If you’re ever visiting my former hometown of Denton, Texas, you owe it to yourself to do two things.
Number one, go to Recycled Books and Records. It’s right across the street from the old courthouse and it’s perhaps the greatest used bookstore in the world. When I was going to college at UNT, I would spend hours in Recycled Books. Not only do they have three floors of books but they have some really nice apartments on the fourth floor. I attended my share of hazily remembered parties in those apartments.
The second thing that you must do is stop by the Campus Theater. The Camps Theater is located on the other side of the old courthouse and it is a true historical landmark. (It’s also the home of the Denton Community Theatre.) When you step inside of the theater, be sure to look for a plaque on the wall. The plaque will inform you that, in 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde premiered at the Campus Theater.
Bonnie and Clyde not only premiered in Denton but it was also filmed around North Texas. This was a pragmatic decision, made to minimize studio interference. Even with that in mind, that’s still the way it should have been because Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are true Texas legends. In the 1930s, they were young, they robbed banks, and they killed people. Much like many of the outlaws of the era, they became folk heroes and they died in a hail of bullets.
In the picture above, Clyde is short, scrawny, and slightly handsome in a class clown sort of way. Bonnie, meanwhile, is even shorter than Clyde and has the hard look of someone who has never known an easy life. Both of them have a look that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the small towns that dot the North Texas landscape. They look like real people. They don’t look like film stars.
Here’s the movie’s version of Bonnie and Clyde:
In other words, Bonnie and Clyde is not a documentary. But that doesn’t matter. 50 years after it was first released Bonnie and Clyde remains a powerful and, even more importantly, extremely entertaining film. When the film was released, it was controversial for it violence and, having recently rewatched it, I have to say that the violence still makes an impression. When guns are fired, the shots seem to literally explode in your ear. When people are torn apart by bullets, they die terrible deaths and the film’s most graphic demises are reserved for its most likable characters. Towards the end of the film, with the Texas Rangers relentlessly closing in on Bonnie and Clyde, the tension becomes almost unbearable.
What makes the violence all the more disturbing is that it often interrupts scenes that, until the bullets started flying, were often humorous. A bank robbery starts out as a lark, becomes an exciting chase scene as Bonnie and Clyde attempt to escape, and suddenly turns into an act of shocking of violence when Clyde fire a gun and shoots a man point-blank in the face. Later, stopping to help an old farmer change a tire leads to a sudden ambush. Perhaps the film’s outlook is best captured in a scene in which the Barrow gang cheerfully bonds with a hostage until they suddenly find out that he’s an undertaker, a reminder that the promise of death is always present.
“Get him out of here!” Bonnie snaps.
Like many of the great gangster films, Bonnie and Clyde presents its outlaws as being folk heroes. They may rob banks and occasionally kill people but they look good doing it and they seem like they would be fun to hang out with. The thing that set Bonnie and Clyde apart from previous gangster films is that it refused to even pretend to condemn its bank robbers. The cops and the Texas Rangers are all on the side of the banks and the banks are on the side of big business. Bonnie and Clyde aren’t outlaws. They’re rebels. When they rob banks, they’re not just taking money. They’re standing up to the same establishment that was feared in the 30s, resented in the 60s, and hated today.
Clyde is played by Warren Beatty (who also produced the film) and Bonnie is played by Faye Dunaway and both of them give performances that literally define screen charisma. You never forget that you’re watching two movie stars but, at the risk of repeating myself, Bonnie and Clyde is not meant to be a documentary. At times, it almost seems as if Beatty’s Clyde and Dunaway’s Bonnie know that they’re characters in a gangster movie. They know that they’re doomed because that’s how gangster movies work so, as a result, they’re determined to live as much life as possible before that final reel. The supporting cast — Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Wilder — are all great but the film is definitely a celebration of Beatty and Dunaway.
Bonnie and Clyde went from premiering at the Campus Theater to a best picture nomination. However, it lost to In The Heat of the Night.
The Story of Suicide Sal
A Poem by Bonnie Parker
We each of us have a good “alibi”
For being down here in the “joint”;
But few of them really are justified
If you get right down to the point.
You’ve heard of a woman’s “glory”
Being spent on a “downright cur,”
Still you can’t always judge the story
As true, being told by her.
As long as I’ve stayed on this “island,”
And heard “confidence tales” from each “gal,”
Only one seemed interesting and truthful —
The story of “Suicide Sal.”
Now “Sal” was a gal of rare beauty,
Though her features were coarse and tough;
She never once faltered from duty
To play on the “up and up.”
“Sal” told me this tale on the evening
Before she was turned out “free,”
And I’ll do my best to relate it
Just as she told it to me:
I was born on a ranch in Wyoming;
Not treated like Helen of Troy;
I was taught that “rods were rulers”
And “ranked” as a greasy cowboy.”
Then I left my old home for the city
To play in its mad dizzy whirl,
Not knowing how little of pity
It holds for a country girl.
There I fell for “the line” of a “henchman,”
A “professional killer” from “Chi”;
I couldn’t help loving him madly;
For him even now I would die.
One year we were desperately happy;
Our “ill gotten gains” we spent free;
I was taught the ways of the “underworld”;
Jack was just like a “god” to me.
I got on the “F.B.A.” payroll
To get the “inside lay” of the “job”;
The bank was “turning big money”!
It looked like a “cinch” for the “mob.”
Eighty grand without even a “rumble” —
Jack was last with the “loot” in the door,
When the “teller” dead-aimed a revolver
From where they forced him to lie on the floor.
I knew I had only a moment —
He would surely get Jack as he ran;
So I “staged” a “big fade out” beside him
And knocked the forty-five out of his hand.
They “rapped me down big” at the station,
And informed me that I’d get the blame
For the “dramatic stunt” pulled on the “teller”
Looked to them too much like a “game.”
The “police” called it a “frame-up,”
Said it was an “inside job,”
But I steadily denied any knowledge
Or dealings with “underworld mobs.”
The “gang” hired a couple of lawyers,
The best “fixers” in any man’s town,
But it takes more than lawyers and money
When Uncle Sam starts “shaking you down.”
I was charged as a “scion of gangland”
And tried for my wages of sin;
The “dirty dozen” found me guilty —
From five to fifty years in the pen.
I took the “rap” like good people,
And never one “squawk” did I make.
Jake “dropped himself” on the promise
That we make a “sensational break.”
Well, to shorten a sad lengthy story,
Five years have gone over my head
Without even so much as a letter–
At first I thought he was dead.
But not long ago I discovered
From a gal in the joint named Lyle,
That Jack and his “moll” had “got over”
And were living in true “gangster style.”
If he had returned to me sometime,
Though he hadn’t a cent to give,
I’d forget all this hell that he’s caused me,
And love him as long as I live.
But there’s no chance of his ever coming,
For he and his moll have no fears
But that I will die in this prison,
Or “flatten” this fifty years.
Tomorrow I’ll be on the “outside”
And I’ll “drop myself” on it today;
I’ll “bump ’em” if they give me the “hotsquat”
On this island out here in the bay…
The iron doors swung wide next morning
For a gruesome woman of waste,
Who at last had a chance to “fix it,”
Murder showed in her cynical face.
Not long ago I read in the paper
That a gal on the East Side got “hot,”
And when the smoke finally retreated
Two of gangdom were found “on the spot.”
It related the colorful story
of a “jilted gangster gal.”
Two days later, a “sub-gun” ended
The story of “Suicide Sal.”
The Story of Bonnie and Clyde
Another Poem by Bonnie Parker
You’ve read the story of Jesse James
Of how he lived and died;
If you’re still in need
Of something to read,
Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang,
I’m sure you all have read
How they rob and steal
And those who squeal
Are usually found dying or dead.
There’s lots of untruths to these write-ups;
They’re not so ruthless as that;
Their nature is raw;
They hate all the law
The stool pigeons, spotters, and rats.
They call them cold-blooded killers;
They say they are heartless and mean;
But I say this with pride,
That I once knew Clyde
When he was honest and upright and clean.
But the laws fooled around,
Kept taking him down
And locking him up in a cell,
Till he said to me,
“I’ll never be free,
So I’ll meet a few of them in hell.”
The road was so dimly lighted;
There were no highway signs to guide;
But they made up their minds
If all roads were blind,
They wouldn’t give up till they died.
The road gets dimmer and dimmer;
Sometimes you can hardly see;
But it’s fight, man to man,
And do all you can,
For they know they can never be free.
From heart-break some people have suffered;
From weariness some people have died;
But take it all in all,
Our troubles are small
Till we get like Bonnie and Clyde.
If a policeman is killed in Dallas,
And they have no clue or guide;
If they can’t find a fiend,
They just wipe their slate clean
And hand it on Bonnie and Clyde.
There’s two crimes committed in America
Not accredited to the Barrow mob;
They had no hand
In the kidnap demand,
Nor the Kansas City depot job.
A newsboy once said to his buddy;
“I wish old Clyde would get jumped;
In these awful hard times
We’d make a few dimes
If five or six cops would get bumped.”
The police haven’t got the report yet,
But Clyde called me up today;
He said, “Don’t start any fights
We aren’t working nights
We’re joining the NRA.”
From Irving to West Dallas viaduct
Is known as the Great Divide,
Where the women are kin,
And the men are men,
And they won’t “stool” on Bonnie and Clyde.
If they try to act like citizens
And rent them a nice little flat,
About the third night
They’re invited to fight
By a sub-gun’s rat-tat-tat.
They don’t think they’re too tough or desperate,
They know that the law always wins;
They’ve been shot at before,
But they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.
Some day they’ll go down together;
And they’ll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief
To the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.