Penn’s End

By the time I interviewed Arthur Penn in 1981, during a press junket for Four Friends, he was over. Let’s face it — he had about a 15 year period (’61 to ’76) when he was really crackling. He had a great start doing live TV in the ’50s, and kept his hand in as far as it went after The Missouri Breaks, his last half-decent film. And now he’s passed on.

My favorite Penn film after the classic Bonnie and Clyde is Mickey One — an interesting failure — an arty noir thing — with some brilliant scenes and a offbeat nouvelle vague-ish mood. I love the opening scene in the steam bath with Warren Beatty in the bowler and the laughing fat guys.

Penn stumbled with The Left-Handed Gun (’58), his first Hollywood feature, but then he scored big-time with The Miracle Worker (’62). Mickey One (’65) was an interesting experiment, and The Chase (’66) was a reasonably compelling southern melodrama. Then came his masterpiece (or rather his and Beatty’s masterpiece) Bonnie and Clyde (’67) — one of the greatest films of the 20th Century.

The engaging Alice’s Restaurant (’69) followed, and then Little Big Man (’70), and Night Moves (’75 — “like watching paint dry”) and finally The Missouri Breaks (’76). And then it was over. Not a bad run.

Arthur Penn celebrated his 88th birthday two days ago. He was born on 9.27.22.

37 thoughts on “Penn’s End

  1. Homie Cat on said:

    The soundtrack to Mickey One by Stan Getz was a heck of a lot better then the actual movie, go give it a listen.

  2. Whoa, whoa, whoa… he definitely peaked in the 70s, but Four Friends and Dead of Winter are both really solid movies. Penn and Teller Get Killed is even kind of interesting in its (sometimes misguided) use of irreverent, satirical humor.

  3. I was pretty shocked when I saw Penn in the birthday lineup on IMDB two days ago. I assumed he had already passed. Still, The Miracle Worker was a staple of my childhood. Catholic schools loved that film, and it was assigned viewing whenever it was broadcast.

    And The Chase is a major GUILTY pleasure. What a cast. Seriously. Lots of star power. Those southern white trash melodramas suck me in everytime. Makes a nice bookend with Preminger’s Hurry Sundown. Bonnie and Clyde … enough said.

    RIP.

  4. I do enjoy these “I am unblinded by sentiment” obits that are all “He was good for a while, and then he sucked, and now he’s dead.” I see that you’re going for a particular effect. It might not be exactly what you’re hitting, though…

  5. I would like to point out that during the time that he was over, he directed a play which won both of its stars Tonys. We should all be so over.

  6. One of the greats. BONNIE, MIRACLE WORKER, LITTLE BIG MAN and NIGHT MOVIES are all classics. Yes, THE CHASE is a great guilty pleasure, ditto MICKEY ONE. The guy knew how to do violence. Forget BONNIE, think about BIlly the Kid shooting a guy out of his boots in LEFT HANDED GUN, or when Marlon Brando gets beat up in THE CHASE. And that FOUR FRIENDS wedding scene gave me PTSD (it was cheap, offensive, not necessary and completely illogical..ruined the movie for me).

    I have to see ALICE’S RESTAURANT again.

  7. “Night Moves” is one of my favorite ’70s films. “Like watching paint dry”? Really? (It’s 20 times the film “Mickey One” is…) This marks the first time I can remember anyone saying a bad word about it.

    Also, I won’t make a case for it as a great film, but “Penn and Teller Get Killed” is a lot of fun.

    I’m still trying to get over “like watching paint dry”… Come on!

  8. Whoops. Sorry about that. I forgot that “watching paint dry” was a quote from “Night Moves” and not a comment on it. The quotation marks would have been the giveaway to someone with a better memory of their favorite movies than mine. I hate to admit I just saw it again less than a month ago and still didn’t remember.

  9. Another vote for NIGHT MOVES, which I’ve somehow seen even more times than Bonnie and Clyde. Such a good movie– Hackman, Hackman’s stache, James Woods, young Melanie Griffith, the stuntman plot, that riveting ending on the boat, awesome score and GIANT ’70s cars.

    Any love for TARGET? Was thinking of that recently for some reason; Total formative-era HBO mainstay but haven’t seen it in 23 years easily.

    How bad can FOUR FRIENDS really be? Can you ever go wrong with Craig Wasson?

  10. “If you say Harry one more time Harry is going to make you eat that cat”

    and yes

    “I once saw an Eric Rohmer film. It was like watching paint dry.”

  11. If all Penn did was LITTLE BIG MAN he’d still be a force to be reckoned with — plucky hero, grand story, subversive commentary, directed with a deft hand and expertly paced.

  12. Yes, admittedly his run ended a long while ago but since Bonnie and Clyde is one of the greatest achievements in American cinema I will forever be indebted to Maestro Penn.

    I saw it on TV aged 9, when my completely inebriated aunt let me do anything so long as she did not know about it. There was a double bill on BBC 2. Angels with Dirty Faces followed by Bonnie and Clyde. I lived and loved every minute of those two movies. Firstly, when they were leading Cagney to the chair and he clung onto the radiator… the radiators in my aunt’s house were almost the same! I think I screamed.

    And then it got worse when I realized that Bonnie and Clyde were going to die (it was when the stole Gene Wilder’s car and he said he was an undertaker). I got so frightened for them both that I dove under the couch and watched the rest of the film from there.

    I’ll watch a few chapters tonight and wish Mr. Penn safe home.

  13. Sad passing. I love a lot of his movies: The Chase, Night Moves, Target, Dead of Winter (minus the ending), Little Big Man.

    But for some reason Bonnie & Clyde is one of those films I find hard to “love” the way I think I should. I know I SHOULD, but it just never sunk its teeth into me.

    Night Moves is my favorite Penn film by far.

  14. I would like to point out that during the time that he was over, he directed a play which won both of its stars Tonys. We should all be so over.

  15. NIGHT MOVES is not just my favorite Penn film, it’s one of my favorite films, period. I love the mid-70s – when every actress in the cast got naked (in a natural way) and nobody made a big fucking deal about it. Also, Michael Small – one of the greatest film composers of the 20th century – delivered a great, unreleased score to NIGHT MOVES. Modern noir at its best.

  16. I remember when Penn and Teller did their movie (Penn and Teller get killed) and it couldn’t get distribution. I would here Penn in interviews trying to explain that it’s a great movie and to establish it’s bona fides he’d say it was directed by “arthur fucking penn. You know, Bonnie and Clyde Arthur Penn.”

    And then I finally caught the movie on cable and it was just really, really extremely horribly bad.

    I just couldn’t quite fathom what he was doing on the project, other than a need for cash. In even the worst “I’ll prostitute my talent” situations, you tend to see the paycheck-toting director at least go through the motions delivering something along the lines of their classic films; even if it is all surface. But this thing had none of that. It was awful in every single way.

  17. Re lazespud’s post:

    Have never seen PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED, but I remember both Penns and Teller appearing at the Telluride Film Festival in (if memory correct) 89.

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