Massively important. It arguably changed Hollywood in a way that only happens once a generation. It also hasn't dated that well.
What it's about, obviously, is Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two celebrity criminals in the 1930s until the law finally caught up with them on 23 May 1934. They had so many bullet holes in them afterwards that the undertaker couldn't keep the embalming fluid in their bodies. Until then, they'd gone around robbing and killing. Often they'd get into trouble even when no one suspected their identities, simply just because they tended to behave suspiciously and conspicuously. They had a gang. There's nothing even remotely interesting about them... but (a) the police had found a poem of Bonnie's with photos of them posing, and (b) they were young and attractive.
The movie simply shows this to us. Warren Beatty plays Clyde and was also the film's producer. Faye Dunaway plays Parker. The film's saying lots of things, but mostly it's just showing us the antics of a bunch of glamorous, not particularly intelligent losers.
Me, I didn't care about them. It's a well-made film, but I was waiting for everyone in it to get killed.
However in 1967, people went crazy for it. America was fighting in Vietnam and Martin Luther King was one year away from being assassinated. The African-American Civil Rights Movement was overlapping with Black Power and inner city riots. The screenwriters later said, "Critics and interviewers have told us that Bonnie and Clyde is really about Vietnam, really about police brutality, really about Lee Harvey Oswald, really about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, 'If you think so.'" The director, Arthur Penn, has talked of seeing a black audience "completely identifying" with the movie. "They said: 'This is the way; that's the way to go, baby. Those cats were all right.' In a certain sense the American negro has the same kind of attitude of 'I have nothing more to lose' that was true during the Depression for Bonnie and Clyde. He really is at the point of revolution -- it's rebellion, not riot."
This film's Bonnie and Clyde aren't evil. Beatty's Clyde doesn't have room in his head for the concept of not living by crime, but he also sees it as morally neutral and himself as a defender of the little man. "You got a right to it." There's a sympathetic scene early on with a family who've been evicted from their home. It's kind of childish, but it's a small rebellion. Similarly, he becomes responsible and protective after first killing a man and hence lethally raising the law-enforcement stakes for all his comrades.
Meanwhile Dunaway is a bad girl who's not. She's everything a good girl shouldn't be. She's highly sexed, a good deal hotter for it in fact than the impotent and bottled-up Beatty. (The original script had made him bisexual, but even this watered-down compromise is unusual in its era for giving its handsome leading man a sexual dysfunction.) She gets turned on by everything about Beatty. However from the beginning she's merely following his lead and there are scenes where she'd clearly have liked them to be able to live a normal life together.
Finally, they love their celebrity status. "We rob banks." They love their names. They give their identities unprompted to strangers and tell them about their lives of crime. If someone had asked for their signature on a pre-written confession, I bet they'd have provided that too. Morons. However if you're looking for an indictment of the timeless cult of celebrity, this would be a good place to start.
As for the film itself, it was a violent departure from Hollywood norms of 1967. The Production Code (no certificates, just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down) was already on its way out, but they helped dig their own graves by giving their blessing to this film. It uses blood squibs. It shows someone being shot in the face and the consequences all in a single shot, without a discreet halfway cut. It has explicit sexual discussion. It has fast editing that's more like the modern era than the 1960s, influenced by the French New Wave, and yet at the same time also slow motion in the action scenes. This was an influence from Kurosawa. All of this was revolutionary at the time, but unfortunately these days it's normal. Of course Bonnie and Clyde helped to make it normal. Today it's hard to see what a debt we owe to this film, since at the end of the day it no longer looks that special. It's good. That's about it.
It made movie stars. Gene Hackman had been a TV actor before 1967, while here you'll see the film debut of the wonderful Gene Wilder. He made me smile with almost his first line. "That's my car!" Here he's so delightfully effete.
Despite what it might seem to be about, I think it's a film about family. Bonnie and Clyde feel no ties to society in general, but they're powerfully bound by blood. Every major character in this film pulls the plot in a completely different direction by going back to see their family. The parents are figures of authority, who know what's right and wrong. Their young, glamorous offspring on the other hand are outlaws, even when they think they're not.
In real life, the old generation of critics hated it, in some cases like poison, while the studio boss (Jack Warner) went to his grave despising the film. He had so little faith in it that Warner Bros gave Beatty 40% of the gross instead of a fee, only to see it take 70 million in 1967 dollars.
Two members of the original Barrow gang lived to see themselves in this film, incidentally. W.D. Jones filed a lawsuit about his portrayal, although in fact his on-screen analogue was a composite of various gang members. Meanwhile Blanche Barrow approved the original script, calling it "factual", but then nearly died of embarrassment when the director rewrote her role in the story to make her look like "a screaming horse's ass". Mind you, that "horse's ass" role won Estelle Parsons a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, so I don't think the movie-making gods will be judging that one too harshly.
This film won two Oscars (Supporting Actress and Cinematography) and was nominated for ten, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. However, like The Amityville Horror
, I think it's a film that owes a lot of its success to tapping a zeitgeist. Like The Graduate and Easy Rider, it did monstrous business by speaking to and for young people without the usual Hollywood filters. It's about living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking (but extremely well-ventilated) corpse. It will also have helped that old farts hated it. (I'm an old fart.) It's cruel, not particularly likeable and contains brilliant characterisation and performances. I can see what's good about it. I just don't find it particularly interesting to watch.