Arthur Penn: The Miracle Worker of Bonnie and Clyde

Director Arthur Penn, whose new-wave take on American legends reinvigorated Hollywood, died Sept. 28 at age 88

  • Everett Collection

    Director Arthur Penn on the set of his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde

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    In this hipster crime movie, Penn shows he has appropriated, if not quite assimilated, the tropes of mid-period Orson Welles (shots in distorting mirrors or through ornamental grates, garish carnival creatures) and of the French New Wave (jump cuts, non-naturalistic sound, a braying jazz score by Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz). His cinematographer, between gigs for Louis Malle ( The Fire Within ) and Robert Bresson ( Mouchette ), was Ghislain Cloquet, who wove a web of fatality with a mixture of punishing closeups and infinitesimal long shots. Mickey One might have been an immensely influential film, if anybody had seen it. Well, Beatty had. The actor was ready to produce a movie; and after Penn suffered through a big Hollywood production, The Chase (which was recut by its producer, Sam Spiegel), Beatty offered him Bonnie and Clyde .

    Bonnie and Clyde writers Benton, an art director, and Newman, a staff writer, had helped create the Dubious Achievement Awards feature that made Esquire the hot magazine of the '60s. They also loved movies, foreign ones mostly, and wrote a Barrow Gang script in the style of New Wave crime movies by Jean-Luc Godard ( Breathless ) and Francois Truffaut ( Shoot the Piano Player ). Both French directors were offered the project but said no; then Beatty bought it. At Penn's encouragement, Benton and Newman streamlined the plot and emphasized the film's connection to the American movies that Barrow and Parker might have seen.

    The rags-to-riches stories of the early talkies era primarily involved gangsters ( Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Scarface ) and performers ( Applause, 42nd Street , the Gold Diggers series). Bonnie and Clyde fit both categories. Their models are the fast talkers and snappy dressers whose appealing arrogance defined young people on the move, whether to Broadway or the morgue. The Barrow gang's bank-robbing m.o. is pure showbiz: some professional choreography (Buck Barrow, played by Gene Hackman in another career-making turn, clears a teller's window in three graceful steps, catching Clyde's satchel in one hand), a touch of Hollywood humanism (they steal only from the haves), and a catchy tag line ("We're the Barrow gang!"). They work harder on building a seductive movie image than on acquiring a fat bankroll. They are their own scriptwriters, directors and publicists; and they seem to be auditioning to play themselves in the movie version — if only they'd live long enough.

    A period bio-pic made by New York sharpies, Bonnie and Clyde had the same amused, obsessed, lightly derisive view of old, hick, rural Texas that Nichols' The Graduate — the other game-changing film of 1967 — took toward the new, plasticized Los Angeles. The movie also paraded its daring by establishing Clyde as a sexual naïf whose gun is his most imposing phallic symbol. (Bonnie strokes it; that was a big deal back then.) When he and Bonnie finally make love successfully, she says, "You did just perfect," and he observes, with a grin that betrays his surprise, "I did, didn't I?" Shortly thereafter, they're dead, in the bullet barrage that won the film instant notoriety and lasting éclat. It consumes 30 seconds and 27 shots, in an artful montage by editor Dede Allen. From then on, no action film was complete without a mammoth display or artillery and the slow-motion deaths of gangsters or Western varmints, perforated with blood squibs.

    After Bonnie and Clyde became a hit, Penn again disdained the sure thing of Hollywood prestige projects for the new and the weird. Working with Venable Herndon (another first-time scripter) on adapting Guthrie's narrative ballad into a movie, Penn cast nonactor Arlo in the lead role. Penn was noted for pulling great performances out of novice actors; he proved that when he coached John F. Kennedy in his first 1960 TV debate against Richard Nixon. (Viewers awarded JFK the win; voters gave him the Presidency.) But the charming Guthrie looked stranded as Penn put him in strange places and through some strange paces. The movie has scenes of Arlo in hospital visits with his father, the folk poet Woody Guthrie, who's been virtually paralyzed with Huntingdon's Chorea — played by actor Joseph Boley, as Arlo's real dad had died the year before filming.

    Ranging from dope scenes to underage sex kittens to Vietnam draft-board politics (it could be Hair with different songs), and often wandering off into the portrait of a marriage in crisis, the Alice's Restaurant film misses the loose-limbed but finely crafted larkishness of Arlo's song. But it shows that, with the freedom to make the film he wanted, Penn would try anything. Somebody else could fret over whether the audience got it.

    Little Big Man was closer to the kind of film Hollywood expected Penn to make: a Western epic from a lauded novel (by Thomas Berger) with a newly anointed star ( The Graduate 's Dustin Hoffman). A picaresque epic told by 121-year-old Jack Crabb, the last survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, this fitfully enthralling movie tilts, like Bonnie and Clyde , between winking comedy and a tragic body count. Penn's signal achievement here was in his choice for the role of Jack's Indian mentor, Old Lodge Skins. Unable to sign Laurence Olivier or Paul Scofield, and after Richard Boone left the movie, Penn cast the 70-year-old Chief Dan George, leader of the Tsleil-Waututh nation of British Columbia. Imagine: a Native American playing an Indian. Or, as George calls his people, human beings. At the end of the film, Old Lodge Skins prepares to die with a prayer to the spirits to take him away. But nothing happens. As he explains to Jack, "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't."

    For Penn, the magic would stop working. He'd go four, five years between movies, and the ones he made weren't quite worth the wait. Night Moves reunited him with Hackman for a Ross Macdonald-style detective story that purred with Penn's specialty, sexual tension, but otherwise couldn't escape the ordinary. The 1981 Four Friends came alive in a spasm of violence at a dinner table (shades of The Miracle Worker ) and the elegant tangle of lovers on a summer beach, with a third figure watching anxiously; but the acting of Penn's young cast let him down. Dead of Winter , a 1988 thriller, showed that the director of Broadway's Wait Until Dark still knew how to craft unease into dread. It was a smooth suspense ride that went nowhere new.

    So Penn had one great film decade — which is one decade more than most directors. Not a writer, he relied on other people's originality, to which he would bring his own artistry. His films display an ethnographer's fascination with outsiders: people whose skin is the wrong color, whose sight is too weak or hair too long, who fight to achieve celebrity or just to keep on living — or who surrender to the siren call of mortality. Over a 50-year career, Penn always invested his projects with a passionate intelligence. And when American movies needed a little revolutionizing, he was there to make it happen. What Beatty's Clyde Barrow said of himself might apply to Arthur Penn in the '60s: "I ain't good. I'm the best!"

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