In Memoriam: Arthur Penn

For nearly forty-five years, the American public has marveled at the artistic excellence of a film known as Bonnie and Clyde. It was new and exciting; filled with violence and situations like American film-goers had never seen before. Of course now, the violence in Bonnie and Clyde is pretty tame, but although it is tame, it is very memorable. The final scene in which Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are infamously slaughtered by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer is cemented in the mind of audiences around the world. The flight of the doves from the bushes foreshadowing the hunters in wait. That last glance Clyde takes of Bonnie before the loud eruption of gun fire. The bullet-ridden Ford V8 after the massacre. It is one of the most shocking, memorable, and artistic scenes in film history. Truth be told, Bonnie and Clyde was a wonderful film. It’s one of those movies that gets better every time one exhibits it. There’s hardly a flaw in the gold-tinted saga of the lover / killers. Now, in 2010, we must say goodbye to the man who created this masterpiece of cinema—the phenomenal director, Arthur Penn.

Bonnie and Clyde was just one of his many achievements on stage and on screen. His credits on screen not only include the aforementioned blood bath, but also the highly emotional and exquisitely shot screen version of The Miracle Worker. These were perhaps his most popular films, and it is evident almost immediately while watching each picture the genius behind the camera. Of course it wasn’t to his disadvantage that he always hired brilliant actors like Faye Dunaway and Anne Bancroft and Michael J. Pollard to inhabit these innovative worlds. His stage credits also included The Miracle Worker, and the eerie, yet emotionally vacant “thriller” Wait Until Dark.

He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of a nurse named Sonia and a watchmaker named Henry. During the forties and fifties he became well known as the director of television series, but didn’t make a feature film until 1958’s The Left Handed Gun, which was a version of the Billy the Kid legend. It got enough praise, but wasn’t a classic. Then in 1962, Penn embarked on The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s poetic biography of Anne Sullivan, the woman that taught deaf and blind Helen Keller. The Miracle Worker is one of those movies that’s hard to forget. Every shot is perfect. The angles are strange and the camera moves disorientating so as to make us just as confused as poor Helen Keller must be (overacted by Pattie Duke, though still impressive). And of course Anne Bancroft’s award winning performance as Anne is something unforgettable. It’s a baffling movie of sheer artistic delight. I don’t know how it could have been done better.

After he directed Bonnie and Clyde, he was nominated for an Academy Award. The film itself was also nominated for Best Picture. Unfortunately, both the film and its director were robbed that year by the more conventional In the Heat of the Night. Perhaps the fact that at its time, Bonnie and Clyde was so different, had something to do with that. Difference in film should be celebrated, not punished. The film broke all the rules of sexuality, violence, and subject matter. It shattered the public’s hopes for good, clean, entertainment. It made the people think about what was possible in movies. It gave new freedom to American directors who couldn’t see their vision on screen because of the “strict” MPAA rules about content in films. The fact is that Bonnie and Clyde is a great film by a great director, and although it was underrated in its time, it will always be remembered as an ever-popular American classic. There’s virtually nothing wrong with it. And pretty much nothing wrong with it director who, unfortunately, has now passed on from the realm of story-telling that he loved so well. He was a vital organ in Hollywood for several years, and now, he is gone, to be replaced by someone new. Perhaps the next auteur to take his place will be as new and innovative as he, but I doubt it. Nothing can replace Arthur Penn.

•Inside (1996)
•Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
•Dead of Winter (1987)
•Target (1985)
•Four Friends (1981)
•The Missouri Breaks (1976)
•Night Moves (1975)
•Little Big Man (1970)
•Alice's Restaurant (1969)
•Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
•The Chase (1966)
•Mickey One (1965)
•The Miracle Worker (1962)
•The Left Handed Gun (1958)