When Arthur Penn was still a teenager he was in the US Army, in Europe & in the Second World. I’ve only been in
the middle one, I would imagine that the full set gave him a little perspective to bring back to his acting studies. He was in the right place at the right time for NBC, an expanding TV network where he served an apprenticeship as a director before returning to the theatre then into film direction. His older brother Irving was a big-time fashion photographer for “Vogue” so Arthur knew how far having a discerning eye could get you, His first film, “The Left Handed Gun” (1958) was a study of that troubled American youth Billy the Kid with Paul Newman stepping in when James Dean was unable to make the gig. In the next decade he made considered, provocative movies before directing a film which has come to be regarded as a spearhead of modernity in American cinema.
Arthur Penn was a Kennedy Democrat, a contemporary of the brothers in the White House. After 2 terms of a Republican general as President there was an optimism & a determination to address social issues which had been neglected during the Cold War politics of the 1950s. “The Miracle Worker” (1962) is the story of Helen Keller, a deaf, dumb & blind kid & a tutor’s attempts to communicate with her. It’s intense though it flicks obvious emotional switches. When I was a kid I was affected by the film but I was so much older then. “The Miracle Worker” is a Liberal’s wet dream. Like another pile of self-satisfied sentiment, “That Shawshank Thing”, the Academy loved it. Oscars for Ann Bancroft & Patty Duke but… nah ! “Mickey One” (1965) is more like it. It’s a surreal riff on film noir with a bigger thing for the French New Wave than Hollywood. A paranoid story of a stand-up comedian (Warren Beatty) who is, or thinks he is on the run from the mob. In 2010 Penn spoke about the film’s reflections on McCarthyism…” it was in repudiation of the kind of fear that overtook free people to the point where they were telling on each other and afraid to speak out. It just astonished me, really astonished me. I mean, I was a vet, so it was nothing like what we thought we were fighting for.” Arthur Penn was a man with a message & a mission to pass it on. His films are worthy of consideration because of this.
“Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), now let’s see if I can do this thing without using the word “zeitgeist”. Two young American outsiders, double the trouble. The bad guys & gals had never looked so beautiful, sexy, fashionable & cool. The violence never more casual, shocking & in slow motion. There was a great cast to support Warren Beatty & Faye Dunaway, the whole gang, Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman, Michael J Pollard, was Oscar nominated. We laughed at the crime & the cops as Flatt & Scruggs picked out “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. The whole package, script, cinematography, editing, was shaking the tree. If there was such a thing as New Hollywood then this was it. Those objectors to the violence, to the lack of accuracy, to the attitude (“a squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade”) were kicked to the kerb as a $2½ million movie grossed $70 million. The film critic of the New York Times was sacked after his negative review. Arthur Penn & his crew showed that the rock & roll youth market would go to the movies if the studios offered a little more to see than Elvis’s latest piece of joyless dross.
A director who knew what the Woodstock Nation would pay to watch was hot. His next film was adopted from a counter-culture anthem, Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. The 18 minute song is a rambling hippie monologue which finally comes to a point about avoiding the draft & that war is bad…m’kay. From this insubstantial foundation an almost 2 hour long movie made rather heavy handed points about the rubbishness of the “straight” world. Hollywood Hippies…f**k ’em ! Next time round, with more capacious material, Arthur Penn was back on it.
“Little Big Man” (1970) may be a mess but it is our mess. In the same year Dee Brown’s best selling book “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” reflected an identification with the ecological, anti-materialist concerns of Native Americans by the counter culture, “Little Big…” is a story told by 121 year old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who has, he says, seen things & done things. The film, like Crabb’s life, is long & sprawling, playing fast & loose across moments in American history. Kind of like “Forrest Gump” only watchable & not at all sappy. Then, like “Dances With Wolves” only without the condescension, Jack spends time living as a Cheyenne, taught the ways of the “Human Beings” by Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George who nicks the film with his performance & his “good day to die” schtick.
Picaresque is the very word for this film. Story lines are resolved by “with one bound he was free” or are just left hanging. The changes in tone from tragedy to comedy are capably handled, the satire is sharp. Hoffman’s little man shifts with the winds of change. Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam & a manic Richard Mulligan as Custer are just passing through but leave an impression. It’s only recently that I’ve been picking up copies of classic 70s movies. “Little Big Man” fits right in there.
I was at the front of the queue for Penn’s 1976 Western. “The Missouri Breaks” starred not only Jack Nicholson in the one after “Cuckoo’s Nest” but also Marlon Brando in the one after the “Godfather”/”Last Tango” double. Hell yeah ! A film of its time, a little out there, lots of black hats & no white ones, a low key story of muddied morality. It was not the meeting of movie mahatmas we expected. Brando felt it would be best if he improvised his part. Penn, aware that the whole emphasis of the film would be changed but vulnerable against star-power, let the cameras roll & hoped to influence the post-production. Jack, seeing he could not compete with Marlon’s excesses, reined himself in to counter his co-star’s energy. Critics, offended by what they saw as Brando’s self-indulgence, set about him & the film was a box office flop.
From a distance & with repeated viewing the method in Brando’s madness becomes more apparent. Despite unpredictable meanderings of his accent the “regulator”, Lee Clayton,is an impressive, very watchable performance. He is hired to eliminate a funky bunch of horse thieves led by Nicholson , including Harry Dean Stanton, Fred Forrest & Randy Quaid, who all have fun with Thomas McGuane’s snappy script. “The Missouri Breaks” is a beautifully filmed piece with some unforgettable Brando business which fits right in with the new Westerns of the 1970s.
There’s no room here for “Night Moves” (1975), Penn’s New Wave take on the crime thriller. Another time, maybe in a riff on Gene Hackman because he was at the top of his game as the disenchanted shamus Harry Moseby. Penn’s career faltered in the 1980s, while he continued his reflections on the changing times in America his disillusioned outsiders were never as sharply, smartly showcased as they were in the early films. Back then it was his & his generation’s time & he was one of the most assured, articulate film directors around. It’s not just the 3 movies featured here that will reward anyone who appreciates intelligent, concerned movie-making.