Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

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Exposing the Lies of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The Barrow Gang Killed a Ton of Civilians and LEOs–Including that Guy with the Cleaver

In a scene in Arthur Penn’s movie, Clyde tries to rob a grocery store, only to be attacked by a butcher wielding a meat cleaver. Clyde then shoots the man in self-defense, whining something like, “Why did he try to kill me? I wasn’t trying to hurt him!”

The character was based on a grocery store clerk from real life, Howard Hall. In the film, he’s shown surviving the attack and in a hospital bed recuperating with black eyes and a bandaged head. In real life, Hall never lived long enough to see any bed; he died before reaching the operating table.

Howard Hall

Howard Hall

Normally, showing Hall merely battered and recovering in a hospital bed could be excused as artistic license. The problem is that this pivotal scene was cynically included to lend the false impression that Bonnie and Clyde hardly killed anyone and that in the rare instance that they did, it was always in self-defense.

Lies, all lies. Not only did the Barrow gang kill Hall, they left a dozen bodies in their wake. Some killings were completely senseless, some killings committed out of recklessness, and the others committed in cold blood–but none were defensible or came close to being a case of “self-defense”. For instance, one of the earliest murders happened when Clyde Barrow and his friends decided to crash a country dance. When a sheriff and his deputy grew suspicious at the sight of a bunch of city slickers in sharp suits showing up in a car and passing around bootleg liquor, they approached the vehicle. A flighty Clyde and his buddies immediately started blasting away, wounding the sheriff but killing the deputy.

At least 10 more people would lie dead by the time Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed–some civilians, but most police officers whose only crime was simply knocking on a door or going up to a car window. And–as much as the movie tried to downplay murder victims as nameless movie extras–they were fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, best friends and in some cases, pillars of the community. One of their victims, for instance, was Doyle Johnson, whose wife had just given birth days before he was killed for his car–on Christmas day.


  1. Scott Lueck

    Wow, you touched on everything I dislike about this movie. Great article! The only way I can come close to enjoying this movie is to pretend I’m watching a fictional film whose lead characters happen to be named Bonnie and Clyde.

    The only thing I wonder is how much of the blame can be placed on Warren Beatty himself. He was the producer and the star, and from what I’ve read he had just about influence on the tone of the picture as Arthur Penn. A moot point, possibly, but worth mentioning…

    • Comment by post author

      In researching this article, I do believe you’re correct about the extent of his influence. I remember reading that the real life Blanche Barrow and some other people were either approached by him personally or were made to understand that he was the one who was behind the entire project.

  2. Scott Lueck

    Fortunately, there were a few people that, when the film was released, saw it for what it was. Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece where he used quotes from of some of the pair’s victims to show that they were not heroes in any sense of the word. Also, the Mad Magazine parody ended with Beatty announcing his next picture – a film about another cute, fun-loving couple of the 1930’s: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.

    Unfortunately, much of the cultural elite of the time got on the ‘New Hollywood’ bandwagon, even going so far as to lambast film critics that saw the film for what it was, a cynical effort to cash in on youth coulture.

    I remember reading a book on the history of film criticism that belittled an older NYT critic by saying “and he didn’t even get Bonnie and Clyde!” Well, maybe he did, and just didn’t like what he saw.

    • Comment by post author

      I’m currently trying to fill in the gaps of what I thought I knew about New Hollywood (to counter the decades of propaganda), and in all the material that I’ve read, it’s been nothing but infuriating to read how the cultural elites you talked about successfully used this movie as a cultural flashpoint. From what I understand, it was Pauline Kael who led the vanguard, who–ironically (or maybe not)–later got screwed over by Warren Beatty himself out of spite for having poorly reviewed Heaven Can Wait.

      What’s so ironic about the movie being lauded as oh, so countercultural was that it was actually subverting it. Folk music had exploded in the 1960s when American youth rediscovered the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who had been the voice of the dispossessed and laborers during The Great Depression. When the folk music renaissance was at its peak, this movie appropriated it to glamorize two criminal sociopaths who killed police and robbed and steal out of cowardice.

      What resulted were two things: a subliminal message to The Establishment that this is what the countercultural movement really stood for (violence and mayhem), as well as spoiling the folk music renaissance so that the true members of the counterculture would immediately abandon it. This subversion was so beautifully played that I have to wonder if it wasn’t planned.

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