The Rear-View Mirror: Clyde Barrow (1909)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Somehow, I’ve forgotten that Clyde Barrow was a real person. Born in 1909 and shot dead in a hail of bullets only 25 years later during the Great Depression, an era that is not short of gun-wielding criminals, he is one of the prototypes of the bad boys I’ve written about some time ago. Together with his partner and lover Bonnie Pointer, he robbed more than a hundred stores, banks and gas stations. Although most of the violence came from Barrow, who shot at police officers as well as innocent bystanders, Parker never wavered in her complicity.

So bad boys are sexy. So are bad girls, but the connotation is somewhat different. Barrow was admired for his recklessness in his early days, and whatever Pointer’s reasons might have been for staying with him, her support for him heightened his status further: he not only gets away with the crime, he also gets the girl. Of course that is almost a laundry list for toxic masculinity, but there is a psychological condition called hybristophilia which is also known as Bonnie and Clyde syndrome. It refers to the sexual charge of having intimate relations with someone who has committed a heinous crime. It is one or two steps further than sending fan mail or a marriage proposal to your favourite criminal’s prison cell.

In Arthur Penn’s classic movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there is an added twist. Barrow (Warren Beatty) is shown to be impotent when Pointer (Faye Dunaway) tries to seduce him. Biographers are undecided about that aspect, but hybristophilia might prove to be stronger if the sexual aspect remains unfulfilled. Barrow was sexually assaulted in prison and bashed his assailant to death; it is unclear if that had an impact on his relationship with Pointer.

And Bonnie Pointer, born in 1910, was very far from just a groupie. She was not the cigar-smoking, sub-machine gun-wielding killer she was said to be, but it seems certain that she repeatedly tried to murder police officers and civilians. She was present at most of Barrow’s stickups.

Here is a thought experiment: Take James Bond, eliminate the fig leaf called licence to kill, and what have you? A guy who can shoot, stab and bomb himself out of any situation, no matter how atrocious, and then gets the girl. Where is the significant difference between him and Barrow? They have more in common that we would like to admit.

Of course, there is a turning point. James Bond is fictional, so no real-world harm done, while Clyde Barrow, who was generally admired for breaking out his gang members out of prison, shot one police officer too many (he shot at least nine cops and four civilians in just two years), and public opinion turned against him. Seems like the public can romanticize them as much as they want, but there is a limit; cross it, and there is no going back to their good graces.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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