Arthur Penn Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is about two psychopathic killers on the run. How is it then that Penn has us empathizing with Bonnie and Clyde? Penn accomplishes this by introducing Bonnie and Clyde as products of the poverty that surrounds them and stifles the land of opporunity.
To begin with the film opens with a lap dissolve from a portrait of Clyde (Warren Beatty) to an extreme close up of Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) applying ruby red lipstick. The implication of the lap dissolve is that they will be linked in the film, and that love will be involved. The sound bridge also emphasis love, as the song concludes with the words “deep in the arms of love” and further links Clyde and Bonnie. So from the start, Penn introduces the love story as central to the film, and view everything that follows from within this framework.
A subsequent pan right results in a close up of Bonnie reflected in a mirror, revealing her styled hair and made up face. The medium shot that follows shows the water marks in the ceiling and wall of her room indicating her dire financial straits. When she lies down on her bed she eyes the metal bars of the headboard. The bars both run diagonally across the screen and cast shadows across her face indicating for us the prison she feels she feels she’s in as she bangs on the bars. Based on how she saw herself in the mirror, she clearly thinks she deserves better. The following close up (when she grabs the bars) and zoom into an extreme close up of her eyes makes her desperation palpable. As the camera holds her face, we can see the resignation in her face as she turns to get dressed for work. Bonnie is caught up in a dead end life. By emphasizing this aspect of her life (as opposed to the occasional hustling of truck drivers we learn about later), Penn has us initially glimpse Bonnie in the best possible light.
This scene also justifies Bonnie’s subsequent actions in two ways. The first is that she understands exactly how Clyde must have felt in prison when they later meet, establishing an immediate rapport between them. The second is that, when Clyde tells her that he cut off two of his toes to get out of a work detail, she believes him for the man of action he portrays himself to be (“Boy, did you really do that.”). This compares favorably with her desire to rise above her own dismal circumstance and take action within her own life. It's understandable then when Bonnie rides off in the car stolen by a man who has robbed a grocery store (taken action to overcome his circumstance), and who she has only known a few minutes (but has connected with emotionally.)
This idea of a relatively respectable young woman in a dead end town working a dead end job during the Great Depression running off with a convicted felon is made even more palatable by the mise-en-scene and cinematography.
The deep focus of the opening scene allows us to see the pictures next to her mirror, doll and figurines on her chest, and the few family photographs above her chest. These details allow us to see Bonnie as an ordinary person. Likewise, Clyde is presented as a clean cut gentleman with white hat (white hat with black band, indicating his dual nature), white shirt, and tie and jacket, and a dazzlingly white smile. His jacket, a warm brown earthy brown, softens any inclinations we may have of him as a criminal after Bonnie catches him about to steal her mother’s car.
The mise-en-scene on the long tracking shot down Main Street, allows us to connect the hard times and limited opportunities (boarded up stores) that surround Bonnie and Clyde and is the counterpoint to the sweet-talking criminal in the white hat. When Bonnie rubs the tip of the bottle of coke across her lips as she watches Clyde guzzle his and smiles, we know she’s picturing herself kissing him (they are each mouthing similar bottles). Later when he shows her his gun, and she handles its barrel, we know she’s already sleeping with him. When Bonnie asks Clyde what armed robbery (vice prison) is like, we also know she has her mind on the freedom made possible by robbery vice the description of prison life. Penn focuses her mind, and ours, on the escape from the prison of poverty side of that equation.
The walk down Main Street also makes clear the affects of Clyde’s self-inflicted wound. It makes plain the fact that the flaws hidden within Clyde prevents him from ever standing on his own two feet. (This same motif is later expressed by his apparent impotence. It is only when he has met a woman who accepts and supports him for who he is that he is able to overcome his impotence, implying that Clyde has been harmed by (unknown to us) factors within his environment, curable only by the emotional support he has been previously denied.) As supportive as Bonnie is however, Clyde will always be crippled by the circumstances (brother also spent time in jail) that landed him in jail, and resulted in him cutting off his toes. Those circumstances have molded who Clyde is and will be for the rest of his life (when Clyde later brings up the subject of marriage, Bonnie asks what he would do if he had to do it all over again? When Clyde answers that he would make sure they live in a different state than the ones they rob in, he reasserts the permanence of this internal imperfection.) Penn this presents Clyde as a product of his environment, again establishing the framework for us to judge his actions.
The establishing shot of the main street in town introduces the flat, empty, barren country all around them. After Clyde robs the grocery store and they flee down the same main street, Penn introduces the us-against-the-world motif of the film. At this point, who wouldn’t want to escape their predicament given an opportunity? Their escape of course ends in tragedy, but it is a tragedy that could have hardly been avoided given the environment Bonnie and Clyde found themselves in.