Arthur Penn Immortalized ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ Staged ‘Miracle’

Although Arthur Penn was most celebrated as the director of “Bonnie and Clyde,” his long, distinguished career included at least five other enduring films.

Penn, who died Tuesday a day after his 88th birthday, started out as a TV director in the 1950s and made his mark in 1958 with his debut feature, “The Left Handed Gun.” Adapted from a television play by Gore Vidal and starring Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, the movie had an explosiveness and psychosexual tension that was radically different from the more elegiac westerns like “Shane” then in favor.

“The Left Handed Gun” had a major influence on Sam Peckinpah (“Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch”) and, in its split-second eruptions of violence, was a precursor of “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Despite its excellence, “The Left Handed Gun” was a commercial flop. Penn, who by this time also had a flourishing career on Broadway, did not make another film until “The Miracle Worker” (1962), which he had first staged for the theater. It’s one of the most powerful, and least stagy, dramatic adaptations ever filmed.

Mumbling Beatty

Penn was almost universally admired by actors and actresses.

Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke both won Oscars for “The Miracle Worker.” Years later, upon receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Los Angeles film critics group, Penn declared that Bancroft, whom he also directed on stage in “The Miracle Worker” and “Two for the Seesaw,” was the greatest actress he ever worked with.

Penn’s next film, “Mickey One” (1965), was an existential crime thriller about a nightclub comic, played by Warren Beatty in his mumbly, pregnant-pause mode. Penn had a penchant for artiness and “Mickey One,” which plunders a grab bag of stylistic tricks from French New Wave filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard, is nothing if not nouveau.

A year later Penn made “The Chase,” starring Marlon Brando as the sheriff in a corrupt Texas town. Lillian Hellman claimed her script was taken away from her and reshaped beyond redemption. Nobody -- not even the French -- has ever made any large claims for this film.

“Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) brought out the best in Penn. The film made stars of Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and boosted the careers of Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard. The script by David Newman and Robert Benton (with some uncredited rewrites by Robert Towne) was astounding, and Penn knew exactly what to do with it.

Hoffman’s Centenarian

“Bonnie and Clyde” has become such an iconic American film that we are in danger of taking it for granted. But its power is undiminished. Despite all the violence in movies, this is one of the few where we feel its consequences in our marrow.

Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969), loosely based on the Arlo Guthrie song, is one of the sweetest films from that era and among the few to capture its forlorn waywardness and idealism. Seen today, it’s both artifact and exemplar.

“Little Big Man” (1970) stars Dustin Hoffman as a 121- year-old man reminiscing on his frontier exploits as a survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. Based on the Thomas Berger novel, it’s really about Vietnam; the Indians are stand-ins for the Vietnamese. Hugely ambitious and overlong, it nevertheless has sequences, like the raid on the Indian village, that are breathtakingly harrowing. And, like “Bonnie and Clyde,” it has a mournful feeling for the American past.

‘Night Moves’

“Night Moves” (1975), from a script by Alan Sharp, stars Hackman as an L.A. private eye with a bad marriage who tracks a nubile Melanie Griffith to the Florida Keys. It’s a moody-blues thriller that, like “Mickey One,” feels more European than American. It’s a much more successful film, though. Edgy and languorous, it quickly became a cult film.

Penn’s last remarkable movie was “Missouri Breaks” (1976), a Western starring Jack Nicholson as a horse thief and Marlon Brando as the hired gun who harries him. It’s one of Brando’s most audacious performances, mixing macho guile with transvestism. (At one point he disguises himself as a woman.)

Penn’s jumble of tones, from slapstick to blood-red realism, turned off audiences and baffled most critics. Seen today, it’s that very mixture that makes it so compelling.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

To contact the writer responsible for this story: Peter Rainer at Fi1L2E@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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