Peter Galvin looks at a career that helped reinvent American cinema.
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8 Oct 2010 - 10:21 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

Filmmaker Arthur Penn died at his home in New York on September 28, aged 88. He is perhaps most famous as the director of Bonnie and Clyde, the controversial 1967 hit that divided audiences and critics at the time, but one that historians now argue changed Hollywood movies for ever. Penn had his roots in the theatre and gained respect directing live drama on TV in the late '50s. Soon after that a career on Broadway took off. A student of 'the Method,' perhaps his greatest contribution to motion pictures was the way he deconstructed conventional ideas about film acting. Thoughtful and courageous, he possessed a rich and complex sensibility, directing Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway to deliver a kind of acting that was at once mythic and deeply authentic, real and romantic.

At first, Arthur Penn never really wanted to make Bonnie and Clyde. The script, by two novice writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, was something of a tribute to the sensibility and style of the French New Wave and directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. It combined extreme violence with sex and comedy. It was happy-go-lucky one minute, dark and bleak the next. Its star, Warren Beatty, was also producing. It wasn't that Penn had no sympathy either for Beatty, who then had a rep as a pretty boy, or the New Wave. Only a couple of years earlier, Penn and Beatty had collaborated on Mickey One (1965), a weird and eccentric piece made under the sign of Godard, but that had been a critical and commercial bomb. Penn's later admissions as to why he was reluctant about taking on Bonnie and Clyde are revealing. Here was a director in search of something deeper, stronger. Years later, he told researchers that he felt the material could end up routine, 'seen-before.' (“I didn't want to make just another gangster picture.”) Mark Harris, in his book Scenes from a Revolution, portrays Penn at the time of Beatty's offer as a gifted director, a forty-something show biz vet, trying to work out his next move, burnt by Hollywood, but alive with new ideas, in need of material to test them. At this time Penn had only one hit, The Miracle Worker (1962), which he also had directed on TV as well as the stage. His earlier studio experience, The Left-Handed Gun, with Paul Newman in 1958, had been a bitter experience. His latest movie was The Chase (1965), which hadn't done any business, and by the time Beatty came around with the Benton/Newman script he had been fired off a Burt Lancaster star vehicle, The Train (ultimately directed by John Frankenheimer).

Penn, as he would often do throughout his career, went back to the theatre, but his Broadway work flopped, too. When Penn re-read Bonnie and Clyde he discovered a possibility; with its Depression-era setting in the hard-hit US mid-West and its dirt-poor farmers and poverty, it was a chance, says Harris, for Penn to make a movie about social and economic injustice in America – a scary theme for a studio pic in the 1960s.

Still, Penn had always been attracted to outsiders, rebels and misfits. The son of a watchmaker and nurse, Penn says he was the product of an unhappy marriage; his parents divorced when he was three and he would later tell one biographer that he grew up in an atmosphere of emotional indifference and uncertainty, soul-searching and identity seeking – not unlike the hero of Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

But Penn wasn't only making a movie about rebels; he wanted to make a rebellious movie that spoke directly to the young people of America whose ideals, attitudes and interests had been largely ignored by studios. Thus, Bonnie and Clyde's ultimate fate – death in a hail of bullets – had to be a cultural statement; their deaths were not merely the typical fate of crims. Their screen deaths would be a monument; Bonnie and Clyde were being punished not just for their terrible misdeeds, but their style. Violence in movies, Penn thought, needed to speak to a generation pummelled by Vietnam, street riots, and urban decay. Shot with multiple cameras, at different speeds, the scene of Bonnie and Clyde's ambush at the hands of the law was 'a ballet of death', its blood, shredded flesh, and emotional anguish, something completely unseen in mainstream cinema, anywhere. For the generation of filmmakers that followed, Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese amongst them, it was a revelation. No one could miss Penn's point; violence had to be more than spectacle, a turn-on. Not surprisingly, some critics were aghast over what was in the film. (Not just the blood, either, but the sex; in one scene that still plays frank today, Dunaway's Bonnie attempts to go down on Beatty's Clyde, only to be rejected.)

Reputations were made in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde; Pauline Kael earned notoriety by defending it and forged a career as a major voice in US criticism as a consequence. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther hated it, and was eventually fired because he was thought too unhip for the new generation of readers and viewers. Bonnie and Clyde changed cinema and changed film criticism. Like all great art works, its power lay in the fact that it forced filmmakers, audiences and critics to re-assess their own values. Roger Ebert, then a young critic, was prescient on Bonnie and Clyde. He called it, “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance… years from now it is quite possible that it will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s…”

It's been said that Penn never bettered Bonnie and Clyde. But his next few pictures were amongst the most adventurous and interesting American cinema had to offer in the '70s. Alice's Restaurant (1969), a painful and funny reflection on the bright promise and disappointment of hippie culture; Little Big Man (1970), with Dustin Hoffman, a sharp and enduring anti-Western that savaged the old myths of frontier America; Night Moves (1975), a stark and sad film noir with Gene Hackman as a private eye who knows all the angles, but cannot find himself; and The Missouri Breaks (1976), a bleak and funny, almost but not quite, satire that interrogates, violently, the myth of the outlaw. And if that weren't enough, it has Brando in dress and bonnet!

Penn's work in the '80s included Four Friends (1981), Target (1985) and Dead of Winter (1987). His last movie was Inside in 1996. His last work on Broadway was Fortune's Fool in 2002; it won two Tony Awards for acting.

In his last years, Penn worked with his son Matthew, a director, as executive producer on the television show Law and Order. It is a fine testament to Penn's compassionate and humanistic sensibility that he never hogged or hoarded credit for Bonnie and Clyde, even taking pains to support Newman, Benton, the actors and writer Robert Towne who worked on the script.

Penn is survived by his wife of 54 years, Peggy, his son Matthew, and daughter Molly.