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

1960s Movies, Classic Movies, Crime Drama, Film Criticism and Analysis, Historical Drama, Opinion, Overrated, Rants

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 Lived Like Rats the Entire Time–and Were Justifiably Called as Such by the Press

In Arthur Penn’s movie, we see the Barrow Gang coolly hitting banks and spending downtime living a carefree existence, outside of the occasional run-in with police until the bitter end.

Although it’s true that there were times when the Barrow Gang were able to have a night out on the town at a nice restaurant or two, this was the exception rather than the norm. In reality, the Barrow Gang spent the duration of their crime spree on the run for long stretches nervously hiding out at tourist camps, taking ice cold baths in rivers or sleeping uncomfortably inside one of the many cars they jacked while Clyde would drive for hours at a time.

Food was eaten cold (campfires would tip locals off) and consisted of bland canned goods. The toilet, more often than not, was a bush out in the woods somewhere. Creature comforts were a luxury. You can see how wonderful “life” was like for everyone with the shot of Bonnie below, glaring into the camera. Her death stare marked a stark contrast to earlier photos of her laughing it up and proudly posing as a gangster moll.

Bonnie and Clyde during a period of "rest"

That “death stare” says it all, doesn’t it?

There was also barely a moment’s rest for anyone, as life on the run was nothing more than an endless cycle of robberies, car jackings, kidnappings and shootouts whenever local law enforcement officials caught up with them. Psychologically, everyone was in a super vigilant, paranoid state, always wondering who was noticing them and when the police would show up. Blanche Barrow in real life said in her memoirs that because of how miserable things were, Bonnie frequently drank. Bonnie also became a dope head, relying more and more on amytal (barbiturates) to make it through the day.

As if that weren’t bad enough, most members of the Barrow Gang were usually nursing or recovering from serious and painful injuries after shootouts with police and, in one case, a serious car accident that resulted in severe burns and a crippled leg. The sheer misery of being on the run was so bad that one of their accomplices, W.D. Jones, bailed as soon as he could. Decades later, when he saw the 1967 movie that glamorized the gang’s exploits, he scoffed, “It was hell.”


  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.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: