by Tony Dayoub
Earlier this year we lost a frequent collaborator of his, Dede Allen; now comes the sad word of director Arthur Penn's passing. Together, they were formidable in establishing the rhythms that would go on to define American cinema of the seventies with the seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But one look at the Twitter page today demonstrates how unappreciated Penn was outside of this landmark film.
One of the famed group of TV directors—along with John Frankenheimer, George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, and Robert Mulligan—which began on theatrical showcases like Playhouse 90, Penn would also work on Broadway, winning a Tony in 1960 for his direction of The Miracle Worker, a play he had already directed on television in 1957 and would go on to be nominated for when he directed the 1962 film version as well. Unlike the other luminaries above, though, he wouldn't really make his mark in movies until the late sixties, with Bonnie and Clyde.
It is with Bonnie and Clyde that he would fuse elements he had mastered in previous films—the powerful directorial command over performances of The Miracle Worker (1962), the French New Wave-accented aesthetic of Mickey One (1965), and the zeitgeist-influenced storytelling of The Chase (1966)—to forge a coherent and powerful movie which broke new ground in its depiction of sex and violence in American film. Once it did that, there was no turning back.
The significance of this film understandably overshadows his later ones, some of which I prefer over Bonnie and Clyde (a film I still enjoy). Little Big Man (1970) is one of the earliest revisionist westerns which sympathizes with the plight of the dislocated Native Americans through the eyes of a young white man (Dustin Hoffman) adopted by the Cheyenne. And Night Moves (1975) is my favorite, a paranoid and downbeat detective thriller which reunited Penn with his Clyde star, Gene Hackman. It is probably his last truly great film, and Penn would go on to direct not many more.
He died yesterday at the age of 88.
Recommended Films - The Left Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks