Admit it. A few of you just said, “who?”
I’m not talking to the film nerds right now. You guys know what’s up, represent. I’m talking to the rest of you, the normal folks out there who love movies but don’t dissect and devour them and spend every waking minute looking for your next fix. I’m talking to the folks who scan the movie title first on each of my posts, and then wander off if it doesn’t ring a bell. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that—we’re all busy these days—but allow me to explain why this is one name you should stick around for.
Do these guys ring your bell? Coppola? Scorsese? Lucas? If you know who they are, you should know Arthur Penn. For every successful revolution, there’s one that came before, one that didn’t quite stick, that ended with the leader’s head rolling down a set of cobblestone steps. Before there was New Hollywood, there was Penn. He was one of the first true American auteurs and he confounded and confused a system that wasn’t prepared for someone playing their own beat. His career went on life-support after his very first film and it returned many times before Penn was eventually shut out altogether, and yet, without Penn laying his groundwork in the 60s, the film-school revolution of the following decade may not have happened at all. There may have been no studios to topple.
That’s not false bravado. Penn’s most famous film is one of the landmark movies in American history, a missile called Bonnie and Clyde. Penn’s little film about a pair of mediocre bank robbers polarized the country with its shocking blend of comedy and violence, and it came to define the decade in film. The movie was also largely responsible for the destruction of two industry standards: establishment critics like Bosley Crowther, who railed against the film, and the Hayes Code, Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship system that had protected “decency” in America since 1934.
If those were Penn’s only accomplishments, they would be enough, but Penn was just getting started. He directed a handful of truly great films throughout the 1960s and 70s while working with such names as Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando (twice), Jack Nicholson, Anne Bancroft, Warren Beatty (twice), Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman (thrice), and, yes, Penn & Teller. He had one hell of a career.
And yet, when he passed away last year, one day beyond his 88th birthday, only the usual filmy sites (including this one) seemed to notice. The last years of Penn’s career were bleak; his audience stopped responding as Penn lost touch with them. Once a lightning rod, Penn struggled to get films off the ground in the 80s and 90s, and failed to draw even modest attention to the ones he did. Most of his final flops are built from scripts he wouldn’t have wiped his nose on back in the 60s for fear of catching cold. Even as his New Hollywood descendants were canonized as saints during the 90s indie explosion, Penn quietly faded away.
I’m eager to rediscover Penn’s work—all of it, not just the headliners that we all know. I hope you’ll stick around. Many of you won’t need convincing, but if you’re still not sure, then know this: stick with me, folks, and if nothing else, you’ll see Marlon Brando wearing a prairie dress.
Welcome to the Arthur Penn Project.
Arthur Hiller Penn
9/27/1922 in Philadelphia, PA
9/28/2010 (congestive heart failure)
Harry Penn (watchmaker) and Sonia Penn (nurse).
Compared to some maverick directors, Arthur Penn’s life seems built on a rock of stability. He was born in Philadelphia to a family that included older brother Irving, eventually a successful photographer. Penn’s parents divorced early and he left Philadelphia to live with his mother in New York, although Penn maintained a strong relationship with his father, even returning in his teen years to help run the family watch-repair shop.
Penn’s first love was the theatre. He became interested in high school, and when he enlisted in 1943, he took the opportunity to study theatre at every post where he was stationed, including Paris and England. When he returned to the states after the war, Penn became a student of Michael Chekov, where he learned the merits of Method acting.
Penn found work as a floor manager for NBC, managing and directing for dramatic anthology shows like First Person, and Playhouse 90. Penn occasionally crossed paths with fate: He was supposedly the man on the floor when Milton Berle coined his nickname “Uncle Milty,” and later even helped direct John F. Kennedy in one of his famed debates with Richard Nixon. Legend has it that it may have been Penn himself who instructed Kennedy on how to speak effectively for the television cameras.
Penn’s big break came when he directed a Playhouse 90 production of William Gibson’s play, “The Miracle Worker,” in 1957. Penn scored glowing reviews for the episode, a melodrama about the teacher Anne Sullivan as she attempts to make contact with the nearly feral Helen Keller. Penn later directed the play on Broadway as his theatre career blossomed. Penn directed several hit, Tony-winning Broadway productions, even as his early film career got off to a rocky start. Subversive and experimental films such as The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One confused critics and sent Penn back to the theatre, where he may have lived out his career if not for a script that passed his desk about two bank robbers in love.
Penn’s work on Bonnie and Clyde changed his life. He became Hollywood royalty and pushed through a number of passion projects that might otherwise have gone nowhere. His career took a nosedive in the late 70s, and Penn returned to theatre and, eventually, television, but he never gave up on film. His last major release was Inside, an apartheid story produced for Showtime in 1996.
Penn married Peggy Maurer, a family therapist, in 1955. They had two children together: Molly and Matthew, the latter of whom is a director himself, having helmed a number of episodes of Law and Order, the show his father once worked on as a producer between 2000 and 2001.
- Known for interest in social issues and the “spirit” of the 1960s, which he often commented on in his films.
- Stories usually revolve around outcasts working outside the boundaries of society, who can then reflect back an image of what it means to be “normal”
- Television background reflects strongly in his compositions and strength with actors
- Sharply stylistic camera work and lighting, heavily influenced by European cinema
Number of Eligible Films
Connection to the Previous Project?
John Hughes cast Matthew Broderick as the voice of the 80s youth culture in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Two decades earlier, Arthur Penn cast Matthew’s father, James Broderick, to stand in for the dark side of the 60s youth culture in Alice’s Restaurant.
Penn was a three-media superstar, a man who had massive hits on movie screens, televisions, and the Broadway stage. Obviously, his TV work is not our concern here, nor is his work on The Train, a Burt Lancaster film Penn was fired from before being replaced by John Frankenheimer. The Train would have been Penn’s third feature film, but he made The Chase instead. I’m also skipping Visions of Eight and Lumiere and Company, because he only contributed segments to those pictures, the equivalent of short films.
The only questionable titles are his TV movies: Flesh and Blood (1968), The Portrait (1993), and Inside (1996). TV movies are a tough call, and I lean towards leaving them out. They’re often written and designed with a different structure from feature films (to accommodate commercials) and struggle with lower budgets and more restrictions on what the director can and cannot do. Out of the three, the only one I’m inclined to look at is Inside. Directed for pay cable (Showtime) and submitted to a few legitimate film festivals, Inside is the only one of his TV movies that seems to fit with his feature work.
For confirmation, let’s go to the book. Throughout this project, I’ll be using Arthur Penn: Interviews, edited by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin, as a reference. The book covers his work on Inside, but neither of the others. That seals it: Inside is in, and the others are out.
This should be a fairly simple Project to approach. Unlike, say, John Hughes, there’s not an ocean of material out there that’s borderline eligible, and Penn didn’t have some massive side career as a writer or cinematographer. He made the films he made, and that’s what I’ll be looking at.
One element that’s important to understand when studying Penn is that his films are a product of their time, and many of them feature veiled or outright allusions to the tumultuous 1960s, the decade where Penn came into his own as an artist. To look at that important element, I’ll include The Issue as a category in every write-up, so that we can get to the heart of what Penn, a man who might be called a protest filmmaker, was trying to say.
(The Arthur Penn Project is complete. Please enjoy the links below to explore the Project and let me know what you think! What are your rankings?)
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
9. Inside (1996)
8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
7. The Chase (1966)
6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)
5. Night Moves (1975)
4. Mickey One (1965)
3. The Miracle Worker (1962)
2. Little Big Man (1970)
1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)