Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn: 1922 - 2010

In the space of ten years, Arthur Penn directed four films that were as good as anything being produced in America at that time. Penn, who died yesterday at the age of 88, is not as celebrated as other filmmakers from the golden age of the 70's, but he was largely responsible for kick-starting that brief period of freedom and creativity in American mainstream cinema. In 1967, Penn, who had previously collaborated with Warren Beatty on Mickey One, directed Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, a film that stunned viewers with its uncompromising depiction of the outlaw couple. The jagged editing and explicit violence is still startling today, and in 1967 it marked a cinematic watershed, giving audiences something that the studio system was failing to do. As filmmakers revelled in the new parameters that films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Easy Rider had opened up for them, Penn's next success came with one of the most unconventional films of the decade, Little Big Man, an odd western in which Dustin Hoffman excelled as a 100 year-old man recounting his eventful past.

Arthur Penn studied at the Actor's Studio, and his ability to draw strong and surprising performances from his casts later proved to be one of his greatest attributes. In 1975's Night Moves, Gene Hackman gives a magnificent performance as a private eye caught up in a nightmarish plot, and while Bonnie and Clyde is Penn's most widely acclaimed work, I think this film, one of the great films of the 70's, is his real masterpiece. A year later, Penn worked with two powerhouse actors, Marlon Brandon and Jack Nicholson, although he was eventually defeated by Brando's determination to act however the hell he liked and defy any attempts at direction. Still, The Missouri Breaks is a fine and terrifically entertaining film, and it's a shame Penn never really made a film worthy of his seriousness and talent after this. There were some failures and unsuccessful experiments in the years that followed, before Penn returned to television and theatre, the places in which he originally learned his trade. Nevertheless, Penn's place in film history is assured for the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde, and for his great mid-70's work which deserves to be rediscovered.