking pair, not of the Beatty/ Faye Dunaway types by a long shot.
. Ironically its the supporting cast, Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), who seem better suited to the lead roles from a physical perspective.
But the depictions of the hero and heroine as outlaws in hard times (with the American Dream reborn from a smoking barrel of a Colt .45 and a fast 1933 DeSoto) and that brutal death scene overcome any Romanticism in my view. This is a must-see, and see again movie.