A strong case could be made to show that America is a land that was won, expanded, divided, and healed by violence, a land in which a premium was placed on a readiness to fight and on a capacity—when necessary—to kill. But even in the context of such a history and a mythology that extends and exaggerates it, contemporary America seems particularly violent, seething with frantic calls to rebellion and apocalyptic suggestions of self-destruction: the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Watts, Harlem, Detroit, the proliferation of the Maffia. All this is evident in the novels of Norman Mailer, the music of Aaron Copland, and the plays of Tennessee Williams. And it is expressed unremittingly—sometimes with skill, sometimes for shock, always with gore—in American movies.
Violent films are no innovation; it is hard to think of a screen hero who lacked a potent punch or failed to wield a deadly gun. But it is only in the past few years that serious films, those transcending the boundaries of simple “entertainment” and laying claim to the province of art, have become so frequently informed with an almost sensual lust for the depiction of brutality. If there is truth in Leslie Fiedler’s assertion that movies are “half-mythic entertainments that are the scriptures of our time,” then it is likely that we can learn something about America from two popular films full of blood and killing: Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank.
Ostensibly, they are concerned with different subjects. Bonnie and Clyde revolves around the exploits of the most famous bank robbing team in American history; Point Blank is a surrealistic vision of the Mafia (“The Organization”) and centers on the quest of a former member to regain $93,000 he believes coming to him. Nonetheless, there is an underlying unity of spirit, a source of unarticulated assumptions from which both spring. It is an ambivalent spirit which focuses on a new breed of American hero, a special kind of antihero who is defined by his style: not by his cruelty but by the way he is cruel. He is a hero best described by the Negro term “bad,” meaning “awesome”—someone to be reckoned with, or, more specifically, someone who is independent, tough, unafraid, terse, hard, and often funny.