I heard of Penn’s passing just as I headed out the door so no time then to contemplate the career of a director who for cinephiles at least had a very hot streak from The Left-Handed Gun (1958), through The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde; Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks (1976). That’s close to a couple of decades of remarkable film-making, all of them in some way peering under the skin of American history and society and finding a lot of pent-up lawlessness and violence.
Back in those long lost 60s when discovering new directors was the game and we awaited solitary events like the Melbourne Film Festival for our first glimpse of the directors that cahiers and Sight & Sound were praising, coming across an American director like Arthur Penn at the very start of their career and then watching in quick succession a run of increasingly assured films was then, still is I suppose, quite a rarity. But nowadays when maybe ten thousand new films are made each year and you have access to thousands more of them very quickly, the discovery doesn't have quite the uniqueness it had then. Penn was in that tradition of Losey, Aldrich, Siegel, Fuller, Anthony Mann, Nicolas Ray, Raoul Walsh and no doubt many others of lesser ability and reputation who did their best work on violent subjects, or maybe subjects where America's peculiar closeness to guns, brutality and death was most nakedly and simply on display.
In retrospect the fact that the run seemed to end with what on paper must have looked like a sure fire success, a western with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. But it turned off critics and the public alike, one of those ironies of the business. Bonnie and Clyde will preserve his reputation for ever and the line in Night Moves comparing watching a Rohmer movie with watching paint drying probably made it into all the obituaries.
We never saw any of the ‘live television’ which first made Penn’s name in the 50s That pre-historical part of his career may yet come to light but not so far. We did see The Left-Handed Gun, Penn’s film of Gore Vidal’s television play about Billy the Kid and it became apparent there that Penn had a sense of adventure. The long static shot simulating the taking of a photograph was repeated countless times by others, the shot directly into the sun which allows Billy to appear as a ghostly presence before he blasts one of his enemies into oblivion, these became signs of a director wanting to experiment within the confines of Hollywood film-making. When he got the chance, after his second film The Miracle Worker won a bagful of Oscars, Penn took the opportunity, with Warren Beatty, to attempt to be an American Fellini, with Mickey One. That film remains a fascinating artefact of its time. The Chase and especially Little Big Man were fine westerns. The former has one of Marlon Brando’s very finest performances in amongst its story of over-wrought Texas oilmen and its sub-text of the forces that led to the Kennedy and subsequent Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations.
In the end Penn just faded away. Towards the end he even made a movie with the magicians Penn and Teller but nobody I asked has ever seen it. Since I mentioned it David Stratton has been in touch to say he's seen it and has passed on his noted about what he saw. Not something to write home about. Still the memory of the films from that hot streak period will live on and his place in the Expressive Esoterica section of the Pantheon, I think, is secure and something to be admired.