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15 Fascinating Facts About Forensic Files

If you know what a pyrolysis gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer does, can readily identify the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, and perk up whenever you hear the name Dr. Henry Lee, you’ve clearly been watching Forensic Files. Since its premiere 20 years ago on April 21, 1996, the documentary-style science series has guided television audiences through the often complex world of forensic science, and left a trail of network crime shows in its path (see: CSI).

To celebrate the beloved series’ 20th anniversary, we spoke with creator/executive producer Paul Dowling, who shared 15 fascinating facts about Forensic Files.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A TRUE CRIME VERSION OF THE “WHODUNIT” FORMAT.

“There was no particular case or incident that sparked the idea for the series,” Dowling tells mental_floss. “It was a new idea for how to tell true crime stories. Before Forensic Files, true crime TV series and documentaries were all produced in the same tired way, but fictional crime drama was excellent and getting much higher ratings. So why not marry the best of both?”

By melding talking head interviews with reenactments of both the crimes and forensic processes scientists used to solve said crimes, Dowling came up with a totally new type of television series. “I simply took the murder mystery 'whodunit' format of the successful fictional television crime dramas and used it to tell true crime stories,” he says. “That's how Forensic Files was born.”

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO FOCUS ON MEDICAL INVESTIGATIONS.

Longtime fans of Forensic Files might remember that it was called Medical Detectives in its earliest days. “Originally, we planned to tell not only murder investigation stories but also disease outbreak and accident investigations,” Dowling explains. “Over time, ratings showed that viewers preferred the murder mysteries, which explains the title change in 2000.”

3. THE PREMIERE EPISODE HAD A CONNECTION TO FARGO.

Spring of 1996 was a big season for death by wood chipper. In March, one month before Forensic Files debuted, the Coen brothers’ critically acclaimed black comedy Fargo was released in theaters. Among the film’s most memorable scenes is one in which Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) feeds the body of his partner, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), into a wood chipper. The scene was inspired by the murder of Helle Crafts, who was killed by her husband, Richard, then disposed of in a wood chipper. Crafts’s murder was also the subject of Forensic Files’ very first episode, “The Disappearance of Helle Crafts.”

4. THE O.J. SIMPSON CASE HELPED BOOST THE SHOW’S POPULARITY.

It was only about six months before Forensic Files premiered that nearly 100 million people tuned in to see the verdict read in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. For many of those same courtroom watchers, it was the Simpson case that first introduced them to the basics of forensic science, which led to a built-in audience for Forensic Files from the get-go.

“The Forensic Files pilot of the famous Wood Chipper Murder case did indeed benefit from the wall-to-wall coverage networks had given to the O.J. trial,” Dowling says. “It prepared the public to handle crime scene photographs, detailed crime creations, and it gave audiences a good preview for the new role forensic science would play in the criminal justice system.”

5. THE SERIES BROUGHT ATTENTION TO LITTLE-KNOWN CASES THAT FEATURED BREAKTHROUGHS IN FORENSIC SCIENCE.

While Forensic Files didn’t completely shy away from revisiting well-known cases, it was in the lesser-known crimes that they were able to feature some truly groundbreaking scientific developments.

“We've done several one-hour specials on high-profile cases like the Kennedy assassination and Lindbergh baby kidnapping, but virtually all of the half-hour episodes (400 in total) were little-known [stories],” Dowling says. “Interestingly, many of the breakthroughs in forensic science happened because of the innovation and discoveries of scientists and investigators in these little-known cases, which we brought to worldwide audiences for the first time.”

6. PETER THOMAS WAS THE “FIRST, LAST, AND ONLY CHOICE” FOR A NARRATOR.

It’s impossible to talk about Forensic Files without mentioning the familiar voice that narrates each episode. That voice belongs to Peter Thomas, a world-class orator who has spent more than 50 years lending his pipes to Oscar-winning documentaries, television series, and commercials. For Dowling, Thomas—who passed away on April 30—was the only choice to serve as Forensic Files’ narrator.

“When the series was set to premiere in 1996, it wasn't going to look like a PBS or A&E crime documentary," he says. "It was going to be something new and different, a little ‘tabloidy,’ but I didn't want the series to sound like a tabloid, which I'd describe like an AM radio announcer doing a car commercial.

“I wanted the series to have the legitimacy of a documentary, despite how it looked, so I wanted a traditional voice, a great storyteller, classy, and chose a man whose voice was well known because he'd done some PBS documentaries and science and history films we'd all seen over the years in high school. That was Peter Thomas, my first, last, and only choice.”

7. THOMAS DIDN’T TAKE THE GIG LIGHTLY.

In a tweet, Dowling shared that, “Peter Thomas rehearsed each script for several hours the night before the recording session with his wife Stella as his audience.”

8. PRODUCERS ACTIVELY SOUGHT OUT “OMG” MOMENTS.

When asked if there were specific elements that made a case Forensic Files-worthy, Dowling says that, “It was the 'oh my god' factor. If a story had that, it was chosen.”

Some examples, according to Dowling:

"A doctor accused of rape implants a tube of his patient’s blood into his arm so the blood sample drawn for his DNA test wasn't his—and therefore, didn't match the semen sample from rape test kit. But the victim stole the doctor’s Chapstick and the DNA from those skin cells did match! The victim solved her own crime.

A killer in bare feet steps on a hamburger roll on his way out of the crime scene, leaving his clear footprint in the soft dough!

A piece of chewing gun found next to a dead body matches the teeth impressions of the suspect.

A sundial analysis proves that the time clock on a home video—the murder suspect’s alibi—was not correct, and had been doctored."

9. STUPID CRIMINALS DON’T MAKE FOR GREAT TELEVISION.

Some of Forensic Files’ most compelling episodes are the ones in which a crime is so sophisticated, and so well covered up (like the aforementioned doctor inserting a vial of his patient’s blood), that they make truth seem stranger than fiction. As for crimes that didn’t interest the producers? “Stories we rejected were often ones where a killer was so stupid, and left so much evidence, it was almost a comedy,” Dowling says.

10. THE REENACTMENTS LOOK DIFFERENT ON PURPOSE.

The show is generally made up of three different parts: interviews with the people involved, then reenactments of both the crime and the lab processes—each of which was filmed in a slightly unique style, which was a very conscious decision.

“I wanted to make sure viewers knew exactly what was reenactment and what was real crime scene video or authentic police interrogation footage,” Dowling explains. “We did that by setting recreations apart from the other elements by giving them a different look and using loud sound effects and flash frames and music bumps.

“Some crime TV series today try to make recreations seamless, so viewers can't tell what's real and what's not. I find that very confusing and, frankly, unfair to the accused.”

11. THEY TRIED TO CAST REENACTMENT ACTORS WHO RESEMBLED THE REAL PEOPLE.

“We used crime reenactments at the end of each episode to show how the scientific evidence put all the pieces together for prosecutors in the courtroom,” Dowling says. “When doing that, we tried to cast actors who looked as much like the individuals involved in the case as possible, to avoid confusing the viewers. Viewers obviously knew these were crime recreations intended to put all the pieces of the investigation puzzle together and were willing to suspend disbelief if and when the casting matches weren't perfect.”

12. THE ACTOR WHO PORTRAYED LEE HARVEY OSWALD LOOKED A LITTLE TOO MUCH LIKE LEE HARVEY OSWALD.

For the hour-long JFK special, it was particularly important to senior producer Kelly Martin that they cast actors who shared a strong resemblance to the real-life figures they were portraying. “We want exact matches or it is not going to work," Martin told The Morning Call in 2004. “This is one of the highest-profile killings ever. Pardon the pun, it had to be dead-on.”

They found their Lee Harvey Oswald in an actor named Marcus Hinkle, who may have looked a little too much like Oswald for some. “Martin said that when the company was shooting the JFK special on Sixth Street in Allentown, [Pennsylvania] last year, older bystanders who lived through the assassination said Hinkle gave them chills because he resembled Oswald so closely,” wrote The Morning Call.

13. MANY OF THE POLICE OFFICERS AND PARAMEDICS YOU SEE ARE REAL.

In 2004, Laurie Bianco—president of Pro Model & Casting Agency, the company tasked with finding the right reenactment actors for Forensic Filesexplained to The Morning Call that when casting on-screen police officers and paramedics, she preferred to use real professionals in those fields, because they behaved much more naturally in those parts.

14. IT HOLDS SOME TELEVISION RECORDS.

First, according to Dowling, “Forensic Files is the longest running non-scripted series in TV history.” In addition, the show “made television history in 2002 when it aired on NBC as a summer replacement series,” he says. “It was the first TV series that originated on a cable network first, before moving to a broadcast network airing new episodes.”

And its popularity stretches far beyond American borders. “At one time,” Dowling says, “Forensic Files aired simultaneously on five different broadcast networks at the same time in Great Britain: CBS Reality, UKTV, History Channel, Sky Network, and Discovery.” The series has been seen in 142 countries.

15. THERE’S AN OFFICIAL COMPANION BOOK TO THE SERIES.

In 2004, Dowling published The Official Forensic Files Casebook, which provides recaps of the series’ individual episodes, gives some behind-the-scenes details on how the show itself is produced, and offers further insight into why particular stories make the cut, and why others are rejected. (You can purchase it here.)

All images courtesy ForensicFiles.com
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Beyond CSI: 10 Fascinating Forensic Careers
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If you were to believe everything you saw on television about a day in the life of a forensic science professional, it would be all crime scene investigation all the time. As pulse-poundingly exciting as the investigative antics on CSI, NCIS, Dexter, and Criminal Minds may be, the day-to-day duties of forensic professionals aren’t always so cinematic. From accountants to astronomers, here are 10 lesser-known—but entirely fascinating—forensic careers.

1. FORENSIC LINGUIST

From pronunciation to word order, the patterns with which a person communicates are almost as distinct as the sound of his or her voice. Which makes them an identifiable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation, particularly in cases where fraud or plagiarism are concerned. Though the field of forensic linguistics emerged in the late 1960s, it didn’t come into popular use in the U.S. until the mid-1990s, when FBI forensic linguist James Fitzgerald convinced his employer that publishing the Unabomber's “manifesto” could possibly help them catch the man who had killed three people and injured nearly two dozen others with the homemade bombs he’d been mailing to unsuspecting victims for nearly two decades. It worked. Several people called in tips after reading the manifesto, recognizing the writing style, which eventually led them to Ted Kaczynski.

If you've been watching Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber, you've already gotten a sense of what Fitzgerald's job entails. He's portrayed by Sam Worthington in the series, and Fitzgerald, a.k.a. "Fitz," has been impressed with the series' accuracy. "They are in the high 80 percentile [of accuracy]," Fitzgerald told Bustle, noting that "the Fitz character is a composite character." He describes the series as "a metaphorical look at my role in the Unabomber case, as well as bits and pieces of other agents who did it. It’s relatively factual. I will say, if it is about language analysis that is shown on the screen, that was me. That was the real Fitz."

2. FORENSIC OPTOMETRIST

Diagnosing astigmatism and glaucoma is all in a day’s work for an optometrist. Catching a murderer? Not so much. But Graham Strong has spent more than two decades doing just that, helping to prove the ownership of eyewear evidence left behind at crime scenes. It all started in 1989, when he assisted investigators in proving that the glasses found beneath the body of a murder victim were the same ones that their key suspect was wearing in an earlier mug shot. “I obtained more than 20 measurements that enabled me to conclude that the glasses found at the scene were identical to photographs in every way,” Strong explained of his investigative process. The evidence resulted in a first-degree murder conviction.

3. FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST

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If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bones, you kinda sorta know what’s in a forensic anthropologist’s job description: to help identify and investigate decayed or damaged skeletal remains. If the science in the show seems sound, that’s because (for the most part) it is: The series, which ended its 12-season run in March 2017, is based on the life, work, and writing of Kathy Reichs, who is one of only 100 forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (she’s also a best-selling author and was one of the show’s producer).

4. FORENSIC ARCHAEOLOGIST

Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, forensic archaeologists work with the police and other government agencies to locate, excavate, and analyze historical evidence, from buried personal items to mass graves. Employing the same techniques they would at a dig site, forensic archaeologists help to organize a crime scene and preserve potential evidence and are being increasingly called upon by organizations such as the United Nations in genocide investigations in Rwanda, Argentina, and Bosnia. 

5. FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT

Some investigators carry a gun; others wield an adding machine. Consider this: When the FBI was founded in 1908, 12 of its 34 original investigators were bank examiners. Today, about 400 of the FBI’s special agents are accountants. Forensic accountants are also found in accounting firms of varying sizes, as well as in law firms and police and government agencies, where they investigate a range of crimes that have been committed in the name of financial gain, which could include anything from murder to securities fraud. 

6. FORENSIC ASTRONOMER

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Not even Copernicus could have likely imagined that the field he pioneered would one day be able to aid in the delivery of legal justice. But the celestial bodies that continue to confound us regular folk have been used in much more practical ways for several centuries now, dating all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, when he successfully defended a client against murder by being able to establish the position of the moon on the night of the altercation (which disproved the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness).

7. FORENSIC ODONTOLOGIST

In the late 1960s, there was a serial killer and rapist on the loose in Montreal who earned the nickname “The Vampire Rapist” because of the signature bite marks he left on the breasts of his victims. That vicious calling card became the undoing of Wayne Boden, the 23-year-old former model who was arrested in 1971 when Gordon Swann, a local orthodontist, was able to show 29 points of similarity between Boden’s chompers and the marks left on the body of Elizabeth Porteous, his final victim. Boden’s conviction was the first in North America to rest on odontological evidence, but certainly not the last; in 1979, forensic odontologist Richard Souviron was a key witness in the prosecution of Ted Bundy for the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University.

8. FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST

Forensic pathologists—medical doctors tasked with examining corpses to determine identity and the cause and manner of death—have found themselves in the spotlight in recent years with the popularity of reality television series like Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which followed Dr. Jan Garavaglia, Orlando’s Chief Medical Examiner, who famously identified the remains of Caylee Anthony. A decade earlier, HBO premiered Autopsy, a documentary series in which Dr. Michael Baden—the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City—explained the science behind some of the most notorious crimes of the century, including the assassination of JFK, the death of Sid Vicious, and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Lesser-known Autopsy cases examined how maggots, tattoos, breast implants, and chewing gum have all helped solve crimes. 

9. FORENSIC MICROSCOPIST

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The most damning evidence at a crime scene is usually the kind that is impossible to see with the naked eye. Enter forensic microscopy, the science of trace evidence, which can offer valuable clues in solving a crime by examining a variety of substances such as hairs, fibers, soil, dust, building materials, paint chips, botanicals, and food. Skip Palenik has spent a lifetime using microscropy to solve real-world crimes, analyzing trace evidence in the cases of the Hillside Strangler, JonBenét Ramsey, the Unabomber, and the Green River Killer. In 1992, he founded Microtrace LLC, an independent laboratory and consultation firm focused on small particle analysis. 

10. FORENSIC NURSE

Nurses are the first point of contact for many a crime victim, so it only makes sense that they would play an important role in the legal system. From collecting blood and DNA samples to counseling crime victims, the specializations of a forensic nurse can vary, as can their training. Writer-producer Serita Stevens—a forensic nurse herself—explores the field in depth in her book Forensic Nurse: The New Role of the Nurse in Law Enforcement, which notes of the job that “When the human body itself is a crime scene, [the forensic nurse] is the most critical investigator of all.”

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13 Infamous Facts About Bonnie and Clyde
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Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most popular celebrity criminals of the 1930s (and they had a lot of competition in that decade). More than 30 years later, America fell in love with them all over again through Bonnie and Clyde, a zeitgeist-capturing movie that spoke to the dissatisfaction and unrest that people (especially young people) felt in 1967. And hey, it was the first major film appearance for Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, and featured a future Duke of Hazzard (Denver Pyle, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse). On the 50th anniversary of its release, get to know your favorite movie about your favorite outlaws a little better with these behind-the-scenes tidbits. 

1. BEFORE IT WAS MADE IN THE STYLE OF THE FRENCH NEW WAVE FILMS, IT ALMOST WAS A FRENCH NEW WAVE FILM.

Like many young cinephiles of their day, Bonnie and Clyde's screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were enamored of the French New Wave, the influential movement that included films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Breathless. These movies tended to have young, iconoclastic, sexually liberated protagonists and unhappy endings, making the true story of Bonnie and Clyde a perfect fit. Director Arthur Penn wound up using some of the New Wave's aesthetic techniques, too—like quick cuts, zooms, stylized photography, and abrupt changes in mood—making Bonnie and Clyde the first major American film to imitate the style. But before Penn came onboard, the screenwriters pursued two actual French New Wavers: François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless). Each filmmaker eventually passed on the project, but both offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final product. 

2. FAYE DUNAWAY'S STAR-MAKING PERFORMANCE ALMOST DIDN'T HAPPEN.

Warren Beatty, doing double duty as star and producer, and director Arthur Penn considered many other actresses first, including Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Leslie Caron, and Ann-Margret. (Back when he was only producing it and not starring in it, Beatty had also considered his sister, Shirley MacLaine, for the role.) Beatty said they were turned down "by about 10 women," though he would later say Weld was the only one they made a firm offer to. When Beatty met Dunaway, he didn't think she was right for the part, but he told her to meet with Penn, who he thought would think she was perfect. Beatty was right. 

3. THE WRITERS HAD NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE DOING.

Benton and Newman worked at Esquire (as editor and art director, respectively), and had no screenwriting experience whatsoever. But they loved the story of Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton, growing up in the Dallas area, had heard his entire life as part of local folklore. (Benton's father had actually attended Bonnie and Clyde's funeral in 1934.) Benton and Newman didn't have experience writing movies, but they did have a well-connected friend of a friend who put them in touch with the French filmmakers and offered some working capital. It was through these connections that the script fell into the hands of Warren Beatty, who immediately contacted them and set the project in motion. 

4. THE FIRST DRAFTS HAD CLYDE SWINGING BOTH WAYS.

Newman and Benton worked closely with Beatty and Penn in fine-tuning the screenplay, which all four men later described as a positive, low-conflict collaboration. The only major problem had to do with sex. Newman and Benton's version had Bonnie and Clyde having a threesome with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a composite character based on several members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, the idea being that Clyde couldn't perform without a third party. Beatty claimed he had no problem playing a bisexual character, but he and Penn were both concerned that the audience would view Clyde as a sexual deviant and ascribe his lawbreaking to that. But Penn thought the idea of there being some kind of sexual dysfunction in the group was important. Eventually the four collaborators settled on Clyde being impotent. 

5. WHATEVER YOU THINK THE FILM “REALLY” MEANS, YOU'RE PROBABLY WRONG.

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Some viewers interpreted Bonnie and Clyde as a commentary on other issues, but Newman and Benton said they didn't intend it that way. As they wrote in an introduction to a published version of their screenplay, "[People] have told us that Bonnie and Clyde was REALLY about Vietnam, REALLY about police brutality, REALLY about Lee Harvey Oswald, REALLY about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, 'If you think so.'" 

6. THE STUDIO THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO FLOP AND TREATED IT ACCORDINGLY.

Jack Warner, who measured films according to how well they convinced him not to leave the screening room to use the bathroom, hated Bonnie and Clyde. "That's the longest two hours and 11 minutes I've ever seen!" he reportedly said after seeing an early cut. "That was a three-piss picture!" (Also: "This gangster stuff went out with [James] Cagney!") Thinking they had a turkey on their hands, and despite a warm reception at a film festival in Montreal, Warner Bros. dumped the movie in drive-ins and second-run theaters in August of 1967.

7. THE STUDIO'S LACK OF FAITH MADE WARREN BEATTY VERY, VERY RICH.

Thinking the film wouldn't make any money, Warner Bros. offered Beatty a ridiculous deal: a $200,000 salary, plus 40 percent of the gross. Yes, 40 percent. Of the gross, not the net. The film made more than $50 million. 

8. MOVIE CRITICS KILLED THE FILM, THEN SAVED IT.

Warner Bros.' wariness was validated by the early reviews. Variety was lukewarm, and The New York Times' Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic in America, hated it. HATED it. He wrote about it more than once, and would drop scathing references to it in reviews of other movies. To him, the film’s wanton violence represented everything that was wrong with modern cinema. (It's worth noting that Crowther was 62 years old and had been the Times' chief critic since 1940.)

Early box office reflected the bad reviews. But then came Pauline Kael, a vocal champion for the film who wrote 9000 words about it for The New Yorker. She was soon followed by Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern, who gave the film a bad review, then retracted it a week later with a new, glowing appraisal. TIME magazine, which had also panned it, recanted and put the film on the cover of its December issue. Word began to spread. Warner Bros. re-released the film into more theaters and, by the end of 1967, it was on its way toward becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. It made most of its money, however, in early 1968, when Warner Bros. put it in wide release to take advantage of its 10 Oscar nominations. (Post-script: Bosley Crowther was removed as the Times' lead film critic in early 1968.)

9. IT TURNED AN OLD SONG INTO A NEW HIT.

Flatt & Scruggs' banjo-heavy bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" serves as the film's theme music, even though it was recorded in 1949 and is anachronistic for a movie set in the 1930s. Even more anachronistic, though, is the fact that when the song was re-released in conjunction with the movie, it became a hit, reaching number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It's now a standard in the bluegrass genre, and is often used in movies and TV when there's a chase scene set in a rural area. 

10. IT INSPIRED SONGWRITERS AS WELL AS FILMMAKERS.

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As Americans fell in love with Bonnie and Clyde the movie, they also became captivated by Bonnie and Clyde the outlaws, and the nation's troubadours took to the airwaves to sing about the tragic lovers. Merle Haggard, Georgie Fame, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Mel Tormé, and Bonnie's sister Billie Jean Parker all recorded new songs in the wake of the movie's success, and the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs wrote an entire album.

11. IT INSPIRED A CLOTHING FAD, TOO.

Faye Dunaway's period costumes caught the attention of the fashion-minded, and soon berets (which hadn't been popular since the '30s) were back in vogue. The trend coincided with French designers wanting to move from mini-skirts to maxi-skirts, and gave women an appealing example of how great a maxi could look. 

12. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER QUIT MIDWAY THROUGH FILMING.

Burnett Guffey, a respected veteran in the industry who'd shot close to 100 movies and had served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was frequently at odds with Penn (who was fairly new to film) and with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Not only was Guffey older than most of the crew (he was born in 1905), but the "new Hollywood" visual style that Penn and Tavoularis wanted for the film didn't mesh with his old-school sensibilities.

After butting heads with the director one too many times, Guffey quit and was replaced by another old-timer, Ellsworth Fredericks. But this lasted only a few days, as Fredericks' competent-but-uninspired work made Penn realize how hard Guffey had been trying to capture his vision. He wooed Guffey back to finish the film, for which Guffey would win his second Oscar. 

13. IT CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO THE ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY.

When Bonnie and Clyde are pumped full of lead in the film's bloody climax, you can see a fragment of Clyde's scalp flying off. Penn and editor Dede Allen both confirmed that this was a deliberate reference to the Zapruder film of JFK's death, which had happened in Dallas, not far from where Bonnie and Clyde grew up.

Additional sources:
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

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