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)

Bonnie and Clyde were Not at Peak Beauty or Health Before they Died

A really shady thing that the Arthur Penn movie did was not only depict Bonnie and Clyde as having turned over a new leaf, but looking even more attractive on the morning they died. They are even made to dress and look clean cut for the first time in the entire film.

That’s really hilarious, considering that Bonnie and Clyde not only spent almost two years living in cars and in the worst possible conditions, but were nursing battle scars for the better part of the last year after shootouts with police. They looked and dressed, to put it bluntly, like shit towards the end of their lives. As the author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI by Bryan Burrough explained, they had pretty much stopped cleaning and grooming themselves, and reeked from poor hygiene.

Besides the fact that Bonnie and Clyde had become scruffy (and smelly), there was something in real life that the movie conveniently left out. In 1933, Bonnie, Clyde and their accomplice, W.D. Jones, got into a severe car accident after failing to see signs warning them that a bridge had washed out. The car fell down an embankment and overturned. While Clyde and W.D. escaped with minor injuries, Bonnie suffered burns to the leg that were so bad that she became more or less crippled. She spent the last months of her life either being carried or hopping on one leg to get around. She was the last thing from the healthy, vivacious blonde that we see in the last act of the 1967 film.

Not only that, Bonnie’s hard life on the road–and her severe injuries–definitely began to take their toll. Initially adorable when she was younger, her features grew harsher, her eyes colder and expressions more sour. Below is what she looked like during a typical moment, when she and Clyde were camping out while police were closing in on them both and it was obvious that death was in their futures. Does this look like a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, young woman at her absolute peak?

In short, Bonnie and Clyde, when they were ambushed, hardly looked anything like they did in the movie towards the end of their lives. After a year and a half of barely sleeping in beds, engaging in countless shootouts, taking baths in cold rivers and living in fear of dying every single day, they had become shadows of their former selves. Spending entire days on the road for a year and a half watching your back at every turn and wondering when you’ll finally get killed will do that to a person.


  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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