I read yesterday that director Arthur Penn died on September 28th, the day after his 88th birthday. In spite of the fact that I know he directed a bunch of stellar films, Bonnie and Clyde is the only one I can ever remember off the top of my head. Arthur Penn is a little like Tony Blair for me. When I think of Blair, I picture Michael Sheen as David Frost coaching a Derby football team instead of Britain's Ex-P.M. Same goes for Penn. I'm forever mixing up his ouput with a crop of other Hollywood New Wave directors that arose in the early '60s - guys like John Schlesinger, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Sydney Pollack, Irvin Kershner, George Roy Hill, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. I just can't remember who did what.
A minute and a half on IMDb.com and the full weight of Penn's loss hit me. Here was a director that had produced some of the seminal movies of my lifetime, a number of which perpetually reside on my ever-changing top 25 list and I had no idea they were all directed by Penn. In a number of the obits I read him described as “the most underrated American director of the '60s” and must admit to being guilty of the same oversight. In an effort to rectify that lapse of acknowledgment, I thought I'd try to summarize a number of his more-interesting films, starting with his most famous;
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – It was probably 10 years after Bonnie and Clyde was initially released that I first saw it. It was already a famous movie, one that had changed cinema and rewrote the rules, but I was too young to realize it. Unfortunately, a different wave was rolling over Hollywood at the time – it was the start of the spectacle film (which incidentally rages to this day) and it spelled the end of the the brief Easy Riders & Raging Bulls period, the last golden era of American film making, of which Penn was a founding member. I suppose it stands to reason that Arthur Penn didn't end up on my radar given the fact the Lucas and Spielberg ruled the day by the time I was able to go to an R-Rated movie. I discovered the Hollywood New Wave during my 20's because of the home video revolution and all these years later, I'm still finding treasures from that period. It would be years before I returned to Bonnie and Clyde and was able to recognize it for the innovative and ground-breaking work that it was.
Little Big Man (1970) - Little Big Man is an epic tall tale and adventure-comedy from a great screenplay by Calder Willingham. Every bit as good as Bonnie and Clyde, in part because of a standout performance by Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man is amongst the best of the Revisionist Westerns. It's hilarious too.
Night Moves (1975) - Penn's challenging neo-noir Night Moves stars Gene Hackman at his absolute peak. It's a film that sits nearly hidden amongst a series of much-better-known movies that explored the noir motif around the same time - Chinatown, The Conversation, The Long Goodbye, The Stone Killer, Klute, and Dirty Harry to name a few. Night Moves is every bit as good and yet, like much of Penn's work, remains nearly forgotten. This is a gem.
The Left Handed Gun (1958) – Penn's feature film directorial debut and an influential one, in spite of the fact that it was a box-office disappointment in its initial release. It was the film that some consider the unofficial kickoff of the '60s-style Revisionist Westerns of Sam Peckinpah and others. Paul Newman plays Billy the Kid. Worth a look.
The Missouri Breaks (1976) – The 2nd strangest of Penn's films, by turns weirdly humourous and light- hearted and then dark and cynical. The pacing is wacky, time is oddly stretched, then contracted and Brando is completely unhinged throughout. One of my favourite films of the '70s, but for reasons I can't explain. If you want to see a barking mad Marlon Brando, silhouetted against a moonlight sky, dressed as Little Bo-Peep (bonnet and all, I shit you not) hurling firebombs into the darkness and cackling like a lunatic, this is your movie. Jack Nicholson plays the straight man.
The Train (1964) – Penn oversaw the development of the film and directed the first day of shooting, but Burt Lancaster (a notorious prick), apparently dissatisfied with Penn's concept of the picture, had him fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer (Penn got Frankenheimered, as one Hollywood reporter wrote). Penn's original script envisioned a more intimate film that would muse on the role art played in the French character, and why they would risk their lives to save the country's great art from the Nazis. It ended up an pure-action film, but Penn's presence remains at the periphery. It's reported the Lancaster said of Frankenheimer... "He's a bit of a whore, but he'll do what he's told". Coincidentally, I read somewhere that almost no one from Hollywood attended Lancaster's funeral years later.
Mickey One (1965) – A highly-obscure film directed by Penn that everyone seems to hate....except me, that is, because I loved it. When I say everyone, I mean the 25 people that know it exists and/or saw it at some late-night MoMA screening in the '90s. This was Penn's attempt at making a French New Wave film and the results are ...mixed, to say the least. Warren Beatty plays a stand-up comic who finds himself the target of Detroit mobsters, heads for Chicago to hide out and changes his name to Mickey One. He attempts to start again, but can't shake the feeling that he is still being followed - a hunch confirmed by a subsequent ass-kicking he gets walking home from work one night. Mickey One probably plays better now than it did back then and has a great Stan Getz's cool jazzy score. Penn's weirdest work, but intriguing and innovative. Not surprisingly I suppose, our Black Vault DVD copy has never left the store, which is a crying shame.
btw - Tony Curtis cacked the same day. R.I.P.