Arthur Penn and the Lasting Influence of Bonnie and Clyde

Arthur Penn, the Academy Award nominated director of Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, died last night at the age of 88.

Bonnie and Clyde is considered to be one of the greatest American films, at the forefront of the New Hollywood Cinema. The film’s bloody and violent closing sequence shocked audiences and marked a definitive end of the studio system.

As one article puts it: “In Mr. Penn’s hands, [Bonnie and Clyde] became something even more dangerous and innovative — a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by Mr. Beatty and a newcomer, Faye Dunaway, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and hayseed comedy, set to a bouncy bluegrass score by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face, and were stunned when this attractive outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion as their clothes turned red with blood.”

Bonnie and Clyde is without a doubt Penn’s greatest contribution to American cinema and its influence is constantly felt to this day.

Bonnie and Clyde is a film I addressed frequently throughout the course of my research on post-9/11 American independent cinema last year. Bonnie and Clyde, as well as The Searchers and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, influenced director Courtney Hunt throughout her inception of Frozen River.

Knowing this, the relationship between Ray Eddy and Lila Littlewolf, the female protagonists and unlikely illegal immigrant smuggling duo carries a greater depth as it develops throughout the film. Like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, these women are outlaws united by and for a greater cause. While Bonnie and Clyde were outlaws mostly out of boredom, Ray and Lila were united by their maternal suffering. They smuggle illegal immigrants to provide for their children after being abandoned by their husbands and patriarchal society. Their actions play out like a wild west showdown, complete with gun fights, chases in the woods, and the ultimate maternal sacrifice by one of the women. The frozen tundra of upstate New York-Canadian border region contributes to the film’s frequent wild west characteristics.

Frozen River was nominated for two Academy Awards and it is by far one of the best independent films released in recent years. It is films such as Frozen River, which are relevant to today’s current political issues and have a level of unmatched artistry, where we see the unparalleled legacy of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.

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6 thoughts on “Arthur Penn and the Lasting Influence of Bonnie and Clyde”

  1. Haha, this particular reference wasn’t one that I picked up on. It came after months and months of extensive research on indie cinema and Frozen River specifically. Ahh, my senior thesis. It was a good time.

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