In the titular song from his 1982 album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen sings in a hoarse half-whisper from the point of view of Charles Starkweather, a convicted murderer preparing to be executed. In 1958, the real-life Starkweather — just shy of 20 — went on a notorious killing spree across the American midwest, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. They left 10 dead in their wake, including Fugate’s young sister. But it wasn’t the crime itself that inspired Springsteen to write the song; it was seeing Terrence Malick’s loose retelling of it – Badlands – late on television one night. The film, gushing with backwoods poetry and existential dread, had been released to rave reviews in 1973.
The disaffected outlaw couple were now called Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a pair of self-absorbed teenagers who start killing by accident, then on a whim. Malick’s film was a curiously detached and introspective descent into violence; far from the antics of the Depression-era Bonnie and Clyde, who had blazed across American screens in 1967. Kit and Holly lack malevolence, conviction, or even likability – they just float into violence, disquietingly oblivious to the suffering they cause. Springsteen’s bleak, ambivalent coda suits them well: “You wanna know why I did what I did? Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Hollywood has long shown a fascination with the outlaw hero, and European filmmakers have created their own approximations. A pair of criminals, after all, have the potential to create an alternative way of life – an intimate, secretive existence separate from the law-abiding everyman. They live and die on their own terms, far from the woes and banalities of the outside world. Rather than plod along safely, these couples tell us that it’s better to go out with a gun in hand – doomed and in love. Here are a few of our favourite movies featuring lovers on the lam.
- 10 great American road trip films
- 10 great European road movies
- 10 great films about committing the perfect crime
You Only Live Once (1937)
Director Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s second film in America is hung up on the inescapability of the past and the cold irony of fate. You Only Live Once features a doe-eyed young Henry Fonda as an ex-con trying to make good, and Sylvia Sidney as his loving wife. When Fonda’s Eddie is unceremoniously fired from his new job, he winds up facing the electric chair for a crime he hasn’t committed. Naturally, the only answer is a jailbreak.
Released a good while before the birth of the postwar crime drama, the film is pitched somewhere between proto-noir and tragic weepie. Lang occasionally borrows from old world German Expressionism. Look out for scenes where Fonda paces in his prison cell like a rangy animal, long shadows exaggerating his confinement. But the film also employs the romantic, soft-focus close-ups of the Hollywood tearjerker, with the two stars’ dirt-smudged faces doing little to quell their radiance. By the time Fonda lifts his ailing wife and carries her through the woods in a last-ditch attempt at escape, Lang has found the perfect balance of fatalism and tenderness.
Director Luchino Visconti
Described frequently as one of the earliest neorealist films, Luchino Visconti’s directorial debut was an unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s crime novel, later filmed directly as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Effectively banned by Mussolini’s regime for its portrayal of an extramarital affair and murder, the story centres around a young drifter, Gino (Massimo Girotti) and Giovanna, the married woman (Clara Calamai) whose husband he helps to dispose of.
Fellow Italian director Giuseppe De Santis described the earthy, sensual film as “steeped in the air of death and sperm”. Visconti adopts a stylised sort of realism here, with wide shots of the flat, whitewashed landscape engulfing its insect-like occupants. The lovers are two such insects, tainted by guilt and despair. Torn between worlds, they try to hang on to bourgeois respectability by running the murdered man’s business. Ultimately though, it’s clear that there’s no place for them – and nowhere for them to run to. The director’s virtuosity infuses a conventional noir framework with something lusty and complex, making Ossessione considerably more impressive than its later American counterpart.
Gun Crazy (1950)
Director Joseph H. Lewis
This low-budget noir is marked by a feverish style, full of cockeyed close-ups and angles crooked enough to crick your neck. Peggy Cummins is Annie Laurie Starr, a circus sharpshooter made worryingly excitable by gunplay and violence. Her doll-like features contort with frenzied glee at the sight of bloodshed. When she gets a chance to rob banks for kicks, she takes on the pathological, spineless gun obsessive Bart (John Dall) as her partner in crime. But Bart suffers from pangs of guilt, while Laurie cheerfully takes aim at anyone in sight.
A certain disturbed phallic impulse is never far from the surface, and Gun Crazy positions itself to offer some views on its characters’ errant Freudian urges. On the subject of Bart, one woman suggestively remarks: “It isn’t killing that interests him – it’s something else about guns.”
Pierrot le fou (1965)
Director Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard presides over barely-contained cinematic anarchy in Pierrot le fou, a sort-of road movie, sort-of musical – and a definite homage to classical Hollywood, featuring cameos from the likes of pulp director Sam Fuller. Anna Karina is Marianne, a flighty, ephemeral beauty who snares Jean-Paul Belmondo, a bored husband, keen to desert his family and hit the road.
Godard is visually unmatched here; fresh-faced, fashionably rebellious, and pointedly provocative, as when the pair do a two-man pantomime of the Vietnam war. Full of bursts of primary colour and esoteric cultural references, the film touches on poetry, literary criticism, political radicalism and philosophical inquiry. It’s like peeling back layers of intellectual découpage. Pierrot le fou seems like a last jolt of Godardian fun before the director’s oncoming political seriousness; but it’s also memorable as his frenetic homage to the ‘girl and gun’ movies he so loved.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Director Arthur Penn
“They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people”, goes the explosive tagline for this most iconic of films about outlaw lovers. Director Arthur Penn and producer-star Warren Beatty tapped into the anti-authority zeitgeist with their lionisation of Depression-era bandits Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Penn, heavily influenced by Truffaut and Godard, used 60 shots in his final sequence of the couple’s violent end. It took four complicated days of shooting, with an elaborate set-up of numerous squibs as the pair are riddled with machine-gun fire. There’s a moment where a chunk of Clyde’s skull flies off, an intentional and uneasy reference to President Kennedy’s assassination.
Although it sparked impassioned debate over on-screen violence and was said to signify the birth of the ‘New Hollywood’, the film wasn’t an immediate sensation. It initially struggled to be made, to find a director, and to reach its audience when Warner Brothers refused to give it a wide national release. Overwhelming critical praise and the film’s 10 Academy Award nominations forced the studio to reconsider, and it soon became a phenomenon.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Director Leonard Kastle
Filmed in low-key, grainy 16mm, Leonard Kastle’s twisted little quasi-exploitation film recalls the story of the real-life ‘Lonely Hearts’ killers, Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) and Martha (Shirley Stoler). One a slick confidence man and the other a nurse with a lovesick infatuation, the couple begin a correspondence and then embark on a seedy journey through the shakedown and murder of lonely widows.
A campy, almost crude aesthetic is combined with an uncomfortably intimate gaze into the troubled psyches of its leads, who pose as siblings to trick their prey. A far cry from most Hollywood treatment of the subject – before or since – The Honeymoon Killers is a romantic outlaw film with all the sides scraped off. Or maybe violently shorn off. Getting down to the grisly truth of the matter, Kastle’s results are decidedly trashy and unlovely. But as a view of those ne’er do wells alienated by the glorious aspiration of mid-century America, The Honeymoon Killers is unparalleled.
Thieves like Us (1974)
Director Robert Altman
Robert Altman’s film was the second adaptation of source material mined for Nicholas Ray’s 1949 noir They Live by Night. This version, set in the 1930s, stars Keith Carradine as Bowie, a Mississippi bank robber hiding out from the cops. Altman seems less interested in the series of robberies themselves than he is in the revealing periods of inactivity in between. Bowie’s a scamp, but essentially a pretty decent one; he leaves the rough stuff to his two compatriots. When he’s injured in a car accident, he’s sent to recover with one of his friend’s sisters, Keechie (Shelley Duvall).
Naturalistic and eschewing any music but for the radio broadcasts played on screen, it features Duvall and Carradine as the skinny, cornfed picture of backwoods Americana; Altman’s unglamorous answer to Beatty and Dunaway. The lovers are none too bright, but they have a sweet, unassuming rapport, and we can’t help rooting for them. It seems that in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, being a bandit didn’t seem too outlandish a notion. In Altman’s view, bank robbery isn’t always the act of romantic anti-heroes or of desperate psychopaths – sometimes, it’s for ordinary, down-on-their-luck Americans.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Director Gus van Sant
Although the two vagrant teenagers aren’t ‘on the run’ so much as drifting lawlessly – from the Pacific Northwest all the way to Italy – their love affair is as doomed as one at the end of a Tommy gun. Van Sant’s loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V sees its characters – re-imagined as gay street hustlers – occasionally sink in and out of iambic pentameter. Mike (River Phoenix) is a narcoleptic wanderer, hopelessly in love with his friend Scott (Keanu Reeves) – a politician’s son who is play-acting at bohemianism. The gap between their backgrounds seems too great to be reconciled; Scott is quick to return to the comfort of his wealth, while Mike is fully exposed to the harshness of street life.
Van Sant revels in a schizophrenic approach to style and form, utilising manic cutting, ponderous long shots, and timelapse photography. With a quietly wounded performance from Phoenix, it’s a sensitive, sometimes inexplicable portrait of those living on the margins.
True Romance (1993)
Director Tony Scott
Tony Scott’s film is boldly unafraid of cliché: a shotgun wedding, a suitcase full of cash, a drug kingpin, and a prostitute with a heart of gold. Yet True Romance hangs together wonderfully, perhaps because comic-book geek Clarence and buxom sweetheart Alabama are so endearing.
The Quentin Tarantino-penned film has been elevated to a pop-culture cornerstone, featuring appearances from Brad Pitt as a stoned couch-dweller and Gary Oldman as a dreadlocked pimp. Patricia Arquette’s Alabama, a thrift-store beauty queen, deserves an extra mention for her extraordinarily loud wardrobe: the turquoise bra and cow-print miniskirt are a fashion combination to go down in film history. Borrowing liberally from the flatly-intoned voiceover of Badlands, True Romance distinguishes itself with pops of candy-bright colour, a helping of lurid violence, and strangest of all for lovers on the run – a happy ending.
The Doom Generation (1995)
Director Gregg Araki
Gregg Araki’s subversive take on the outlaw road movie features a bisexual love triangle and an industrial amount of methamphetamine. It hardly bodes well for gender relations, offering a trashy, ironic deconstruction of the heterosexual relationship between Rose McGowan and James Duval. The spanner in the works is Xavier, nicknamed X, a mysterious drifter who seems to attract outlandish schlock violence wherever the trio stop.
Critically divisive, The Doom Generation is a postmodern refraction of the ‘wasteland’ of modern America circa 1995. Its mixture of aloof pastiche and sexual violence make it a queasy viewing experience. But Araki’s nihilistic stab at suffocatingly conformist American culture is refreshing in a grotty, juvenile sort of way – right down to its dialogue. Highlights include: “you’re like a life support system for a cock!”