Arts and Entertainment

Bonnie and Clyde: Lovers First, Criminals Second

The thrilling love affair between Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow may have been short-lived, but its legacy reigns on in American folklore and media.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Nicholas Evangelinos

“Some day they’ll go down together

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.”

Foreshadowing their deaths a few months later, Bonnie Parker cements her and Clyde Barrow’s narrative into criminal history with the last stanza of her poem “The Trail’s End.” Bonnie may have predicted their demise, but she was wrong about two things: she and Clyde weren’t buried side by side, and this certainly was not the end of their story.

Bonnie and Clyde first crossed paths in 1930, at the ages of 19 and 21 respectively. Bonnie seemed to have an affinity for criminals, with her then-husband behind bars for murder and Clyde sentenced to prison shortly after they met. Nevertheless, enamored with her new beau, she assisted Clyde’s jailbreak by smuggling him a gun. Though their first attempt was futile, the duo finally escaped prison in 1932 and began their infamous crime spree.

They first gained notoriety with the “Barrow Gang,” a crime ring they formed alongside Clyde’s friends and fellow escapees. The group made their way across the country—looting gas stations, grocery stores, and banks—evading authorities by taking advantage of state border laws and frequently changing getaway cars. However, they were ambushed when their hideout in Missouri was exposed. Forced to flee, they managed to escape the officers in one piece, but they left behind a lot of belongings—including a film camera.

The film was developed, and the images were immediately popularized by the media. The pictures were unconventional and featured Bonnie and Clyde in brazen poses, such as her playfully pointing a rifle at him, or her propping her foot on the car bunker and smoking a cigarette. For the first time, these pictures gave the public insight into who the infamous couple actually was.

While Bonnie was thrilled with their celebrity status, the couple’s newfound fame compromised their anonymity. As news outlets plastered their photos all over papers, it became progressively harder to escape from robberies unscathed. And despite the nonviolent nature of their crimes, the gang found themselves more frequently resorting to murder. However, unlike most serial killers, Bonnie and Clyde viewed murder as a last resort following unsuccessful robberies.

Their extravagant crimes made Bonnie and Clyde a household name in the 1930s. Much of their popularity can be attributed to the rising distaste Americans held toward the government, police, and banks, as the country plunged into the Great Depression. The economic crisis made many sympathetic to Bonnie and Clyde’s robberies, as these crimes defied institutions that the public felt had treated them unjustly. Though many acknowledged their murders, the darkest aspects of their crimes were often glossed over. Whether they were seen as social bandits with an exciting life of crime or star-crossed lovers forced into a life on the run, Bonnie and Clyde’s thrilling escapades were the distraction Americans needed to escape the bleak reality of their economic hardship.

Eventually, Bonnie and Clyde’s wrongdoings caught up with them. Authorities allied with the family of Henry Methrin—one of the Barrow Gang’s old accomplices—to reveal the location of the couple in exchange for Henry’s immunity. Police then hid by the highway Bonnie and Clyde were en route to and opened fire when they saw Clyde’s car; over 130 bullets were shot into the car exterior, killing Bonnie and Clyde instantly. Their final showdown, quite literally, ended with a bang.

However, the story of their love affair would live on and eventually overshadow the horrors of their crime spree. Their tale was first revived with Arther Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty as Clyde and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie. Heavily influenced by the French New Wave movement, the film parallels the work of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard with the use of elements like visceral language and dramatic jump cuts that were unheard of in the classical Hollywood era. The gangster-romance film was the first of its kind to successfully use the juxtaposition of humor and realism to captivate the audience. It was also the first to bring graphic and gritty scenes of violence to the big screen, resulting in the Motion Pictures Association of America’s introduction of its X-rating in 1968. The screenplay of “Bonnie and Clyde” was genre-bending; by defying the so-called rules of cinema, the film set the stage for future classics like “The Wild Bunch” (1969), “The Godfather” (1972), and “Scarface” (1983).

Another more controversial influence of this film is its romanticization of Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship. Perfectly encapsulated by its tagline: “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people,” “Bonnie and Clyde” propelled an image of the outlaws as star-crossed partners in crime into mainstream pop culture and in turn, de-emphasized their moral ambiguity and reckless crimes.

For better or worse, this modern-day Bonnie and Clyde ideal would go on to inspire countless other films and music. The self-titled film reached international success at the height of the counterculture era, a time when anti-establishment sentiment was strong, and Bonnie and Clyde were admired for their defiance. In response, songs like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968) were produced, and bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs even went as far as to release an entire album dedicated to the outlaws’ story.

Their story then re-emerged in American hip-hop and R&B, where there were so many self-titled hits about the couple that they’re often referred to by release date, such as Tupac’s ‘96 “Bonnie and Clyde,” Eminem’s ‘97 “Bonnie & Clyde,” and Jay-Z and Beyonce’s ‘03 “Bonnie & Clyde.” Their dangerous, exciting lifestyle makes for an inexhaustible wealth of inspiration, as evidenced by the lyrics of many songs today as well as films like John Lee Hancock’s “The Highwaymen” (2019) continue to reference the duo’s adventures.

Today, the Bonnie and Clyde motif is synonymous with a heart-shattering love that knows no bounds. Often dubbed the modern Romeo and Juliet, the allure in mindsets like “ride-or-die” or “you and me against the world” can be traced back to the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Little is known now about their tumultuous past, but perhaps that’s what they would’ve wanted—to be immortalized in history as an invincible duo whose crimes paled in comparison to their groundbreaking story of loyalty and devotion.