Mob Scene: The Highwaymen

Not every mob scene is concerned with hostile ostracizing. As the Netflix original film The Highwaymen demonstrates, sometimes the villagers aren’t angry, just downright mad.

The film forms a counterpoint to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Director Arthur Penn’s Academy-Award winner was considered edgy and graphically violent at the time, but today seems somewhat frivolous, treating the Barrow Gang’s murderous interstate crime spree almost like zany hijinks (complete with rollicking banjo music to accompany bank-robbery getaways). John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen (co-starring a superb Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) doesn’t romanticize the notorious criminals/lovers; instead the emphasis is on the monstrosity of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the acts of cold-blooded savagery they commit. In contrast to Bonnie and Clyde‘s spotlighting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s characters, the pair of public enemies here are kept mostly offscreen. The Highwaymen is the story not of the killers but the pair of former Texas Rangers–Frank Hamer and Maney Gault–tasked with tracking them down.

In the film’s climax, the diligent Rangers finally get their man (and woman), and Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by a ferocious firing squad. The mob scene follows upon this dispensation of bloody justice, as the bullet-riddled car containing the corpses of the executed fugitives is towed into the nearby town of Arcadia, Louisiana. Word of the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde has spread quickly, and a huge crowd has gathered in the street, driven less by morbid curiosity than the crazy desire for souvenirs. The frenzied masses push past the police to get at the open-windowed car, snatching at the inert bodies and tearing at their clothing. The Highwaymen exposes the grotesquerie of the cult of idolatry that formed around Bonnie and Clyde, as a significant portion of the American public treated the homicidal duo as Depression-era celebrities, admirable antiheroes. What makes this mob scene that much more harrowing is that it actually happened (the real-life details are even more disturbing, with someone going so far as to try to hack off Clyde’s trigger finger; the “death car” itself would subsequently become a macabre tourist attraction).

Bonnie and Clyde have been fictionalized before in American Gothic works such as Norman Partridge’s hard-boiled/supernatural hybrid “Red Right Hand” (which riffs on the 1967 film’s scene of Faye Dunaway fleeing through a cornfield) and Stephen King’s novella 1922 (whose “Sweetheart Bandits” form a clear analogue to the Barrow gangsters). The dark and gritty (and immensely entertaining) The Highwaymen, though, treats directly with the historical figures, presenting a memorable demythologizing of Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime, and a sharp indictment of the misguided, morally-suspect American public.