Arthur Penn, 1922–2010


Design by Bill Gold.

With respect to Bonnie and Clyde and my other films, I would have to say that I think violence is a part of the American character. It began with the Western, the frontier. America is a country of people who act out their views in violent ways—there is not a strong tradition of persuasion, of ideation, and of law.

Let’s face it: Kennedy was shot. We’re in Vietnam, shooting people and getting shot. We have not been out of a war for any period of time in my lifetime. Gangsters were flourishing during my youth, I was in the war at age 18, then came Korea, now comes Vietnam. We have a violent society. It’s not Greece, it’s not Athens, it’s not the Renaissance—it is the American society, and I would have to personify it by saying it is a violent one. So why not make films about it.

From The Bonnie and Clyde Book (1972)

Thus film director Arthur Penn, whose death was announced earlier this week, speaking at a press conference in Montreal in 1967 following the first screenings of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn’s film shocked critics and audiences at the time ostensibly for its graphic violence although the disturbance went deeper than that. What I found shocking the first time I saw it—home alone one evening, watching TV with no idea what to expect—was the abrupt shifts of tone from near comedy (the speeding cars and bluegrass soundtrack, Gene Wilder’s role) to awful realism as the consequences of a life of bank-robbing became apparent. This was disturbing for audiences used to being spoon-fed their morality tales with easily identifiable heroes and villains; the sudden, savage conclusion was especially jolting. A “nightmare comedy” quality was a hallmark of Penn’s best work, and he followed Bonnie and Clyde with another nightmare comedy that’s also a further exploration of America’s troubled history, Little Big Man (1970). Here Dustin Hoffman’s character finds himself caught between the Native Americans who raised him and the warring Cavalry intent on massacring the native tribes. Like Robert Aldrich in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Penn was using Western history to make a statement about America’s involvement in Vietnam; the soldiers in Little Big Man are murderous racists and General Custer is presented not as a doomed hero but as an unhinged psychopath. For me the film has always been distinguished by the character of Little Horse, the first (only?) gay Native American character in cinema. There’s plenty of documentary evidence for gay individuals in Native American tribes but these have seldom been seen in films. It’s Thomas Berger we have to thank for this detail, since it was Berger’s novel which Penn adapted, but the film’s writer and director are also to be congratulated for keeping a minor character who might easily have been excised.

It’s surprising when you see Bonnie and Clyde cited as one of the films that enabled directors to have more artistic freedom during the 1970s that Penn didn’t manage to do more during that golden decade. After Little Big Man there were two films which seem minor in comparison but would be major works from many lesser directors. Night Moves (1975) is one of the handful of attempts at updating film noir which appeared in the 1970s (for others see The Long Goodbye, Robert Aldrich’s Hustle and Taxi Driver), with a screenplay by Alan Sharp, the writer of Ulzana’s Raid. It’s a curio even by the standards of the decade, part detective story set in the Florida Keys, part symbolic drama with chess games and boats named “Point of View”; it’s also Penn’s last great film. The Missouri Breaks (1976), another Western, is fascinating for its pairing of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson but Brando’s eccentric performance is the start of his decline as an actor. It’s hard to believe that Penn only made five more films after this but he was one of a number of individual talents who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s then found themselves shut out in the 1980s as intellect was ousted by commerce. There’s even less room for him today than there was then. We’ve travelled from a time of intelligent and challenging films made by adults for adults to an era of shitty action movies and worthless adaptations of equally worthless costumed vigilantes. But I never counsel despair; celebrate what we have rather than bemoaning what we might have lost. Fuck Star Wars in 3D, watch Little Big Man instead.

Guardian obituary | NYT obituary
David Thomson on Penn

6 thoughts on “Arthur Penn, 1922–2010”

  1. There’s not much more to be said about Bonnie And Clyde, but I also loved The Chase, one of his early films, with Robert Redford, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Duvall, Angie Dickinson, etc. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but it’s a tense Southern thriller and works as an indictment of small- town bigotry as well.

  2. Yeah, I like The Chase as well although it suffered from studio interference which Penn wasn’t happy about. Mickey One is worth a look as well for its oddity. He was trying to import a New Wave sensibility into American cinema; it didn’t work there but paid off in Bonnie and Clyde.

  3. My wife got two commisseration phone calls from her sisters (one in Adelaide and the other in Oxford, we live in Australia) when Tony Curtis died but then she has named our two cats after the characters played by TC and Roger Moore in The Persuaders.
    I supposed Bernie Schawrtz could count as a gay icon for Some Like it Hot! and Spartacus (see the deleted scene reinstated in the DVD)

    “My taste includes both snails and oysters”

    She was more upset when Gene Pitney died. After all TC did make it to 85.

  4. Hello there. But do the cats take on the cases that no one else can deal with?

    Strictly speaking, it was Laurence Olivier’s character in Spartacus who was the bisexual one, I seem to recall Tony refusing his advances. I can’t imagine a slave then having much of a choice really. But it’s a nice scene given an extra frisson if you know the rumours about Olivier’s personal life.

  5. Hello there too.

    Nice to be back and now with a much faster broadband connection at home.

    Lord Brett Sinclair and Danni (she’s female) Wilde mostly spend their time sleeping and trying to avoid our much younger dog. A shelty named Dusty. Our cats are more the Sherlock Holmes type lying around the house and not going out searching for cases. I do have a picture of them playing chess against each other somewhere.

    At the moment I’m reading Stephen Fry’s second autobiographical volume and enjoying it. He did a good hour long solo performance at the Sydney Opera House which was just shown on free to air TV a few days ago. My youngest daughter is now up to listening to him reading the 5th Harry Potter novel on my new ipod Touch.

    Not that Bernie has left us who’s left from the Golden era of movies? KIrk Douglas and Liz Taylor. Anyone else

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