Hollywood: The Shock of Freedom in Films

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Although Clyde is a murderous ex-convict and Bonnie is his willing, amoral moll, they are essentially innocents: violence is something they can neither comprehend nor manage, and their dreams are always of settling down somewhere when hard times are over. When the two take up their aimless career as thieves, they try to see themselves as striking back at the haves on behalf of the have-nots — although there is no hint of ideology or social protest in their actions.

For a time they are cheered on by starving drifters who vicariously enjoy the cocky resume: "I'm Clyde Barrow, and this is Miss Bonnie Parker. We rob banks." In an episode at once poignant and wonderfully funny, Clyde lends his .45 to a Texas-gothic farmer, who shoots his deserted farmhouse, repossessed by the bank. They speed away from their jobs in a succession of stolen cars — their Ford coupes, Essex tourer and Marmon Saloon are virtually living members of the cast. The sound track adds a further fillip to the humor; the exuberant banjo picking of Earl Scruggs playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown suggests a comedy chase.

"Though the boys throw stones at the frogs in sport," wrote an ancient Greek poet," the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest." The Barrow gang — Bonnie and Clyde, his brother Buck and wife Blanche, their goofy, moonfaced driver, C.W. Moss — proves the truth of that maxim with its targets. At first, the shots are scattered in the air, like careless shouts. Then one lands point-blank in the face of a bank clerk. Blood hurts onto the screen, and from that instant, the audience is torn between horror and glee.

Life for a Death
The police pursue them relentlessly and, during one ambush, Buck's skull is split open by bullets. Blanche, wounded in one eye, turns into a shrill animal, incoherently rending the air with screams. Buck thrashes in agony, like a blind bull pierced with sword thrusts. Pain becomes palpable, and the actors became horribly real as the screen turns as bloody as a slaughterhouse floor.

The comedy is completely eroded now. Badly wounded themselves, Bonnie and Clyde escape to the sanctuary of C.W. Moss's home. C.W.'s father puts on a smarmy smile for the couple, but then arranges their execution by trading with the police: his son's life for the couple's death. The police arrange the ambush; and in what may be the most remarkable use of slow motion in cinema history, the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde writhe to earth in a quarter-time choreography of death.

The bloody ending is as inevitable as the climax of a Greek tragedy; yet to most audiences it comes as a shock, and there is usually a hushed, shaken silence to the crowds that trail out of the theaters. The reason is not simply the cinematic perfection of the death scene. It is also caused by the fact that Bonnie and Clyde are what Warren Beatty calls "ordinary people," whose curiously appealing lower-middle-class normality emerges between crimes — Bonnie's perpetual avian bickering with Buck's wife, the Barrow brothers' spirited roughhouse chaff. They kill and rob banks; but they share the common concerns of common men.

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