public enemy number one

bonnie parker and clyde barrow were depression-era legends who were immortalized as cool in the 1967 film bonnie and clyde starring faye dunaway and warren beatty.  i watched the movie this afternoon partly because i have a cold, partly because it’s raining, but mostly because i love faye dunaway.

i was amazed at the essential role photography plays in the film.  the medium’s importance is asserted right from the start with fsa-style sepia snapshots in the opening credits.  each photograph flashes with the sound of a camera click.  right away the viewer’s sympathy lies with the tragic and impoverished sharecropper families.  bonnie and clyde’s rampage against the capitalist establishment is justified by these heart-wrenching photographs.  but, the sound of the click, the aged tint of the photos, the physical border around each shot remind the viewer that these are images constructed from a machine, not just a window into reality.  these snapshots have an agenda.






after clyde knocks out a butcher in a grocery store, the bruised victim identifies clyde as the assailant from a series of mugshots.  “they know me,” clyde tells bonnie.  clyde’s outlaw status exists because a photographic image confirms it.  he is real because he is photographed.

a banker and a policeman pose with the bullet holes inflicted by bonnie and clyde.  the rebel legend is perpetuated through the evidence the image provides.

bonnie and clyde pose for buck barrow’s camera unsmiling with guns and a cigar, very aware of the image they are constructing.

blanche barrow photographs even the most mundane moments in the gang’s journey.

it’s bonnie’s idea to inflict the ultimate shame upon texas ranger frank hamer: send the newspapers photos of hamer with the barrow gang.

“i read about you all in the papers,” bonnie’s mother tells her.  throughout the film bonnie and clyde giggle over the crimes the newspaper mistakenly reports that they have committed.  they take genuine joy in the fact that their media persona has exceeded their real exploits.  here, a photo of the real bonnie and clyde in the newspaper.

photography’s heavily referenced role in the bonnie and clyde myth is further complicated by the fact these still images are driving the plot of a motion picture; the unmoving photograph keeps the film moving.  the new medium (film) cannot be separated from the old medium (photography).  here, dunaway and beatty with the movie’s director arthur penn.


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