Penn, Arthur Hiller
PENN, Arthur Hiller
(b. 27 September 1922 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), stage, television, and film director whose Bonnie and Clyde (1967) proved to be one of the most influential films of the 1960s.
Penn was the second of two sons born to Harry Penn, a watch repairman, and Sonia (Greenberg) Penn, a nurse. His parents divorced when he was three years old. From 1925 to 1936 Penn lived with his mother, who struggled financially during the depression, in New Jersey and New York. His mother had to move frequently, and Penn attended thirteen different schools. When he was fourteen Penn returned to Philadelphia to assist his ailing father in the running of his watch-repair shop. His parents' divorce was traumatic for Penn, and he credits an affinity for alienated heroes in his films to his youthful identity crisis as the product of a broken home. Penn later asserted that the French filmmaker François Truffaut's movie The 400 Blows stunned him, because it so resembled his own childhood.
During his youth, however, he was not a particular fan of the cinema, after being terrified by a horror film when he was just five years old. Penn, instead, was more drawn to the stage. At Olney High School in Philadelphia he did some acting and was attracted to the technical aspects of theatrical production. He was also active in the Neighborhood Playhouse, located near his home. Following the death of his father in 1943, Penn was drafted into the U.S. Army. Stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, he spent considerable time in nearby Columbia at the Civic Theatre, where he met Fred Coe (who would later bring Penn into the television industry). He joined the Soldiers Show Company to entertain American occupation troops in Europe. After his discharge from the military, Penn used the GI Bill benefits to study art and literature at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. From 1947 to 1950 he studied literature in Italy and took acting lessons from the Russian actor and director Michael Chekhov in Hollywood.
Penn was working as a floor manager and assistant director for the television division of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and living in California in 1953, when Coe invited him back to New York City to direct live teleplays for such series as Philco Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90. Penn's distinguished television work included The Miracle Worker, William Gibson's dramatization of the teacher Anne Sullivan's efforts to open the world of sight and sound to the deaf and blind Helen Keller. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Penn gave his attention to the New York stage and directed a string of Broadway hits: Two for the Seesaw (1957–1958); The Miracle Worker (1959–1960), which won the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award; Toys in the Attic (1959–1960); Fiorello! (1959–1960); All the Way Home (1960–1961); Golden Boy (1964–1965); and Wait Until Dark (1965–1966).
Meanwhile, Penn tried his hand at film direction. His first feature was The Left-Handed Gun (1958), starring Paul Newman as a neurotic Billy the Kid. The film contained elements, such as identification with an alienated hero and critique of the violence in the American frontier and society, that would characterize Penn's outstanding cinematic work in the 1960s. Penn, however, was disappointed with his initial incursion into Hollywood. Warner Bros.' editing of the film distorted Penn's more pessimistic conclusion, and the film was panned by both film critics and audiences, although in Europe the film was well received. A disillusioned Penn returned to the New York stage until an opportunity to do a cinematic adaptation of The Miracle Worker (1962) drew him back to Hollywood. The film was a critical and box office success, earning Penn an Academy Award nomination for best director and Oscars for Anne Bancroft as best actress and Patty Duke as best supporting actress.
After he was inexplicably fired and replaced with John Frankenheimer on The Train (1963), Penn vowed to take personal control of his next film. Mickey One (1965), featuring Penn's friend Warren Beatty, explores the theme of an alienated individual at the mercy of forces beyond his control. The story concerns a nightclub comedian who is on the run from underworld forces attempting to kill him for committing a transgression of which he has no knowledge. The film borrows from the work of the Austrian writer Franz Kafka and was criticized by some critics for its pretentious symbolism. According to Penn the paranoia in Mickey One was representative of the continuing impact of McCarthyism and government surveillance upon the lives of American citizens. (Named for Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism referred to the unsubstantiated claims and witch-hunting tactics that colored the investigation of purported Communists in the U.S. government in the early 1950s.) While audiences were cool in their response to Mickey One, it was a film of which Penn was proud.
For his next film project Penn collaborated with the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman on an adaptation of Horton Foote's novel The Chase. Hellman viewed the film as an examination of American violence in microcosm through the dissection of a small Texas town. Penn had high hopes for the 1966 film starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Robert Redford. Penn's artistic vision, however, clashed with the perception of the producer Sam Spiegel, who made the final cut. A dejected Penn regretted making the film and again vowed to maintain control over his projects.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) offered such an opportunity. Working with the stars Estelle Parsons, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, and Warren Beatty (also the film's producer); the writers David Newman and Robert Benton; the special consultant Robert Towne; and the cinematographer Burnett Guffey, Penn directed a film that baffled executives at Warner Bros. Initially, the studio believed that the film would work only with drive-in audiences, and they targeted the picture for a limited release. Also, many critics were upset that the film glorified the violent behavior of the real-life depression-era bank robbers and killers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Influenced by the French New Wave films of Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Penn crafted a film that was experimental in narrative structure and undermined audience expectations with rapid shifts in mood. While he drew on European influences, Penn's focus was definitely on the American experience and the role of violence in the nation's history. Responding to critics of the film's violence, Penn observed, "I think violence is part of the American character.… America is a country of people who act out their views in violent ways—there is not a strong tradition of persuasion, of ideation, and of law."
Against the background of the Vietnam War, coupled with urban and campus unrest, Penn's film of two young people rebelling against an oppressive establishment that repossessed people's homes struck a responsive chord with many filmgoers, especially young people. The film's unexpected popularity led many critics to revise their initial negative assessments, praising the film's artistic merits as well as its social relevance. Bonnie and Clyde received ten Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best direction, and won three Oscars.
Penn continued to express his affinity for young people with his next screen project, Alice's Restaurant, a film adaptation of the folksinger Arlo Guthrie's popular narrative song detailing his avoidance of conscription because of an arrest for the heinous crime of littering. Penn was attracted to the film owing to his empathy for rebellious youth in the 1960s and because it was set in his adopted home of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. When contrasting the counterculture youth to his own generation, Penn asserted, "These kids are on to something much more genuine, much more tender, and loving.… I'm hoping that the film will be able to elucidate that part of their subculture." The youth culture, as well as the critics, responded favorably to Alice's Restaurant, making it one of the major box office hits of 1969.
Penn next turned his questioning gaze to the history of the American West with his cinematic adaptation of Thomas Berger's comic novel Little Big Man (1970). The traditional heroic depiction of western settlement is turned on its head in this film narrated by Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman), the 121-year-old survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film and novel are an indictment of American history, drawing an analogy between nineteenth-century expansionism into the West and American involvement in the Vietnam War. Little Big Man was a box office and critical success, gaining Penn his third Oscar nomination for best director.
After the acclaim for Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, and Little Big Man, all of which reflected Penn's support for the antiestablishment values of the 1960s youth generation, the director took a break from making films, but he was never able to regain the momentum of his film career fully. In 1975 Penn made the detective film Night Moves with Hackman, followed by the Western The Missouri Breaks, with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, in 1976. The films were highly anticipated but were panned by critics and avoided by filmgoers. Both films are better appreciated today than when they were originally released. Penn's few films since the 1970s, such as Four Friends (1981), Target (1985), Dead of Winter (1987), and Inside (1996), have found only limited release and reception. In a 1986 interview Penn retorted, "It's not that I've drifted away from film. I'm very drawn to film, but I'm not sure that film is drawn to me."
In 1955 Penn married the actress Peggy Maurer, and they had two children. While Penn's cinematic vision waned after 1970, his films of the 1960s well represent the artistic and political questioning of American society and institutions during that tumultuous decade.
For background information on Penn and a discussion of his artistic vision, see Robin Wood, Arthur Penn (1969); Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman (1980; rev. ed., 1988); and Joel Zuker, Arthur Penn: A Guide to References and Resources (1980). Analysis of Bonnie and Clyde may be found in Sandra Wake and Nicola Hayden, eds., The Bonnie and Clyde Book (1972); John Cawelti, ed., Focus on Bonnie and Clyde (1973); and Lester D. Friedman, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (2000).
Penn, Arthur 1922–
Penn, Arthur 1922–
Full name, Arthur Hiller Penn; born September 27, 1922, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Harry (a watch repairer) and Sonia (a nurse; maiden name, Greenberg) Penn; brother of Irving Penn (a photographer); married Peggy Maurer (a therapist), January 27, 1955; children: Matthew (a director), Molly. Education: Attended Black Mountain College, Asheville, NC, 1947-48, and Universities of Perugia and Florence, Italy, 1949-50; studied at Actors Studio; trained for the stage with Michael Chekhov.
Contact—Bell and Co., 535 Fifth Ave., 21st Floor, New York, NY 10017-3610.
Director, producer, actor, and writer. Worked for a Philadelphia, PA, radio station in the 1940s; Soldiers Show Company, Paris, member of company, 1945; NBC-TV, New York City, worked as a floor manager for Colgate Comedy Hour, c. 1952; associated with Berkshire Theatre, Stockbridge, MA, 1966; Actors Studio, New York City, teacher, president, 1994-2000, president emeritus, 2000—. Black Mountain College, Asheville, NC, faculty member, 1947. Military service: U.S. Army, Infantry, 1943-45.
Grand Prize, Brussels Film Festival, 1958, for The Left-Handed Gun; Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best director, 1958, for Two for the Seesaw; Emmy Award nomination, best director of a television program of one hour or more, 1958, and Sylvania Award, television directing, 1959, both for "The Miracle Worker," Playhouse 90; Sylvania Award, television directing, 1959, for Man on a Mountain Top; Drama Critics Circle Award, best musical, 1959, for Fiorello!; Antoinette Perry Award, best director of a dramatic play, 1960, for The Miracle Worker (stage version); Drama Critics Circle Award, best director of a drama, 1960, Toys in the Attic; Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best director of a dramatic play, and Drama Critics Circle Award, both 1961, for All the Way Home; OCIC Award of International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual, San Sebastian International Film Festival, 1962, Academy Award nomination, best director, 1963, and Directors Guild of America Award nomination, outstanding director of a motion picture, 1963, all for The Miracle Worker (film version); nomination for Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival, 1965, for Mickey One; Academy Award nomination, best director, Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture director, Directors Guild of America Award nomination, outstanding director of a motion picture, Bodil Award, best non-European film, Film Award nomination, best film from any source, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Golden and Grand Jury Prize, Mar del Plata Film Festival, all 1968, and Kinema Junpo Awards, best foreign language film and best director of a foreign language film, 1969, all for Bonnie and Clyde; Academy Award nomination, best director, and Screen Award nomination (with Venable Herndon), best drama written directly for the screen, Writers Guild of America, both 1970, for Alice's Restaurant; nominations for Golden Laurel Award, best director, Producers Guild of America, 1970 and 1971; special mention for FIPRESCI Prize, Moscow International Film Festival, 1971, for Little Big Man; nomination for Golden Spike, Valladolid International Film Festival, 1996, for Inside; Akira Kurosawa Award, San Francisco International Film Festival, 1996; Emmy Award nomination (with others), outstanding drama series, 2001, for Law & Order; Career Achievement Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, 2002; Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award, Director's View Film Festival, 2003; Savannah Film and Video Festival Award, outstanding achievement in cinema, 2003; honorary Golden Berlin Bear, Berlin International Film Festival, 2007.
The Left-Handed Gun, Warner Bros., 1958.
The Miracle Worker, United Artists, 1962.
(Uncredited) The Train (also known as John Frankenheimer's "The Train," Le train, and Il treno), 1964.
(And producer) Mickey One, Columbia, 1965.
The Chase, Columbia, 1966.
Bonnie and Clyde (also known as Bonnie and Clyde … Were Killers!), Warner Bros., 1967.
Alice's Restaurant, United Artists, 1969.
Little Big Man, National General, 1970.
"The Highest," Visions of Eight (documentary; also known as Olympic Visions, Muenchen 1972—8 beruehmte Regisseure sehen die Spiele der XX. Olympiade, and Olympiade Muenchen 1972), 1973.
Night Moves, Warner Bros., 1975.
The Missouri Breaks, United Artists, 1976.
(And coproducer) Four Friends (also known as Georgia's Friends), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1981.
Target, Warner Bros., 1985.
Dead of Winter, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1987.
(And producer) Penn & Teller Get Killed (also known as Dead Funny), Warner Bros., 1989.
Lumiere et compagnie (documentary; also known as Lumiere y compania and Lumiere and Company), 1995.
Naked in New York (documentary), Fine Line, 1994.
Arthur Penn (documentary), 1995.
In the Shadow of Hollywood (documentary); also known as A l'ombre d'Hollywood), National Film Board of Canada, 2000.
Small man, On a Shoestring (short film), 2004.
Blue Denim, Westport, CT, 1956.
The Lovers, Broadway production, 1957.
Two for the Seesaw, Haymarket Theatre, London, 1958, then Booth Theatre, New York City, 1958-59.
The Miracle Worker, Playhouse Theatre, New York City, 1959-61.
Toys in the Attic, Hudson Theatre, New York City, 1960-61.
An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, John Golden Theatre, New York City, 1960-61.
All the Way Home, Belasco Theatre, New York City, 1960-61.
In the Counting House, Biltmore Theatre, New York City, 1962.
My Mother, My Father, and Me, Broadway production, 1962-63.
Lorenzo, Plymouth Theatre, New York City, 1963.
Golden Boy (musical), Majestic Theatre, New York City, 1964-66.
Wait Until Dark, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Shubert Theatre, George Abbott Theatre, and Music Box Theatre, all New York City, 1966.
Felix, Broadway production, 1972.
Sly Fox, Broadhurst Theatre, New York City, 1976-78.
Golda, Morosco Theatre, New York City, 1977-78.
Monday after the Miracle, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City, 1982.
Hunting Cockroaches, Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I, New York City, 1987.
One of the Guys, New York Shakespeare Festival, Estelle R. Newman Theatre, Public Theatre, New York City, 1990.
Fortune's Fool, Music Box Theatre, New York City, then Truglia Theatre, Stamford Center for the Arts, Stamford, CT, both 2002.
Sly Fox, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 2004.
Stage Work; Other:
Executive producer, The Silent Partner, Actors Studio, New York City, 1972.
Television Work; Series:
Director, Playhouse 90, CBS, multiple episodes (including "The Miracle Worker"), 1957-58.
Executive producer, Law & Order, NBC, 2000-2001.
Television Director; Movies:
(And producer) Flesh and Blood, NBC, 1968.
The Portrait (also known as Painting Churches), TNT, 1993.
Television Director; Episodic:
"The Tears of My Sister," Gulf Playhouse (also known as Gulf Playhouse: First Person), NBC, 1953.
"The Lawn Party," Goodyear Television Playhouse (also known as Goodyear Playhouse), 1954.
"Adapt or Die," Philco Television Playhouse (also known as Arena Theatre, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Repertory Theatre), NBC, 1954.
"Beg, Borrow, or Steal," Philco Television Playhouse (also known as Arena Theatre, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Repertory Theatre), NBC, 1954.
"The Fix," 100 Centre Street, Arts and Entertainment, 2001.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Arthur Penn, 1922-: Themes and Variants, 1970.
Hello Actors Studio, 1987.
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, 1995.
Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval, 1995.
Marlon Brando: The Wild One, AMC, 1996.
"Take Two: Mike Nichols and Elaine May" (also known as "Nichols and May: Take Two"), American Masters, PBS, 1996.
The Moviemakers: Arthur Penn, 1996.M
Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud, 1996.
Searching for Arthur, 1998.
Sammy Davis Jr.: The E! True Hollywood Story, E! Entertainment Television, 2001.
(Uncredited) Reel Radicals: The Sixties Revolution in Film, AMC, 2002.
AFI's 100 Years … 100 Heroes & Villains (also known as AFI's 100 Years, 100 Heroes & Villains: America's Greatest Screen Characters), CBS, 2003.
"Patty Duke," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 2003.
Edge of Outside, TCM, 2006.
Brando, TCM, 2007.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Inside the Actors Studio, Bravo, 1994, 1999.
American Cinema, 1995.
Ketzwayo, "The Umpatra," BeastMaster, 1999.
Ketzwayo, "Circle of Life," BeastMaster, 1999.
"Today Is a Good Day: Remembering Chief Dan George," Life and Times, 1999.
"Gene Hackman," Bravo Profiles, Bravo, 2000.
"Brando," Imagine, BBC, 2004.
(In archive footage) Cinema mil, 2005.
(With William Gibson) The Miracle Worker (adapted from Gibson's television special), United Artists, 1962.
(With Venable Herndon) Alice's Restaurant, United Artists, 1969, published by Doubleday, 1970.
Philco Television Playhouse (also known as Arena Theatre, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Repertory Theatre), NBC, 1955—.
Fiorello! (musical), 1959.
Contributor to periodicals.
Cawelti, John, editor, Focus on Bonnie and Clyde, Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Haustrate, Gaston, Arthur Penn, 1986.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
Kolker, Robert, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Vernaglione, Paolo, Arthur Penn, 1988.
Wood, Robin, Arthur Penn, Studio Vista, 1967, Praeger, 1969.
Zuker, Joel Stewart, Arthur Penn: A Guide to References and Resources, G. K. Hall, 1980.
American Film, December, 1981.
Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1985.
New York, December 8, 1980.
Playbill, April 30, 2002, pp. 16-17.
Arthur Penn, 1922-: Themes and Variants (television special), 1970.
Arthur Penn (documentary film), 1995.
The Moviemakers: Arthur Penn (television special), 1996.
Searching for Arthur (television special), 1998.
Nationality: American. Born: Philadelphia, 27 September 1922. Education: Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1947–48; studied at Universities of Perugia and Florence, 1949–50; trained for the stage with Michael Chekhov. Military Service: Enlisted in Army, 1943; joined Soldiers Show Company, Paris, 1945. Family: Married actress Peggy Maurer, 1955, one son, one daughter. Career: Assistant director on The Colgate Comedy Hour, 1951–52; TV director, from 1953, working on Gulf Playhouse: 1st Person (NBC), Philco Television Playhouse (NBC), and Playhouse 90 (CBS); directed first feature, The Left-handed Gun, 1958; director on Broadway, from 1958. Awards: Tony Award for stage version of The Miracle Worker; two Sylvania Awards. Address: c/o 2 West 67th Street, New York, NY 10023, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
The Left-handed Gun
The Miracle Worker
Mickey One (+ pr)
Alice's Restaurant (+ co-sc)
Little Big Man (+ pr)
"The Highest," in Visions of 8
The Missouri Breaks
Dead of Winter
Penn and Teller Get Killed (+ pr)
The Portrait (for TV)
Lumière et compagnie
By PENN: articles—
"Rencontre avec Arthur Penn," with André Labarthe and others, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1965.
"Bonnie and Clyde: Private Morality and Public Violence," in TakeOne (Montreal), vol. 1, no. 6, 1967.
Interview with Michael Lindsay, in Cinema (Beverly Hills), vol. 5, no. 3, 1969.
Interview in The Director's Event by Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, New York, 1970.
"Metaphor," an interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), July 1971.
"Arthur Penn at the Olympic Games," an interview in AmericanCinematographer (Los Angeles), November 1972.
"Night Moves," an interview with T. Gallagher, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1975.
"Arthur Penn ou l'anti-genre," an interview with Claire Clouzot, in Ecran (Paris), December 1976.
Interview with R. Seidman and N. Leiber, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1981.
Interview with A. Leroux, in 24 Images (Montreal), June 1983.
Interview with Richard Combs, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), August 1986.
"1968–1988," in Film Comment (New York), August 1988.
"L'Amerique qui change: entretien avec Arthur Penn," with P. Merenghetti, in Jeune Cinema, October/November 1990.
"The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision," an interview with Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton, in Cineaste (New York), 1993.
"Acteurs et metteurs en scène: Metteurs en scène et acteurs," in Positif (Paris), June 1994.
"L'occhio aperto," an interview with G. Garlazzo, in Filmcritica (Siena), May 1997.
"Song of the Open Road," an interview with Geoffrey Macnab, in Sight and Sound (London), August 1999.
On PENN: books—
Wood, Robin, Arthur Penn, New York, 1969.
Marchesini, Mauro, and Gaetano Stucchi, Cinque film di ArthurPenn, Turin, 1972.
Cawelti, John, editor, Focus on Bonnie and Clyde, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1973.
Carlini, Fabio, Arthur Penn, Milan, 1977.
Kolker, Robert Phillip, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick,Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Oxford, 1980; revised edition, 1988.
Zuker, Joel S., Arthur Penn: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1980.
Giannetti, Louis D., Masters of the American Cinema, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.
Haustrate, Gaston, Arthur Penn, Paris, 1986.
Vernaglione, Paolo, Arthur Penn, Florence, 1988.
Kindem, Gorham, The Live Television Generation of Hollywood FilmDirectors, Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 1994.
On PENN: articles—
Hillier, Jim, "Arthur Penn," in Screen (London), January/February 1969.
Gelmis, Joseph, "Arthur Penn," in The Film Director as Superstar, New York, 1970.
Wood, Robin, "Arthur Penn in Canada," in Movie (London), Winter 1970/71.
Margulies, Lee, "Filming the Olympics," in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1972.
"Le Gaucher Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), November 1973.
Byron, Stuart, and Terry Curtis Fox, "What Is a Western?," in FilmComment (New York), July/August 1976.
Butler, T., "Arthur Penn: The Flight from Identity," in Movie (London), Winter 1978/79.
Penn Section of Casablanca (Madrid), March 1982.
"TV to Film: A History, a Map, and a Family Tree," in Monthly FilmBulletin (London), February 1983.
Gallagher, J., and J. Hanc, "Penn's Westerns," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1983.
Camy, G., "Arthur Penn: Un regard sévère sur les U.S.A. des années 60–70," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), April 1985.
Andrew, Geoff, "The Shootist," in Time Out (London), 13 August 1986.
Matheson, Nigel, "Arthur Penn," in City Limits (London), 21 August 1986.
Richards, P., "Arthur Penn: A One-Film Director?" in Film, October 1987.
Knowles, Peter C., "Genre and Authorship: Two Films of Arthur Penn," in CineAction! (Toronto), Summer/Autumn 1990.
McCloy, Sean, "Focus on Arthur Penn," in Film West (Dublin), July 1995.
Kock, I. de, "Arthur Penn," in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), November 1996.
Lally, K., "'Inside' with Arthur Penn," in Film Journal (New York), January/February 1997.
Elia, Maurice, "Bonnie and Clyde," in Séquences (Haute-Ville), July-August 1997.
* * *
Arthur Penn has often been classed—along with Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, and Francis Coppola—among the more "European" American directors. Stylistically, this is true enough. Penn's films, especially after Bonnie and Clyde, tend to be technically experimental, and episodic in structure; their narrative line is elliptical, under-mining audience expectations with abrupt shifts in mood and rhythm. Such features can be traced to the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the early films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, which Penn greatly admired.
In terms of his thematic preoccupations, though, few directors are more utterly American. Repeatedly, throughout his work, Penn has been concerned with questioning and re-assessing the myths of his country. His films reveal a passionate, ironic, intense involvement with the American experience, and can be seen as an illuminating chart of the country's moral condition over the past thirty years. Mickey One is dark with the unfocused guilt and paranoia of the McCarthyite hangover, while the stunned horror of the Kennedy assassination reverberates through The Chase. The exhilaration, and the fatal flaws, of the 1960s anti-authoritarian revolt are reflected in Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant. Little Big Man reworks the trauma of Vietnam, while Night Moves is steeped in the disillusioned malaise that pervaded the Watergate era.
As a focus for his perspective on America, Penn often chooses an outsider group and its relationship with mainstream society. The Indians in Little Big Man, the Barrow Gang in Bonnie and Clyde, the rustlers in The Missouri Breaks, the hippies in Alice's Restaurant, the outlaws in The Left-handed Gun, are all sympathetically presented as attractive and vital figures, preferable in many ways to the conventional society which rejects them. But ultimately they suffer defeat, being infected by the flawed values of that same society. "A society," Penn has commented, "has its mirror in its outcasts."
An exceptionally intense, immediate physicality distinguishes Penn's work. Pain, in his films, unmistakably hurts, and tactile sensations are vividly communicated. Often, characters are conveyed primarily through their bodily actions: how they move, walk, hold themselves, or use their hands. Violence is a recurrent feature of his films—notably in The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Missouri Breaks—but it is seldom gratuitously introduced, and represents, in Penn's view, a deeply rooted element in the American character which has to be acknowledged.
Penn established his reputation as a director with Bonnie and Clyde, one of the most significant and influential films of its decade. But since 1970 he has made only a handful of films, none of them successful at the box office. Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks, both poorly received on initial release, now rank among his most subtle and intriguing movies, and Four Friends, though uneven, remains constantly stimulating with its oblique, elliptical narrative structure.
But since then Penn seems to have lost his way. Neither Target, a routine spy thriller, nor Dead of Winter, a reworking of Joseph H. Lewis's cult B-movie My Name Is Julia Ross, offered material worthy of his distinctive talents. Penn and Teller Get Killed, a spoof psycho-killer vehicle for the bad-taste illusionist team, got few showings outside the festival circuit. Among his few recent directorial works is The Portrait, a solidly crafted adaptation for television of Tina Rowe's Broadway hit, Painting Churches. "It's not that I've drifted away from film," Penn told Richard Combs in 1986. "I'm very drawn to film, but I'm not sure that film is drawn to me." Given the range, vitality, and sheer unpredictability of his earlier work, the estrangement is much to be regretted.
PENN, ARTHUR (1922– ), U.S. director, screenwriter, and producer. Born in Philadelphia, Penn spent most of his childhood in New York and New Hampshire with his mother. In high school, he returned to his hometown and began studying his father's watchmaking profession after graduating. His entertainment career began in 1943 when he enlisted in the Army and started performing in a theater troupe. Toward the end of the war, he decided to study acting at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Italian universities of Perugia and Florence. In 1948, he started working for the new nbc tv. At nbc, he wrote television plays and directed episodes of Goodyear Television Playhouse and Philco Playhouse, including William Gibson's The Miracle Worker for television (1956). In 1958 Penn directed The Miracle Worker on Broadway, winning the Tony award, and also made his film debut directing The Left-Handed Gun. Penn returned to The Miracle Worker in 1962, directing the film version, which earned him a best director Oscar nomination. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) also earned Penn a best director nomination. Penn co-wrote Alice's Restaurant in 1969, based on Arlo Guthrie's recording, which earned him another best director nomination. Little Big Man (1970) was a commercial success. Penn later produced and directed Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989). In the 1990s, he directed two made-for-tv movies: The Portrait (1993) and Inside (1996). Other Penn films are The Chase (1965) with Robert Redford, Night Moves (1973), The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Marlon Brando, Four Friends (1981), Target (1985), and Dead of Winter (1987). Penn also turned to television, directing episodes and consulting on the show 100 Center Street (2001). Penn's brother is the renowned photographer Irving *Penn.
[Susannah Howland (2nd ed.)]