The outcast who shot 'Bonnie and Clyde'
Published 02/10/2010 | 05:00
Arthur Penn's most durable achievements were in the cinema. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), an evocation of the short, bloody career of the Barrow gang in the Depression years, was a seminal picture that seemed to epitomise its own era as much as the violent 1930s.
The drector, who died on Monday, aged 88, was drawn to subjects that mirrored his own search for a father-figure. The child of a broken home, Penn was obsessed with questions of identity and exclusion. "I would say," he conjectured, "that the only people who really interest me are the outcasts from society. The people who are not outcasts seem to me good material for selling breakfast food, but they're not material for films."
It was a theme that he tackled in his first film, The Left-Handed Gun (1957), a Western about Billy the Kid, then developed in The Miracle Worker (1962), the story of Helen Keller's triumph over physical handicaps, and perfected in Bonnie and Clyde.
As a film-maker, his style was distinguished by its intense realism. In the 1960s, nobody conveyed better than he the painful truth about violence.
The climax of Bonnie and Clyde, in which the young bank robbers are shredded by an unremitting hail of police bullets, was in its day an unprecedented expression of how much it hurts to die by the gun.
Penn's reputation waned in the 1970s. As the liberal climate of the Kennedy and Johnson years receded, he seemed unable to adjust to more paranoid times. Though he continued to work in Hollywood, his later films were unexceptional.
Arthur Penn was born in Philadelphia on September 22, 1922, the son of a watch repairer. His parents divorced when he was three and he lived with his mother until the age of 14 when he left to help run his father's business.
At school in Philadelphia, he became involved in theatre production.
When his father died in 1943, Penn was conscripted into the army. During training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he met Fred Coe, whowent on to produce much of Penn's work.
After studying acting with Michael Chekhov in Hollywood, he entered television in 1951 as a floor manager with NBC, rising to assistant director on The Colgate Comedy Hour.
In 1953, thanks to Fred Coe, he was able to direct his first live drama series, First Person.
During the 1950s, Arthur Penn earned a golden reputation on Broadway with a stream of smash hits. Two for the Seesaw, with Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft, which opened in January 1958, ran for 750 performances.
At this time Penn also began to work in the cinema. His first film, The Left-Handed Gun, was cut and re-edited by Warner Bros against his wishes. Though praised in Europe, it was a commercial flop.
Penn badly needed a hit and found it in Bonnie and Clyde. Initially slated for bad taste and glorifying violence, it eventually won three Oscars in 1967 for best screenplay, best photography and best supporting actress.
In Alice's Restaurant (1969), the starting point was a mock heroic blues ballad by Arlo Guthrie -- son of Woody -- which recorded how he was rejected for the Vietnam draft on account of a littering offence. Guthrie played himself, as did Officer William Obanheim, the cop who had arrested him. The film was set in a hippie commune in the 1960s.
After making Little Big Man (1971) Penn suffered a psychological crisis that prevented him from working for four years.
The Missouri Breaks (1976) was an offbeat Western starring Jack Nicholson as an outlaw and Marlon Brando as the "Regulator" engaged to track him down. Brando camped up the script, appearing in one sequence in drag, complete with gingham dress and granny bonnet. The film's best scene was the moment when Brando wakes up to find Nicholson with a knife at his throat ready to slit it from ear to ear.
Arthur Penn married actress Peggy Maurer in 1955. They had two children.