Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn Dead at 88

Arthur Penn, the director of one of the greatest films of all time, Bonnie & Clyde (1967) has passed away. 

The AP reports:

NEW YORK (AP) — Director Arthur Penn, a myth-maker and myth-breaker who in such classics as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man," refashioned movie and American history and sealed a generation's affinity for outsiders, died Tuesday night, a day after his 88th birthday.

...Penn's other films included his adaptation of "The Miracle Worker," featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Anne Bancroft; "The Missouri Breaks," an outlaw tale starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson; "Night Moves," a Los Angeles thriller featuring Gene Hackman; and "Alice's Restaurant," based on the wry Arlo Guthrie song about being turned down for the draft because he had once been fined for littering.

Although it won't likely be listed in many tributes, Penn also directed a highly-underrated horror thriller in 1987, Dead of Winter, that I have never forgotten (and always appreciated).  I saw it in a theater in Montclair, New Jersey with my Mom and Dad, and enjoyed the picture very much, especially the double performance of Mary Steenburgen and a creepy supporting turn by the great Roddy McDowall.

Bonnie & Clyde is an undisputed masterpiece, a daring blend of comedy and violence that at first romanticizes its action and then turns around -- after brilliantly making the case for the titular outlaws as heroes -- and punishes them with unbelievable, shocking violence.

And as expressively-edited and fast-paced as the classic Bonnie & Clyde remains, Alice's Restaurant was the deliberate opposite in approach: a free-wheeling, loosely-structured, loosely-plotted comedy that epitomizes the counter-culture era in America.  I love this film so much that I named one of the main characters in my series The House Between after Guthrie and his "character" in Alice's Restaurant, Arlo. 

If you were to watch Bonnie & Clyde, Dead of Winter and Alice's Restaurant, you'd get a terrific sense of Penn's versatility and talent.

Arthur Penn was really one of the greats, and I hope that film scholars and students will use the sad occasion of his passing to re-screen the director's films, and remember his prodigious talent.


  1. As I mentioned in a comment on a friend's blog earlier today, Penn was an avart-garde filmmaker. All of these films you mentioned are a tribute to his talent and a fine legacy. DEAD OF WINTER is a great film to spotlight, John. Besides those that are undisputed masterpieces (BONNIE & CLYDE, LITTLE BIG MAN, etc.), I think his NIGHT MOVES was a modern film noir classic that didn't get its due when it arrived (that's now changed) and is a picture I think about when I hear the name, Arthur Penn. He will be missed. Wonderful tribute post, my friend.

    p.s., with the loss of Tarantino film editor Sally Menke and Penn, it's been one terrible week for cinema lovers.

  2. I really like Dead of Winter, but curiously, it's very similar to the earlier "Lies" (1983) by the Wheat Brothers. My favorite film of his might be the pretty unheralded Mickey One, maybe the best American approximation of the French new wave ever made.

  3. Add me to the list of "Dead of Winter" fans. Given the Grim Ripper's spree of late, perhaps it's time to hang a subscript on the Hollywood sign: "Closed on account of too much death".

  4. LITTLE BIG MAN may be my fave Penn film but I even have a soft spot for the PENN & TELLER film he directed. But LBM is an incredible film and really blew my mind when I saw it after seeing DANCES WITH WOLVES in theaters. It instantly made me change my opinion of Costner's film when I realized just how safe he played it compared to Penn's film.

  5. Hello my friends,

    It's great to read all your comments affirming the talent and brilliance of Arthur Penn and his cinematic legacy. I like reading about all your favorites, from Little Big Man to Mickey One. And it's good to know that others also enjoy "Dead of Winter!"

    best to all,

  6. Anonymous6:07 PM

    Goodbye Arthur. I'm going to miss you.