Archive for category Arthur Penn

Wrap-Up: The Arthur Penn Project

Artists like Arthur Penn are the reason I run this site. As a film nerd, I get jollies from discovering lesser-known films or hidden gems; I’ll sift through a dozen Targets for one Mickey One. Unfortunately, I risk paying for my search in daily page views. It’s risky to write about a name with no pop. Jim Henson, Stanley Kubrick, and James Bond are all SEO-friendly names. Five months on Arthur Penn? Pfffffft.

Thankfully, my numbers didn’t shrink during the Penn Project and may have even grown. My goal was to make Arthur Penn’s case for those unfamiliar with his work, and it appears as if I may have done that, at least in some tiny way. Hopefully my readers who haven’t checked out Penn’s catalog will take a chance now. It’s never been easier to discover someone new. As of today, three Penn films are available on Instant Netflix: Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, and Night Moves. All you have to do is CLICK.

Now that I’m finished with the Arthur Penn Project and can see the scope of it, I realize how sad a story it truly is. I don’t mean that we should feel bad for Penn; he seemed happy enough and lived an amazing life. It’s just disappointing to see a man whose place in history is denied. The New Hollywood movement of Coppola, Malick, Altman, et al, didn’t manifest from nowhere. It stood on the shoulders of what came before. Specifically, it stood on Penn’s shoulders. No amount of late-career flopping can take that away.

So as we close the book on Penn, let’s take stock of his legacy.

Arthur Penn brought the French New Wave to America. Maybe that’s not a big deal to you—and I received several comments over the course of the project that said as much—so here’s something that should be. First, if you take a look at American movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s, you’ll spot plenty of obvious differences, from technical advancements to content. But what you won’t find in surplus is variation, at least not in visual style. The studio system was exactly that—a system, a factory method of producing art. Men (always men) succeeded if they thrived within the system, men such as Michael Curtiz who never had a strong visual look, but who knew how to get the right shot from the right actors at the right time and thus produced a library of classics. But the films of the late 1960s and leading into the 1970s are radically different precisely because directors like Penn embraced the New Wave. Out went the too-perfect films off the factory line and in came movies that used editing to tell stories, shifted tones and styles jarringly, and redefined what a movie could be. Even if New Wave isn’t your thing, the films of New Hollywood don’t exist without it, and Penn helped make that happen by seeing the writing on the wall and accepting it. Not bad for a man who cut his teeth on television, the home of no-nonsense, get-the-shot filmmaking.

Arthur Penn helped topple the Hays Code. The Hays Code was Hollywood’s self-imposed system of censorship that made sure couples never slept in the same bed, murders always happened off screen, and crime never paid. The Code literally shaped reality for generations of movie-goers who couldn’t conceive of a story in which the bad guy didn’t suffer for his schemes or where sex happened outside of marriage. The Code was already on life support by 1968, an inevitable decline that began when the studios lost control of the theatres in 1948. Penn didn’t kill the Code, but he hastened its death by showing the studios a way forward without it. Penn proved that violent films could be art, and the new youth Baby Boomer audience had dollars to spend on mayhem.

Arthur Penn was an auteur. This might be a controversial point for critics who never shined to Penn’s visuals, but what’s the counter-argument? OK, Penn almost never took a writing credit on his films, but he was intimately involved with the rewrite process for each. Yes, Penn popped out a bunch of real clunkers late in his career, but even those films have a remarkable uniformity in theme and tone. Penn’s work is of a piece, concerned with outcasts and identity and lost children looking for surrogate parents. Penn’s lost characters range from Billy the Kid to Arlo Guthrie to Bonnie, Clyde, and all Four Friends.

I recently watched a VHS copy of The Portrait, a schmaltzy 1993 TV movie directed by Penn. (I mentioned it briefly way back on the kickoff post for this Project.) It’s an overwrought, uneven little nugget starring Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck, and Peck’s real-life daughter, Cecilia, as a weird dysfunctional family. Basically, Cecilia plays a painter about to get famous, but she needs to finish a portrait of her mother and father. She believes her parents don’t care that much about her or her career, and the twist is that, yeah, they kind of don’t. Peck and Bacall are so wrapped up with themselves and with being in love after decades of marriage that they won’t sit still for the portrait and even casually remark that they never really wanted a child. They come around, though, sit for the portrait, and attend her show.

So, what do we have here? There’s a girl with no clear role in her family and no identity for herself. In fact, her parents are assassinating her identity by mocking her like a couple of AARP shitheads. It’s an odd script, but even so, it’s right in Penn’s wheelhouse.

Penn’s own search for identity was the guiding narrative of his life. We’re talking about a man from a broken home who spent years changing houses and schools like we change socks, a man who lived with his father from age 14, but never knew him. Penn’s upbringing took its toll; he referred to himself as “emotionally unavailable” for his own children.

Penn poured his unresolved issues into his work—he claimed his themes were unintentional, but admitted they were there. He found success because just as Penn was struggling with his identity, so was his audience. Penn’s work resonated in the 60s in a way that it simply didn’t in the hangover of the 70s or the me-me-me 80s, and although he found critical success here and there, his work was never the same after 1970 and his long hiatus. Penn was a man of his time, and time only moves on.

Penn’s greatest work is the result of synergy with man, material, and moment. He was good enough at finding that synergy to succeed at every medium he attempted. He was a success in film. He was a success in TV. He was a success in theatre, his first love. As a man of history, Penn played his role. He fought in wars, advised Presidents, and shifted the axis of an art form. What he did for film cannot be measured. As an artist, Penn snuck into the studio after hours, kicked over the furniture, and left the door unlocked for others. The real revolution would soon begin, and although it wasn’t Penn’s fate to join it, he was there. It was his show. It was always his show.

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)

Advertisements

1 Comment

Penn #1 – Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

A movie about two gangsters and, accidentally, the end of a nation’s innocence.

The Story

Bored waitress Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meets wandering ex-con Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) one Texas morning and commits armed robbery with him by lunch. This dalliance with delinquency puts the lovers on the run, and their desperation results in more robberies and even murder. As the manhunt mounts, Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes and attract disciples, including driver CW Moss, Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck’s wife, Blanche, but their fate is inevitable. The police kill Buck, Blanche turns traitor, and Moss’s father conspires with a Texas Ranger to execute a gruesome finale for the pair.

The Production

Bonnie and Clyde is famously the first major American movie to adopt the French New Wave aesthetic, but the film was very nearly French by birth. David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay was special enough to be shopped to names like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the latter declaring that he’d shoot the film in a single week. Investors balked, however, and the script fell into the well-tailored lap of Warren Beatty, who knew a director who might fit: Arthur Penn, who had shot the ambitious flop Mickey One with Beatty years before.

I like to pretend it’s a sequel.

Once on board, Penn ordered script tweaks to alter the dynamic between the outlaws. The final film is frank in its sexuality, but the script was even more so, depicting Bonnie and Clyde as sex-crazed thrill-killers, and CW Moss as their thick boy toy. Under Penn’s watch, Moss morphed into a childlike innocent, and Clyde became impotent, grounding the couple’s relationship in need and kinship rather than superficial lust.

Penn’s every decision became a home run. Originally conceived as black and white, Penn shot the film in romantic color, and the bloody violence became more present and shocking as a result. Penn also hired non-professionals for his supporting roles, and gave his charismatic leads room to improvise, resulting in less-calculated, messier footage. The result was a film unlike anything Warner Bros. had ever produced.

Like, really.

They weren’t happy about it. One Warner executive (rumored to be Jack Warner himself) notoriously called the film a piece of shit. Penn’s movie didn’t waddle or quack like a typical Hollywood gangster picture, and so it was unceremoniously dumped after the first (uniformly bad) reviews. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was particularly spiteful, slinging his poison ink in an all-out assault against the film and its violence.

But the tables began to turn. The film found success with teens on the drive-in circuit, prompting Beatty to beg successfully (allegedly on his knees) for a re-release. Suddenly, major critics revisited the film and some revised their bad reviews—most notably Pauline Kael, whose Bonnie and Clyde review is one of the most famous in film history. Crowther, on the other hand, dug in deeper, waging war against his readers and continually attacking the film in his column. The seige forced the Times to accept that Crowther had grown out of touch with modern movies, and so the paper relieved Crowther in 1968 after 27 years of service.

“They replaced my column with some cartoon named ‘Ziggy.’ What the hell is a ‘Ziggy!?'”

The Issue

Take your pick. Bonnie and Clyde skewers capitalism by showing how two poor yokels became folk heroes by attacking banks during the Great Depression, but it also takes a jab at the media for helping to canonize murderers in the first place. Additionally, the film reflects the late 60s and the bloody conflict in Vietnam served up as infotainment at the nation’s dinner table.

The Scene

The film’s insanely famous ending, parodied and imitated to death, and yet as powerful as ever. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first major films to use squibs for bullet effects, and there’s not many who ever did it better. (Dunaway, in particular, looks as if she’s being ripped apart.) It’s easy to see why this left an impact on audiences who, just a few years earlier, weren’t allowed to watch so much as a fired gun on the same screen as its victim.

Note: I can’t find a single clip of this scene that will allow me to embed, but I promise that it’s worth the extra click. 3 minutes long and insanely awesome.

Overall

Here we are at last. End of the line. If you figured from the very beginning that Bonnie and Clyde would be the #1 film on this countdown then you, my friend, get the no-prize. Excelsior!

For months, I’ve been leading to this review, but now that it’s arrived, what am I supposed to say? Bonnie and Clyde is a great film. Pack your shit, everybody, let’s go home. The movie’s status was assured long before I got here. The film doesn’t need me to wax poetically about its greatness, because literally entire books have been written on that topic. Bonnie and Clyde is so well-covered that it would be silly and redundant for me to spend the next page of our collective time explaining to you that it’s a classic. It just is.

Something else that doesn’t need explaining: Faye Dunaway is smoking hot.

But why? Why this film, at this moment in history? Great movies come and go all the time, initially ignored and discovered much later (The Shawshank Redemption and about a thousand others), but this one changed everything while it was still in theatres. Why did Mickey One, full of the same passion and ideas, flop so spectacularly while Bonnie and Clyde became a boulder rolling downhill?

The last question is the easiest to answer—the violence, of course. Americans have always been partial to life and death stakes. (Hell, so has everybody. The French New Wave was a fairly artsy-fartsy film movement, but almost completely inspired by American gangster films.) The same formula that made Bonnie and Clyde a success has worked many, many times since, most recently with the films of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction and Bonnie and Clyde share the same DNA, blending comedy with chaos and mirth with mayhem. Tarantino also wrote the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a film that owes Bonnie and Clyde its very life.

The violence in Bonnie and Clyde is shocking, brutal, and occasionally fun, and so it’s easy to understand why teens embraced it. Bonnie and Clyde’s story has always been about wish-fulfillment. (It certainly wasn’t about the bank robbing; they were notoriously bad at that.) Depression-era readers thrilled to the idea of sticking it to the suits taking their homes, of riding out on the plains with a gun on their lap and a tank full of stolen gas. America’s love of the outlaw is tied to our love of the car and the freedom it represents, the freedom to drop everything and simply drive to a new life. Bonnie and Clyde were heroes of the 30s—Penn recalled seeing them in the paper as a child—but the youth of the 60s were in a similar mood to cast off authority and go fucking crazy. That the film is also about love (with the woman as the sexual aggressor, no less!) was equally appealing. It was a smart bomb of cultural impact, and it influenced everything from youth fashion to the oncoming wave of psychedelic road pictures, beginning with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.

However, there’s more to the film than simply appealing to the youth’s taste for outlaw violence. Another developing idea in the late 60s was that to truly be free, one had to abandon the traditional family structure and seek out others like you and form a new community. It’s a theme we’ve seen again and again in Penn’s films, most notably in Alice’s Restaurant and Four Friends, and it happens here once again. There is no tradition that can suit people like Bonnie, Clyde, or Moss. Buck and Blanche have married, but Buck still craves the outlaw life. The group forms their own family where they can each seem normal, playing house in loft apartments with Clyde and Buck as the two patriarchs, Bonnie and Blanche as the competing wives, and CW Moss as their surrogate child. That their family is based on crime and violence is irrelevant; all that truly matters is that they’ve made a choice. They’ve rejected the expected, and that’s a very appealing message for baby boomers discovering their power not as individuals, but as a unit, separate from their parents and from anyone who expects them to fall in line.

Because that worked out so well for everyone else.

We can go still deeper. I mentioned the violence in Vietnam pumping through the nation’s TVs, but it bears repeating. Nothing like that had ever been seen in American media, ever. America is a unique place in that wars typically happen somewhere else, over there. For generations, Americans had desensitized and disconnected to the reality of war by describing it in black & white terms. We must defeat fascism, we must find the commies, and so on. (World War II provided a big boost in that department because the coalitions politely formed up on clear moral lines.) Vietnam was something else altogether, a murky conflict, hazily justified, but not altogether wrong. With that uncertainty came the violence on the screen, the first major televised American conflict, and no matter how heavily the footage was edited, it shocked. Adults who had formed their identities on the idea of American superheroism were able to rationalize it as part of the greater good. The boomers, still forming their identities and conveniently locked into that prime window of instinctual teenage rebellion, were not. The shock of that violence and the perceived dissonance between America’s corporate motto and our government’s action led to a population in need of catharsis. Along comes Bonnie and Clyde, the right movie at the right time. In a color film, blood is the same red of reality, and the film allowed the boomers to compartmentalize the violence, face it, and reconcile it. By watching the outlaws turn violence on authority, audiences could get a handle on it, understand it, and feel as if they could control it. Bonnie and Clyde was a touchstone, psychologically, and angry, confused audiences grabbed it.

Maybe these layers weren’t intended, but maybe they were. Arthur Penn was well-educated, and his movie is very, very smart, carefully layered and constructed to achieve maximum impact in the final violent ballet of bullets. Like his later Little Big Man, Penn suckers the audience in with warm, sunny colors and a lighthearted tone. We laugh at CW Moss’s silly grin or at Buck’s cow joke. This is the film debut of Gene Wilder, after all, playing a hostage who warms to the gang and rides around with them eating hamburgers.

“…and I said ‘Oompa Loomper! I don’t even KNOW her!” 

But Wilder’s character is an undertaker, and only Bonnie seems to realize that he’s an omen. Only she seems to realize that her gang doesn’t control the violence, that nobody can. Like audiences must have secretly expected by 1967, conflicts this bloody cannot end well, not for anyone. A bad end is coming for them. Eventually the violence must consume them, because that’s what violence does. It eats and eats, and it craves legends most of all.

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)

Next: Final thoughts on Arthur Penn and a look at one of the greatest goodest film franchises in history.

Leave a comment

Penn #2 – Little Big Man (1970)

“One hundred and eleven years ago, when I was ten…”

The Story:

121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, in sweet age makeup) tells a reporter how he became the only white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand by recounting the murder of his parents by Pawnee, his life with the Cheyenne “human beings,” and his adventures as a gunfighter, a husband, a snake oil salesman, a scout, and a kept boy for a lusty preacher’s wife (Faye Dunaway). Critically, Crabb reveals Custer’s brutal genocide of the Cheyenne, and how Crabb eventually led the General to his death.

The Production:

Arthur Penn had long been interested in the true story of how the west was won, and in fact had been working on a script of his own when he came across Thomas Berger’s picaresque 1964 novel, Little Big Man. Penn dropped his project to pursue the film rights but, since there’s an immutable law in the universe that nothing ever goes smoothly for Arthur Penn, a rights war with MGM stalled the project for six years. Penn moved on to a string of film classics, including Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, before finally returning to Little Big Man in 1970.

To play the part, method-actor Hoffman aged 95 years over a summer break.

Had he known what he was in for, he might have thought twice. Little Big Man was a painful production, what Penn referred to a “killer” job. The Alberta set was enormous—up to a thousand people could show up for lunch—and besieged by frigid Canadian winds. Penn’s loose style and the story’s sprawling nature led to months of shooting and miles of footage, which Penn and his longtime editor Dede Allen finally condensed to two and a half hours of film.

Little Big Man opened over the 1970 Christmas season and found modest success, coasting hard on Hoffman’s performance and the film’s slyly accessible tone. Still, as per usual, the movie only found true success abroad—Penn said the film was a hit in every market except the US.

It’s like we’re not the good guys, or something.

The Issue:

With all the Indians and cavalry and cowboys, it should be pretty obvious by now: Vietnam. OK, the film is definitely about sanctioned genocide and the folly of Manifest Destiny, but Penn had an eye on the broader themes of conquest and the conquered. Penn believed all civilized cultures commit atrocities when annexing the so-called uncivilized, and he drew a clear parallel between the murder of Cheyenne women and children and alleged similar incidents in the Vietnam War.

The Scene:

Little Big Man is proudly episodic, a series of loosely-connected scenes, told like a homespun story on a lazy summer porch. Since this is Jack Crabb’s highlight reel, it’s filled with great scenes, from Crabb’s days as the Soda Pop Kid to his near-murder of a naked Custer (which predicts Brando’s bathtub scene in The Missouri Breaks). My favorite, however, comes late in the film, in a droll scene that secretly carries the film’s entire idea in just a few moments. Old Lodge Skins (the fantastic and Oscar-nominated Chief Dan George), Crabb’s surrogate father, has decided that it’s his time to die and asks Crabb to aid him.

This scene is Penn’s symbol for the fate of the Indians. Old Lodge Skins senses that his people’s time has passed and he asks to join them on the other side. When he lives, we laugh his nonchalant acceptance or, if we’re feeling mean-spirited, his “silly” beliefs. But to Penn, this is the core tragedy. The native people are condemned to die, yes, and to be wiped from their land, but they’re also condemned to live, sitting on their reservations fully aware of the past glory that’s been robbed of them, watching as history passes them by.

Overall:

Little Big Man is technically one of the best westerns of all time, and if I sound like I’m hesitating, it’s because the only thing Little Big Man has in common with a traditional western is the side of the country it’s in (hint: not east). The differences go beyond the film’s strictly-revisionist content and into its heart. Westerns typically look you in the eye and speak plainly—this is the genre of white and black hats—but Little Big Man says everything at a slant, shielding its meaning behind satire. It starts as a crowd pleaser and then goes for the throat.

For every laugh, a hundred people die.

We can forgive Penn’s aggression because, at the time, Indian mistreatment was hardly confined to history. Penn’s film is as much about the atrocities as it is the depiction of those atrocities that still lingered in pop media. If history is written by the winners, then we wrote the story as an action movie, with white survival threatened by unfeeling savages drunk on murder, and while in today’s post-Costner world condemning those lies feels like preaching to the choir, in 1970 it was hard to even find the church. This was the dawn of the American Indian Movement and Red Power, and only a few short years ahead of the Wounded Knee siege and Sacheen Littlefeather. Little Big Man premiered to a country that still desperately needed to hear what it had to say.

The movie uses comedy as a lure. The aged Jack Crabb is a cranky old coot weaving tall tales. He spends less time discussing his parents’ murder than he does his sister’s indignation when the Cheyenne refuse to rape her. When Crabb defects back to white society rather than die in battle, we’re treated to overwrought farce as he’s “civilized” by a devout couple, including Faye Dunaway as a lady who seems to have interest in arousing more than Crabb’s faith. Dunaway’s character, among others, fills the movie with a sense of fluffy brightness, which makes the coming genocide all the more shocking.

Crabb is at the center of two real-life massacres—Sand Creek and Washita River—and Penn largely stages these scenes as defenseless villagers annihilated by bloodthirsty cavalry. What’s interesting is that Penn’s portrayal is not entirely accurate either, sliding right past revision and into an agenda-driven rewrite, a technique he applies liberally throughout the film. The white people in Little Big Man are almost universally corrupt. Custer (the brilliant Richard Mulligan) is pure detachment and megalomania. The Christians are hypocrites. Men like Wild Bill Hickok kill and are killed for no reason. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne treat each other with respect, and attack only in self-defense or to avenge loved ones. They’re shown as kind, funny, and tolerant; one Cheyenne youth is openly feminine and reads as homosexual to white eyes, yet he’s fully embraced into Cheyenne society, putting them at least a century or two ahead us in that department.

Penn’s version of events has been accused of reverse racism, of painting whites as the devils some Indians claimed they were, but it’s hard to sustain that argument because Crabb never loses his fundamental whiteness. If the main character of the film had been a native-born warrior—Old Lodge Skins, or perhaps Crabb’s enemy, the angry Little Bear—Little Big Man would be no more than a beautiful, well-shot, but shrill bit of provocation, a propaganda piece. As it is, Crabb never fully embraces either side of his heritage. He moves back and forth between the whites and the human beings (the Cheyenne name for themselves), and while the greed and hubris of the whites infuriates him, he seems to recognize that the problem lies with particular whites, not the race as a whole.

This begs the question: Why use Crabb at all? Why tell the story as an ancient man’s flashback and not simply tell the story straight through? The answer is there in Old Lodge Skins’ “death” scene. Jack Crabb is neither Cheyenne, nor white. He’s both, tied together forever by a common history, and in that way, Jack Crabb represents America itself. Like Crabb, the country has seen its share of joys and tragedies, has embraced many cultures and allowed them to prosper, has stood witness to the loss of its own identity and the rise of a new one. And, like Crabb, America is still here, built on memories of murder that fade, but are never gone. We who live here can’t help how our country was born or how the west was won. We can only remember and, like Old Lodge Skins and older Jack Crabb, we can live with that memory. And live, and live, and live.

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. ??? (although, really, it should be obvious by now)

1 Comment

Penn #3 – The Miracle Worker (1962)

“Wah wah” as “Eureka.”

The Story

Scarlet fever wrecks Alabama toddler Helen Keller, leaving her permanently blind and deaf. Years later, Helen (Patty Duke) is locked in her own head, nearly feral, and her desperate family asks specialist Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) to reach her. Teacher and unwilling student go to war over simple tasks like holding a spoon, but just as Helen seems poised to win the conflict, a breakthrough at the water pump sparks her connection to the rest of the world.

The Production

The Miracle Worker was only Arthur Penn’s second film, but the director had worked on the project for years. The story began as a teleplay written by William Gibson (no, not that William Gibson) and directed by Penn as a 1957 episode of anthology TV series Playhouse 90, a success that led to a Broadway version in 1959, also guided by Penn. It was on stage that Penn first cast Bancroft and Duke into their iconic roles and, like the episode, the production was a runaway hit.

Faced.

Smelling money, Hollywood began to circle the story. United Artists, seeing a film version as a potential vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, snatched up the rights, and hired Penn to recreate his Broadway experience for the movies. Surprisingly, Penn’s first major decision was to dump Taylor. Penn vowed to retain Bancroft as the lead and held firm through months of negotiation until UA eventually caved, but with one major concession: the planned $2 million shooting budget was slashed to under $700k.

Penn’s gamble paid off huge, both for UA, who cashed in when the film hit big, and for Bancroft, who made her career on the role. The Miracle Worker earned five Oscar nominations, including the first of three Best Director nods for Penn, and won two for Bancroft and Duke’s performances. Ironically, the only one dissatisfied with the film was Penn, who felt he relied too heavily on the play and sometimes spoke of a remake. That never happened, but he did direct a sequel play in 1982 about Helen’s college years entitled Monday after the Miracle.

pictured: Science

The Issue

The Miracle Worker is arguably Arthur Penn’s most popular film and, not coincidentally, his least political. Helen’s true story is compelling enough on its own, leaving little room for social commentary. I’ve always found it interesting, however, how Penn takes the time to bring the Kellers’ poor, black servants into the shot, if only to observe Helen’s wild behavior. These characters don’t affect the narrative, but they stand as silent reminders that Helen is a child of privilege. If a black child had been so afflicted, Anne Sullivan would have never been called.

The Scene

The Miracle Worker spends much of its running time teetering back and forth between cinema and stage, transposing moving and haunting images with static shots of people screaming at each other. While the film’s tone can be uneven, the infamous “breakfast scene” is one moment where the recipe is exactly right. The scene’s single location and lack of cutaway shots betray its stage origins, but the struggle—one of the best in the movies, if you ask me—is told entirely through movement, and through facial expressions that run from rage to exasperation.

Note how the frantic camera movements add to the tension of the scene, rather than distract from it. Penn told his camera operators to keep the angle wide, but to point the camera at whatever interested them, which most of the time was Duke. She pulls the camera with her like a magnet, becoming the scene’s focus. We know Anne has won when there’s change at the center.

Overall

It’s not unusual for the public to disagree with an artist’s perception of his work, but The Miracle Worker is a special case. Usually, this kind of pop reexamination works against the artist, who ends up wondering where all the rotten apples came from. It’s rarer for the world to totally embrace a film that the artist can’t stand. Arthur Penn spent a long career looking down his nose at The Miracle Worker, which he regarded as a stylistic hodgepodge, a failure to adapt to the medium. Primarily, he believed he wasted time on Helen’s screeching parents who vocalize (and vocalize) Anne’s challenge. Penn felt the audience would get the point with a simple closeup of Helen, and he could therefore dial the melodrama down a few notches on the burner.

Like, a lot of notches.

This strikes me as failing to see the well for the water. Penn is correct that The Miracle Worker could use much less of the Kellers. They’re flat characters who exist only to add an artificial obstacle to Anne. Why do they invite Anne to their home at great expense, only to spend the rest of the movie ordering her not to interfere? Because, in the play, Anne needs someone to talk to who can talk back. In film, a medium about showing, this becomes much less urgent.

But the Kellers (and the cringe-inducing earnestness of the big “wah wah” moment) are minor annoyances in a film that’s at times eerie, artful, and slyly unconventional. The easy way to tell the story would be to tell it flat; the plot is certainly compelling enough without bells and whistles. But Penn, still experimenting with an artistic style that he’d fully embrace for Mickey One, frames the plot as a true-life horror tale, and casts Helen as the monster, wandering, arms outstretched, clutching at whatever crosses her path as a means to keep sane. Rather than draft a historical pamphlet, a movie-of-the-week in period garb, Penn makes the story about our fears, fear of losing our senses, of losing control, of losing society and returning to an animal state. When Anne breaks through to Helen, it isn’t just communication. Anne’s “miracle” restores Helen’s humanity, and the moment is deeply cathartic.

The film is anchored by Bancroft and Duke’s tremendous performances. They give and take from each other with ease, and they share a kinship and a chemistry that can only come from over 700 Broadway performances together. It’s the combination of their talents and Penn’s instincts that give the film its oomph. “Wah wah” aside, Penn’s version of the final pump scene has an uncommon and unusual strength that revivals—such as the dim 1979 TV remake which cast Duke in the elder role and Melissa Gilbert as Helen—misses by an Alabama mile. Part of this is performance. Duke, in particular, is unrestrained joy as she bounces from object to object, learning its name. But Penn assists by adding delicate insert shots, such as a close up of the water drops glistening on Helen’s hand that gives us that tiny moment of realization, of feeling as Helen feels, and making the connection ourselves.

Arthur Penn was right. The Miracle Worker could be better. But, hey, what Penn made is still pretty damn good. In a career filled with stories about misfits striking out on their own, Penn found a unique power in filming the story of a misfit being brought back to the fold. As a result, his film connected with audiences and he found himself with his one, unabashed, bonafide hit. He spent the rest of his career trying to live it down.

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. ???

2 Comments

Penn #4 – Mickey One (1965)

“I’m the king of the silent pictures. I’m hiding out till the talkies blow over.” In other words, he’s a dead man.

The Story

A fast-living Detroit nightclub comic (Warren Beatty) learns that he‘s owned by the mob. Was it the gambling? Did he date the wrong girl? He doesn’t wait around to find out, taking the nuclear option by skipping town and burning his ID. He surfaces in Chicago with a new name, Mickey One, and an anonymous job, but anonymity doesn’t suit him. Mickey returns to the stage, where he draws the attention of a shady club owner with shadier connections. A terrifying audition convinces Mickey that he’s back on the mob’s radar and, rather than run, Mickey decides to face the music. But where do you turn yourself in when you don’t know who you owe?

The Production

Disappointed by the harsh reaction to The Left Handed Gun at home, Arthur Penn nevertheless found widespread critical acclaim abroad, as French critics, who had long made a career of rooting out the truffles in American imports, fully embraced Gun and its budding auteur. A trip to Paris and meetings with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard convinced Penn that the future of movies lay in the hands of the French New Wave.

And this guy.

Eager to bring French cinema to American screens, Penn returned and convinced Alan Surgal to transform Comic, Surgal‘s unproduced play, into a story worthy of the New Wave. Penn gave the project to Columbia Pictures, where he had a sweetheart two-picture deal that granted total authority to shoot whatever he liked, so long as the budget stayed at $1 million or less. Columbia hated the script—too artsy-fartsy—but had no choice but to fund it.

Penn covered his bases, hiring European cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet to shoot the film, and choosing hungry up-and-comer Warren Beatty to star in it. For a mere million smackers, Mickey One must have seemed like a sure thing. It wasn’t. Critics, unprepared for a studio to release such a bizarre experiment, savaged the movie. The studio, after confirming they’d been right all along, buried it. Penn once said that he’d never seen a movie disappear as quickly as Mickey One. Penn lost his deal and his power; by the time he was hired for The Chase, it was clear that he was simply an employee on Sam Spiegel’s film, not the man in charge.

The interview looked something like this.

Mickey One’s failure has a happy epilogue. Penn and Beatty worked well together on the set, and when Beatty acquired a script about two gangsters the following year, he knew just who to call.

The Issue

McCarthyism. Mickey stands in for the victims of that collective American instanity—a man on the run, but not really sure of what he’s running from, or even his crime. Inadvertantly, Penn also caught the spirit of the coming youth movement that spurred off from that fiasco. Does the man upstairs own me, or can I make my own way in the world?

The Scene

There’s a whimsical, silent little character wandering through Mickey One named The Artist (Kamatari Fujiwara) who seems to be on Mickey’s team, but who kind of scares the bejeesus out of me. The Artist appears wherever Mickey is, always waving him over like an old friend, and Mickey always turns him down and walks away. Fair enough, Mickey don’t need no help. Got it. But then we get a glimpse of the artist’s creation. Check out this clip, starting at around :30.

OK, I know he’s smiling and kind of fun, but that’s a destructo-machine made out garbage, and its entire purpose, its very existence, is to destroy itself. There it goes, in a fiery holocaust, while a crowd of onlookers cheers and boos appropriately. But the implication is that he sees a kindred spirit in Mickey, a piece of self-destructive trash in need of collecting. It’s a fairly pretentious scene—and mildly ripped off from The Rules of the Game—but there’s the movie right there. When I think of Mickey One, it’s this scene I remember first.

Overall

Mickey One is one of the greatest American films nobody’s heard of. At the Internet Movie Database, audiences vote for a film’s quality on a star rating system. A widely-seen, popular movie measures its votes in the tens of thousands. For example, The Dark Knight, as of this writing, has about 547,000 votes. By comparison, Mickey One has a scant 574.

Hint: the claw is obscurity

Mickey One has about 1/1000th of The Dark Knight’s votes because it’s criminally underseen, and it’s criminally underseen because it’s criminally underreleased. Columbia buried the film in 1965, and it’s still buried. Apart from an obscure Laserdisc release, Mickey One has never seen home video, not on VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray. As recently as last year, the only way to see the film was to find a website willing to stream it. Thank god, Sony recently added the title to its print-on-demand DVD service, so it’s now fairly easy to own if you don’t care about things like quality transfers or special features. Or that your DVD is a shade of illegal-rip purple.

This is nuts because Mickey One is an exceptional picture, if a bit rough around the edges. It’s a surrealist fantasy about show business, an industry that’s always been darker than pitch just offstage. Death and metaphysical fear looms over the film and, by his own admission, Penn lays it on pretty thick. Still, there’s something truly magical happening here that no audience so far west of Cahiers du Cinema could have expected. While Coppola and the film school brats were just getting started, Penn lobbed a revolution into the studio’s lap. No surprise that it blew up in his face.

Beatty’s face stayed perfect and well-groomed.

Mickey One takes a cue from French classics like Godard‘s Breathless by ditching plot, or at least deemphasizing it. The film suggests its story more than tells it. The opening credits, for example, establish Mickey through unconnected images. He‘s fully dressed in a sauna, gambling, cavorting with women, crashing a car. Three minutes later, he’s on the run, after an argument with a man who will not speak. The story is clear, but we’ve assembled it in our own minds. We’ve been told nothing, a cinematic trick still edgy in 1965.

Which was the problem, of course. American audiences, even in the vaunted art-house heyday, have never liked begging for answers, and Mickey One has none to offer. Mickey wastes the film searching for a truth he never actually receives (he has a lot in common with Night Moves‘ Harry Moseby in that way). With no plot to follow, we’re left only with what the screen gives us—Mickey. Why is he running? What is he afraid of? Death or slavery? Would I do the same? The heart of the French movement was disposing of narrative to turn the camera inward, on the characters’ feelings, to film what can‘t be seen.

Mickey One is the first bubble before the boil—inconsequential in itself, but a sign that something big is about to happen. Just two years later, two years, Beatty and Penn would reunite for Bonnie and Clyde, another Euro-inspired experiment, and that film changed the world. Mickey One didn’t change much of anything. It’s a breezy arthouse nugget set to jazz, a freestyle film that’s just riffing its way through the set, making its points, but making no friends. It’s also a brilliant little nugget of weird. I guess that’s what I love about Mickey One. It shouldn’t exist (and, judging by the film’s viewership, it barely does), but here it is, a wacky experiment in mood and cool and existentialist meanderings that now fits right alongside all the classics it was emulating, in aesthetics if not esteem. Truly, watch it with the sound off and you might be convinced it’s a lost Godard, a Breathless sequel with a hero inspired more by Henny Youngman than Humphrey Bogart.

In France, the Cahiers critics said they could make a better movie than the other guys, and so they did. Penn thought he could establish the New Wave here in America, and so he did, although it didn’t take nearly as well. But financial success and audience acclaim don’t seem like the proper measuring sticks for a film like this. What matters is that, no matter the talent, the venue, or the odds, you make damn sure that nobody owns you.

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. ???

4 Comments

Penn #5 – Night Moves (1975)

How does this movie work? It must be something in the water.

The Story

The hunt for a runaway teen (Melanie Griffith) lures P.I. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) away from Los Angeles and his unfaithful wife, to the sweaty shores of the Florida Keys, where the teen is boning her way through a community of stuntmen and cargo pilots. Blame the heat; before he can even book a flight back to Cali, Harry falls for the girl’s guardian, Paula (Jennifer Warren). An underwater corpse forces Harry to rethink paradise, and he soon learns that little—in fact, pretty much nothing—is as it seems. Harry’s search for the truth uncovers a conspiracy and a smuggling ring, but a cryptic last reveal suggests the whole story will elude Harry forever.

The Production

There’s a hole in Arthur Penn’s film career. For a period stretching from 1970-1973, Penn didn’t work and retreated into his personal life. He directed no TV or theatre, and his only film was a short contribution to the documentary Visions of Eight. Penn didn’t like to speak about the gap, saying only that he was motivated by something deeply personal. Was it the Olympic massacre, something he witnessed firsthand while filming in Munich? Was it the death of Bobby Kennedy, who Penn liked and had spoken to in person soon before he was assassinated? Whatever the cause, it’s clear that by the time Penn returned to directing, his mood had darkened.

Penn claimed that he chose Night Moves more or less at random, grabbing “the first script [he] had to hand” when he was ready to work. The story, then titled The Dark Tower, had been written by Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) and nearly helmed by Sydney Pollack before the project’s implosion dropped the script fortuitously within Penn’s reach. Penn saw in the film a chance to establish a new kind of film detective, one not rooted in the hard-nosed, grayscale film noirs, but who reflected his confused, uncertain times. It was Penn who suggested the new title, forever saving Stephen King geeks a lifetime of answering questions with the words “no, the book.”

But it couldn’t stop this single “gunslinger” joke.

The writers’ strike of 1973 halted revisions with the production date looming, and Penn found himself shooting an unfinished screenplay on a tight deadline. Penn predicted the chaotic shoot would result in a flop, and audiences agreed. Night Moves was a sizable failure for the studio, derailing Jennifer Warren’s career and landing the first half of a two-punch fatality that Penn never truly recovered from—his next film was the colossal bomb, The Missouri Breaks.

Still, the ever-trusty European critics immediately hailed Night Moves as a masterpiece, and American critics soon joined the cry. Today, Night Moves is widely regarded as one of the great neo-noirs, a bleak indictment of the Watergate era, and one of Penn’s greatest films.

And, incidentally, Melanie Griffith’s.

The Issue

Night Moves is a very different kind of detective story. Written after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, shot at the peak of the Watergate scandal, and released after President Nixon’s resignation, Night Moves reflects its troubled times by suggesting easy answers are a thing of the past, or at least that we’re too screwed up to find them. Penn disliked the leering nature of detectives—especially in the shadow of Watergate—and used the troubled Harry Moseby to make a simple case: don’t hire a person to look through your baggage, because they’re sure to bring some of their own.

The Scene

The best scene is the film’s finale, which gets more attention below. Instead, I’d like to point out this excellent runner-up that somebody was nice enough to post up on YouTube. Harry’s reaction to his wife’s affair provides the emotional juice of the film’s first half, but it also reveals just how problematic Harry is as a hero. What should a man do when he finds he’s been cuckolded? Flip out and go crazy? Admit defeat? Harry’s unusual choice is to simply watch. Watch, and wait. The subsequent confrontation is equally bizarre and confounding.

Overall

Night Moves is a great film, one of the best neo-noirs and kin to heavyweights like Chinatown and Se7en. It’s also a very challenging film. The story is a maze of convoluted twists and turns with no solutions. The photography is sun drenched, but feels somehow devoid of warmth or open spaces. The tension seems to resolve itself, stall, and then roar back to life before dying altogether because, spoiler alert, it’s ultimately meaningless. The movie is all jab and no left hook, but then the bell finally sounds and we realize we’ve just been beaten within an inch of our lives.

By a plaAHHH!

Night Moves was one of a loose collection of films from the early ‘70s, movies that seemed to reflect the escalating paranoia and anxiety that audiences were feeling about the world around them. (Today, we just make louder giant robots.) Gene Hackman starred in three of the best. From 1970-1975, ironically the same years that Arthur Penn took his hiatus, Hackman starred in films like The French Connection, The Conversation (a close thematic cousin to Night Moves, and a great double feature), and this film. His performance is starkly different in each, and equally essential. He was in the spring of his career, and his work in this loose trilogy could rate against the best work of any actor in the history of the movies. He’s that good. His portrayal of Harry Moseby is brash, furious, and occasionally vulnerable. Harry is a fairly unlikable character—a detective who is shitty at his job—but Hackman makes him real. We empathize with Harry when he loses everything: the girl, the case, the man in the plane. We sense that he won’t recover, that this was his chance to become whole, and he blew it.

Protip: Betting against James Woods is always a bad idea.

This downer ending is still remarkably satisfying and one of the all-time greats, often overlooked but no less powerful for its anonymity. The finale acts as a Rosetta stone, the key that deciphers the rest of the film, although it works in reverse. Rather than the ending suddenly making sense of the plot, we are made to realize that, in fact, the plot was never meant to make sense. When I first saw the big reveal, I initially thought that it made perfect sense. Later, I found the holes and tried to piece it together again. I have a working theory of the plot now, but I wouldn’t call it seaworthy. That’s the mad genius behind Penn’s film. It pretends to tell you a secret, but its secret is that there are always more secrets. Those who seek are left to drift, aimless in the currents. To go forward is to go around again and wind up where you started. The only escape is to drown.

If that sounds grim, well then that’s noir. We all remember Humphrey Bogart solving the case of the funny looking dingus, but the best noir stories always played out under a death shroud, as if the characters had glanced up and seen the swords hanging by a string above them. In Out of the Past, Jeff redeems his mistakes, but there’s a price to pay in blood. Mike Hammer works so hard to find the great whatisit in Kiss Me Deadly, but his effort is just so much tinder for the fire.

Night Moves is cut from the same black cloth, but flips it over. Penn and Sharp set Harry Moseby on a case that he’s ill-equipped to solve, and he never stands a chance. The title is a play on words, referring to a series of “knight moves” a great chess champion failed to see, costing him a crucial match. Harry saw the match, replays it on his board, second guesses the chess player, but still fails to see the knights surrounding him. Perhaps he believed he was invulnerable, like the detectives of old. In the ‘40s, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would have turned the tables on the table turners. But the year is 1975, the world has changed, and Harry is left to spin circles in the sea.

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. ???

6 Comments

Penn #6 – The Left Handed Gun (1958)

Arthur Penn’s film debut is great, a near-classic, and almost completely forgotten. The revolution arrived ten years too early.

The Story

The Left Handed Gun is a highly fictionalized account of the infamous Lincoln County War. Tunstall, a kind horse trader, takes in a drifter named Billy (Paul Newman), but when ranchers murder Tunstall over his cattle business, Billy becomes a weapon of vengeance. Billy, now called “The Kid,” leads a small gang of loyalists against Tunstall’s killers, ignoring ceasefires and calls for amnesty. Billy’s friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner) tires of the chaos and turns on Billy, vowing to bring him in. With the law (and Billy’s own legend) closing in, Billy realizes his mistakes and accepts death, allowing himself to be shot, passing out of the west and into history.

The Production

Arthur Penn’s first movie began, appropriately enough, as an episode of live television. In 1955, the Philco Television Playhouse aired “The Death of Billy the Kid,” written by Gore Vidal and starring a then-unknown Paul Newman as Billy. The episode was a hit, and Warner Bros. commissioned a feature version, seeking a TV director to guide the low-budget story to screen. The studio chose Penn, likely because he was low cost and because he had worked with Newman, directing him in the Playwrights ’56 episode, “The Battler.” (A persistent myth claims Newman took over the role of Billy from James Dean following Dean’s death—except that Dean was still alive and well when the original Philco episode aired. The mythmakers are actually thinking of “The Battler,” which Dean had been set to star in. In a way, Dean’s death may have inadvertently led to Penn’s film career, which is a more interesting piece of trivia, anyway.)

That, and whatever happened to that hat.

Penn had become fascinated with film’s potential as art, a somewhat radical idea in America that had been gaining traction in Europe. He arrived on the Warner Bros. backlot brimming with ideas and idealism, but ran into a stone wall of Hollywood reality. The backlot set was crumbling (in fact, it allegedly collapsed the day after shooting wrapped), and his little production was roundly ignored, at least until shooting wrapped. The film was taken out of Penn’s hands and cut together by career editors who had never seen the footage, spoken to Penn, or spent a day on set. Among the losses: Penn’s original ending—a candlelight wake for Billy—was replaced with uplifting, if nonsensical, dialogue from Garrett’s wife asking him home after a job well done.

The Left Handed Gun premiered in May of 1958 to mass apathy. Audiences and critics were bewildered by the unconventional western, and a disheartened Penn believed he’d never make another film. He changed his mind when The Left Handed Gun finally found appreciation—in France. French critics, already in line with Penn’s ideas of film art, immediately understood and embraced the movie. Their encouragement energized Penn, and when Hollywood asked him to helm the feature version of The Miracle Worker, he gladly signed on.

Continuing a theme about the awfulness of children. Seriously, they’re the worst.

The Issue

Penn’s purpose in The Left Handed Gun is to show how out of whack the Hollywood depiction of the west is with reality. Outlaws were often psychopaths or arrested adolescents, details that didn’t sell enough penny books on the East Coast, and therefore quickly found the trash bin. Penn shows how one such outlaw becomes a hero to millions with the right application of myth.

The Scene

Pat Garrett’s wedding is the centerpiece of the film. Garrett has been like a stern older brother to Billy, chiding him about all this killing and nonsense while serving him a big plate of stew and sharing a laugh. He has just one request for Billy, one very ominous, very obvious request. “Don’t cause trouble at my wedding,” Garrett says, presumably followed by a big flash of lightning. Sure enough, at the wedding Billy tries to play nice and forgo killing Tunstall’s last living murderer, but he loses control, firing the shot—significantly, while posing for a photograph—and rationalizing his murder with Cops and Robbers rules (“Well, he was over there, so he wasn’t at your wedding anymore.”) The scene sums up Penn’s themes in a tidy package and sends the movie on a bullet towards Billy’s third-act confrontation with Garrett.

I couldn’t find video of the scene, but you can get a glimpse at the 1:25 mark of the trailer.

Overall

When I began this Project, I framed Arthur Penn as a failed rebel, a man whose desire to buck the Hollywood system led inevitably to his ejection from that system. So far, I’ve talked mostly about the results of his defeat—his late misfit films and outright failures—and not with the revolution itself, mostly because his early films were all pretty great. Maybe Penn didn’t fall as quickly or dramatically as, say, Orson Welles—and more of Penn’s wounds were self-inflicted—but his career follows a similar line: amazing early promise followed by a lifetime of what-ifs.

I’m not sure the term “revisionist western” has meaning anymore, because today every western is “revisionist.” The old myths have been so thoroughly punched through that there’s nothing to revise. If I wanted to reinvent the western today, I’d have to eliminate mud, murder, and moral ambiguity. In other words, I’d have to go back to the time when Arthur Penn made The Left Handed Gun. Penn’s film swaggered into theatres when audiences weren’t yet accustomed to swallowing irony with their escapism, and the movie failed because of it.

Because their quota on awesome ‘staches checked out.

In fact, if you visit the Wikipedia page on “revisionist westerns” today, you’ll find no mention of The Left Handed Gun, not even on the “comprehensive” list that’s actually way more comprehensive than it needs to be. (OK, High Noon arguably belongs on the list, but Shane has always seemed to me as a film whose revisionism is more accident than assault.)

But how else do you define a film this obsessed with puncturing western myth, as obsessed as Unforgiven, a movie that still surprised audiences decades later? Like Eastwood’s masterpiece, The Left Handed Gun is preoccupied with the fiction of the west and even includes a character that literally follows the outlaws and writes their stories. Actually, Gun carries the idea further. When Billy disappoints his chronicler, it’s the writer who turns him in to Garrett. The real Billy has been greatly outpaced by his own legend, and now one of them has to go. It’s a theme that makes sense to us today, but must have seemed out of place a full decade before The Wild Bunch and its violence, or four years before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said to print the legend.

Paul Newman seemed to sense he was involved in something special, and tackles the role with a manic, Brando-esque performance that put him on a path to bigger things. Newman is a live wire in the film, always an itchy finger away from violence or laughter. Penn saw Billy as a grown child failing at adulthood. Billy and his gang, left without father figure Tunstall, form their own family and carve a place in the world the only way they know how. It’s a theme Penn would revisit in films like Alice’s Restaurant, The Missouri Breaks, Four Friends, and others. Billy erupts into violence because he thinks it will make him a man. He doesn’t understand the implications of his actions. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

This.

While Newman plays with the notion of a hero, Penn plays with the western myth, dumping the pieces out onto the carpet and assembling them as he pleases. Draped in grays for most of the film, Pat and Billy gradually change their wardrobes to white and black, respectively, as their legend grows, as if we’re watching our own perceptions of them take form. Later, Billy engages in a gunfight in a hut wallpapered with his wanted posters. Why are the posters there? Did Billy wish to admire his legend? Maybe it’s a visual reminder that as the stories surrounding Billy swell, there’s no place left where he can escape them. Even at home, poor William “Billy” Bonney cannot escape the presence and the stare of Billy the Kid. The stories will eventually eradicate the truth of the man.

Nobody knows for sure how many people William Bonney killed. However many it was, it seems as if Billy the Kid killed one more.

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. ???

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: