You Only Live Once
The second American film from the great German director Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis), this richly atmospheric 1937 noir concerns an ex-con imprisoned for a bank robbery bloodbath he didn’t commit; he escapes from prison and makes a run for Canada, with his pregnant wife in tow. In the leading role, a young Henry Fonda gets more edge than we’re used to seeing, and Sylvia Sidney couldn’t be better as his missus, while its grim conclusion set a clear course for Bonnie and Clyde 30 years later.
This 1950 noir from director Joseph H. Lewis is a lean, mean, low-budget wonder, with John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a pair of hard cases who go on a cross-country crime spree, seemingly for the sheer erotic charge of it. Their chemistry is killer, and Lewis’s shoestring ingenuity is inspiring; he couldn’t, for example, afford to stage a bank robbery, so (in the film’s most famous scene, above) he plays out the robbery in a single take from inside the getaway car, and amps up the tension by keeping us from seeing what’s happening inside.
Pierrot le Fou
In the early years of his revolutionary filmography, Jean-Luc Godard was consumed with digesting and reinterpreting the tropes of Hollywood’s genre films, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he took a crack at the “lovers on the run” theme. He did it in 1965, with Pierrot le Fou, in which Jean-Paul Belmondo flees his bourgeois lifestyle, with babysitter Anna Karina in tow, making their way from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea in a stolen car.
Bonnie and Clyde
The definitive American lovers on the run movie, its ethos (and that of the entire form, really) summed up by its iconic tagline: “They’re Young. They’re in Love. And They Kill People.” Writers David Newman and Robert Benton were inspired by the films of Godard and Truffaut, and tried to engage both French New Wave auteurs to direct. When they passed, producer/star Warren Beatty hired American up-and-comer Arthur Penn, who lensed the true Depression-era story of bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow through a 1960s filter — playing up the subversive sexuality and explicit violence of the story into something that felt less like 1933 than 1967.
Sam Peckinpah adapts Jim Thompson’s ruthless novel, with Steve McQueen as a sexy convict and Ali McGraw as his wife, who uses her feminine wiles to get him paroled — so long as he participates in a bank robbery. That job goes awry, and the lovers run for their lives, heading for the Mexico border with several particularly grizzly criminal types in pursuit. Peckinpah’s direction is lean and muscular, and the chemistry between McQueen and McGraw was so intense that she ended up leaving her husband (and the film’s producer) Robert Evans for her co-star.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, Terrence Malick’s debut film was loosely based on a real-life criminal couple: Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who cut a bloody swath through Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s. Malick ingested the tropes of Gun Crazy and its ilk, but gave them a decidedly postmodern twist, using the genre trappings as cover for his dreamy imagery and existentialist voice-over.
Bob (Matt Dillon) and Diane (Kelly Lynch) head up a loose family of drug addicts who work their way through the Pacific Northwest, knocking over pharmacies and hospitals to support their habits. Gus Van Sant’s 1990 breakthrough film has a loose, funky energy that somehow co-exists with the danger and dread of the gang’s exploits; Matt Dillon does perhaps his best work to date.
A young, unknown Quentin Tarantino (with the uncredited help of his eventual Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary) penned this story of a young movie geek and his call-girl-turned-wife, who accidentally steal a suitcase full of cocaine and head to Hollywood to turn it into a fortune. Tarantino wanted to direct the film himself, but ultimately sold the script to Tony Scott, who made its debt to Badlands more explicit (with a voice-over and score that deliberately recall Malick) and filled the supporting cast with unforgettable performers.
Natural Born Killers
Not long after Romance, Tarantino penned another lovers-on-the-run flick, this one more deliberately over-the-top and satirical — qualities cranked up to 11 by eventual director Oliver Stone, whose rewrite (Tarantino ultimately took only a story credit) made affectionate serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox into avatars for ‘90s-era monsters-as-celebrities. It’s not a subtle picture (unsurprising, considering its director), but it is a bluntly effective one, tossing the narrative and visual bookmarks of the subgenre into a multimedia blender and slamming down the puree button.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Oh, c’mon, like those two weren’t totally in love with each other.