Arthur Penn, 1922 - 2010

David Hudson

"Arthur Penn, the stage, television and motion picture director whose revolutionary treatment of sex and violence in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde transformed the American film industry, died Tuesday night, the day after he turned 88," reports Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "A pioneering director of live television drama in the 1950s and a Broadway powerhouse in the 1960s, Mr Penn developed an intimate, spontaneous and physically oriented method of directing actors that allowed their work to register across a range of mediums.... 'Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of 60s European art films to American movies,' the writer-director Paul Schrader said. 'He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.' Many of the now-classic films of what was branded the 'New American Cinema' of the 1970s — including Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Mr Schrader, and The Godfather, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola — would have been unthinkable without Bonnie and Clyde to point the way."

"The career of Arthur Penn has had, to say the least, its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys," wrote Adam Bingham in a profile for Senses of Cinema in 2003. "For much of the 1960s and early 1970s he was at the forefront of a new generation of directors (including Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Sam Peckinpah and Martin Ritt) trained in theatre and television who revitalised American filmmaking at a time of great crisis in the industry. And, perhaps more importantly, who bridged the not insubstantial gap between the studio era (which came to an end in the 1950s following the fateful Paramount decree of 1948) and the new Hollywood 'auteur' cinema of the 1970s: the so-called movie brats." On Penn's feature debut: "The Left-Handed Gun (1958), adapted by Gore Vidal from his own television play The Death of Billy the Kid and described by Robin Wood as providing 'A remarkably complete thematic exposition of Penn's work,' re-tells the story of the legendary outlaw for the rebel-without-a-cause generation, offering a particular emphasis on the unstable, un-nurtured and often inarticulate mindset of its adolescent and misunderstood protagonist. It also, as Wood suggests (and in a way that strongly prefigures Bonnie and Clyde [1967]), dramatises almost diagrammatically Penn's abiding concerns with the outsider in society, with the fragile, precarious order that gives way all too quickly to irrational violence, with the tension between impulse and rationality and also with the disparity between image and reality, facade and truth."

"Bonnie and Clyde is Penn's best known movie, but only one part of a staggering sequence which, from The Left-Handed Gun (1958) to The Missouri Breaks (1976), saw him stake a claim as the most vital director in American cinema," wrote Damien Love, introducing an interview with Penn for Bright Lights Film Journal in August 2009. "Distinguished by powerfully rendered performances, a fascination with outsiders, and an eye stimulated by life's odd details, these films were tragic but always alive, vibrating with rebellious energy and hard-wired to the times. Whether dealing with 1930s bandits, Native American massacres, or lost private eyes, Penn determinedly reflected America, its hopes, its nightmares — and, always, its violence."

"His films reveal a passionate, ironic, intense involvement with the American experience, and can be seen as an illuminating chart of the country's moral condition over the past thirty years," Philip Kemp has written for Film Reference. "Mickey One [1965] is dark with the unfocused guilt and paranoia of the McCarthyite hangover, while the stunned horror of the Kennedy assassination reverberates through The Chase [1966]. The exhilaration, and the fatal flaws, of the 1960s anti-authoritarian revolt are reflected in Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant [1969]. Little Big Man [1970] reworks the trauma of Vietnam, while Night Moves [1975] is steeped in the disillusioned malaise that pervaded the Watergate era."

"Little Big Man views the past from a modern standpoint (there is even a gay Red Indian and bluesy music), seeing the Cheyenne as 'ethnic' hippies contrasted with corrupt white civilisation," noted Ronald Bergan in an appreciation written for the Guardian in 2007 on the occasion of an Honorary Golden Bear presented to Penn by the Berlinale. "The section where Custer attacks an Indian village could not help but stir memories of the My Lai massacre and the photos of Vietnamese on fire that were seen in all the newspapers and on television.... Little Big Man began a trend in which the western was appropriated by directors eager to express their liberal views. Indians were seen as representing the Viet Cong, 19th century negro slaves spoke like members of the Black Power movement, and detailed bloodbaths were presented as condemnations of violence. The Western was moving outside its frame, until it almost disappeared altogether. This is almost what happened to Penn when the era from which he drew his inspiration ended."

This summer, the Brooklyn Rail ran an interview Gregory Zucker and Robert White conducted with Penn in 2008.

In November 2008, Kevin B Lee put together a comprehensive roundup on Night Moves.

Pages: IMDb; Wikipedia; They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Updates: "Born in Philadelphia, the younger brother of the photographer Irving Penn, the director galvanised the crime genre with his 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the lovers on the run," writes the Guardian's Xan Brooks. "It juggled the freewheeling flavour of the French New Wave with an explicit, stylised violence that was hitherto unknown in mainstream American cinema.... Penn's boldest venture was doomed to end in failure. In 1976 he corralled Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando on set to shoot a dark and mercurial western called The Missouri Breaks. But the production was famously disrupted by Brando's erratic behaviour and the result was a critical and commercial flop. Its director would later take some comfort from the fact that The Missouri Breaks has since been re-evaluated and is now widely judged to be an eccentric mini-masterpiece."

Jon Zelazny for the Hollywood Interview: "2008 marked the 50th anniversary of The Left Handed Gun, Penn's now-celebrated feature film debut. We spoke by phone, ironically the day before Paul Newman passed away at age 83."

"The Left Handed Gun clearly signposted Penn's continuing preoccupations – family, father figures, the myths of American history and the contradictions they set up with reality." Sheila Whitaker in the Guardian: "It was not until 1962 that he made another film, with his third interpretation of The Miracle Worker. Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars for their performances and Penn received a nomination for best director.... The Chase (1966) was his first film in colour and, despite its problems, was rightly regarded by many as a (near) masterpiece. It perhaps most clearly enunciates Penn's stance on violence: 'America is a country where people realise their views in violent ways — we have no tradition of persuasion, idealism or legality.' In the film, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) tries to protect an escaped convict, Bubber (Robert Redford), from the mob violence he has stirred up on his return to his home town.... It has perhaps the most desolate ending of all of his films, none of which end on an optimistic note."

"Penn directed four of my favorite films," blogs Robert Cashill, and one of them is "The Miracle Worker (1962), adapting his Tony-winning direction of the play so sensitively it may be the best stage-to-screen translation ever."

"Trying to list all the films — good, bad and mediocre — that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and owe a debt to Penn would take up more space than a large metropolitan city's white pages," writes Edward Copeland. "Still, it took a director with Penn's talent to turn Robert Benton and David Newman's screenplay about two famous Depression-era outlaws and transform into a work of art that seemed to play as something new each time you watched it. It was a chase film, a romance, a dark comedy, a slapstick comedy all while offering new statements on movie violence and asking questions we still wrestle with today such as who are bigger thieves: bank robbers or the corporations that own the banks?"


For Vanity Fair, Julie Weiner posts the clip above, in which Penn talks about that Bonnie and Clyde, its last scene and what it owes stylistically to television.

It's "masterwork with the still-undiminished ability — as I can tell every semester that I screen it for my students at University of Houston and Houston Community College — to impress and enthrall," writes Joe Leydon. "But violence is no longer the most provocative element of Bonnie and Clyde. Rather, it is the period drama's audacious commingling of style and substance that continues to amaze and unsettle viewers." After he elaborates, Joe runs a few highlights of a conversation he had with Penn three years ago.

"There have been other directors who have blazed so brightly and briefly — think of Preston Sturges in the 40s or, yes, Francis Ford Coppola in the 70s — but they kept on working or else suffered grievous personal setbacks. Penn was different. He stopped trying to play the Hollywood game. Even rarer, he stayed sane and centered, a man without bitterness or grandiosity." And the Boston Globe's Mark Feeney has a story to back up that observation.

Updates, 9/30: "There was something not just contradictory, but almost implausible about Arthur Penn," writes David Thomson in the Guardian. "In person, he was maybe the most amiable and engaging film director I have ever met. Agreed, the competition in that brotherhood is not intense. All too many movie directors are insufferable after half an hour. Arthur Penn was a gentleman, and a gentle man, kind, modest and naturally curious about other people. Indeed, he shared the joke and the mystery if one asked: how can a man so reasonable and charitable have such an astonishing, passionate awareness of violence? He smiled, and said he didn't know. I believed him, although I think he was troubled by the question."

The Telegraph: "He was drawn to subjects that mirrored his own search for a father-figure. The child of a broken home, Penn was obsessed with questions of identity and exclusion. 'I would say,; he conjectured, 'that the only people who really interest me are the outcasts from society. The people who are not outcasts – psychologically, emotionally or physically – seem to me good material for selling breakfast food, but they're not material for films. A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out where it's failing.'" Bonnie and Clyde "marked the beginning of the most creative phase in his career and a shift away from well-structured plots to a more episodic approach. This was strongly reflected in Alice's Restaurant (1969). Its starting point was a mock heroic blues ballad by Arlo Guthrie called The Alice's Restaurant Massacree which recorded how he was rejected for the Vietnam draft on account of a littering offence. In the movie Guthrie played himself, as did Officer William Obanheim, the cop who had arrested him. This scene provided a comic centrepiece to a film in which the main focus was on Ray and Alice Brock, who ran a commune for hippies in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, close to where Penn lived."

"It's quite possible that Penn simply lost his touch, because his 1980s films are curiosities at best," blogs the LAT's Patrick Goldstein. "He may also have lost interest in commercial filmmaking, because unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn't have a careerist bone in his body. In Hollywood, you have to adapt or retire from the fray. Penn chose the latter. After seeing a few of the young Steven Spielberg's first hits, Penn told an interviewer: 'He makes benign movies that are enormously successful, while I'm mainly known for making movies about people shooting and cutting each other up. I love his work, but I could never make films like that.'"

Roger Ebert looks back on Bonnie and Clyde and recalls that "disaster seemed to strike in the form of an angry review by the influential Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who hated it. So did Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek, but he famously changed his mind in a later review. When it opened in Chicago, I wrote on Sept 15, 1967: 'This is pretty clearly the best American film of the year. It is also a landmark. Years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960.' I was right. On Oct 21, 1967, Pauline Kael praised it in a celebrated New Yorker review, her first for the magazine."

"[I]f you haven't read Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution," blogs New York's David Edelstein, "this is a good time to immerse yourself in the cultural ferment of the mid-60s (and to re-read Pauline Kael's seminal, game-changing essay). In Harris's wonderful book, you see how screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were inspired by the French New Wave, and how they and Penn wrestled with the emotional tone of the violence, moving from larky and liberating to shocking and finally tragic. (Re-watching Bonnie and Clyde, I think it's easy to see why Kael would be so angered by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which combined the Beatty-Dunaway glamour with the nihilism of The Wild Bunch — but added facetious jokes amid the carnage.) I can add little to Lance Mannion on Penn's Night Moves, a film I think captures as well as anything (and better than more flashy paranoiac thrillers like The Parallax View) what it felt like to be alive and at sea at the height of the Watergate era, when the debris left behind by the counterculture had begun to fester and the reactionary overlords had gone even deeper under the surface to do their dirty work."

"When showered with acclaim, Penn would not take the safe road but the rough one," writes Time's Richard Corliss. "The Miracle Worker confirmed his success, but instead of going Hollywood he went indie. Mickey One, from a script by Alan Surgal, was the story of a rebel without applause: a flailing stand-up comic (Beatty) who flees Detroit for Chicago when his life is threatened.... In this hipster crime movie, Penn shows he has appropriated, if not quite assimilated, the tropes of mid-period Orson Welles (shots in distorting mirrors or through ornamental grates, garish carnival creatures) and of the French New Wave (jump cuts, non-naturalistic sound, a braying jazz score by Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz). His cinematographer, between gigs for Louis Malle (The Fire Within) and Robert Bresson (Mouchette), was Ghislain Cloquet, who wove a web of fatality with a mixture of punishing closeups and infinitesimal long shots. Mickey One might have been an immensely influential film, if anybody had seen it. Well, Beatty had. The actor was ready to produce a movie; and after Penn suffered through a big Hollywood production, The Chase (which was recut by its producer, Sam Spiegel), Beatty offered him Bonnie and Clyde."

"The key to Bonnie and Clyde is neither just its glamour nor just its violence, but the link between them, playfully stated," argues the Telegraph's David Gritten. "Neither of its stars ever bettered their performances. Beatty in particular exudes a cool conviction that usually eluded him. Dunaway’s dramatic looks and sense of style made her a fashion icon. Bonnie and Clyde still feels as sly and modern as the day it was released."

The Missouri Breaks "fell victim to the madness and indulgence that burned through the late-70s and put an end to the hopes for a new American cinema," writes Peter Biskind for Vanity Fair. "But even without the nuttiness that Brando brought to his role (he wore a dress in several scenes), the movie was doomed. Penn was too cerebral and subversive for the market place. He was continuing down the road of genre deconstruction embarked upon by directors as diverse as Dennis Hopper and Robert Altman in the early 70s, but the upheavals that defined the 60s had waned, and audiences had slipped back into business as usual. They no longer wanted their genres turned upside down; they just wanted to have fun, and younger directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were only too willing to oblige. Sandwiched as it was between Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), The Missouri Breaks never had a chance."

Moving Image Source reruns Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin's appreciation, adapted from the introduction to Arthur Penn Interviews. And here's the Museum's Pinewood Dialogue with Penn (57'41").

The Guardian's Ben Walters walks us through five clips.

Updates, 10/1: Criterion runs Penn's brief appreciation of his friend, Akira Kurosawa.

Jonathan Rosenbaum runs his 1975 review of Night Moves.

Update, 10/2: For Vanity Fair, Todd S Purdum counts the ways The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde have infiltrated his own life.

Update, 10/4: Listening (72'13"). Alison Willmore and Matt Singer "discuss highlights from Penn's career, from Marlon Brando as a small-town sheriff in The Chase to Dustin Hoffman in the revisionist West in Little Big Man to Gene Hackman as a would-be hard-boiled private eye in Night Moves."

Update, 10/9: In an appreciation for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis sees several elements that made Bonnie and Clyde the landmark it is already present in The Left-Handed Gun. Then: "It would be a mistake to reduce his films to his experiences in World War II, just as it is reductive to see a simple cause-effect relationship between the French New Wave and his films, just as it is wrong to omit the sum of a life — the war, European cinema, Hollywood, television, theater, his specific time and place — when discussing his work. It all mattered, as did his attitude. In a 1963 interview he delivered a prophetic take on the Hollywood machine: 'As far as I can see, the place is killing itself. Pretty soon it'll be churning out only big blockbusters and TV series. That's all, no more actual films.' At the same time, with the demise of the old studios, he could see that 'we're seeing a return to a smaller and perhaps looser kind of filmmaking.'"

Update, 10/11: Edward Copeland has been revisiting the oeuvre.

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