Arthur Penn

b. September 27, 1922, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

d.  Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA

web resources

Little Big Man

The career of Arthur Penn has had, to say the least, its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys. For much of the 1960s and early 1970s he was at the forefront of a new generation of directors (including Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Sam Peckinpah and Martin Ritt) trained in theatre and television who revitalised American filmmaking at a time of great crisis in the industry. And, perhaps more importantly, who bridged the not insubstantial gap between the studio era (which came to an end in the 1950s following the fateful Paramount decree of 1948) and the new Hollywood “auteur” cinema of the 1970s: the so-called movie brats.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922 to parents that soon separated, Penn spent many of his formative years living with his mother and brother (the acclaimed photographer Irving Penn) in New York and New Hampshire. Before finishing his schooling, however, he moved back to his hometown, graduated from Olney High School (1) and began (not entirely of his own free will) to study his father’s profession of watch-making. In 1943 he enlisted in the US Army Infantry and reported for training at Fort Jackson, where he soon started a performing theatre troupe that would entertain fellow soldiers and pass often long hours of inactivity.

Towards the end of the war, Penn made a move to follow the path he had now decided was most definitely for him, and joined the influential theatre group run by Joshua Logan. After the war he resolved to study acting further: going first to Black Mountain College in North Carolina and then on to the Universities of Perugia and Florence in Italy (2). Returning in 1948, Penn continued to train at the Actors’ Studio and with Michael Chekhov in Los Angeles, but by now the lack of actual work was beginning to give the 26 year-old doubts about his chosen career. By chance, he found himself at a new television studio, NBC TV, and realised he was experiencing a great medium in its infancy, one that was desperate for eager new talent and one where he could gain valuable working experience.

Over the following years Penn began working as a floor manager at NBC, serving on variety shows, the news and the “Colgate Comedy Hour”. He soon graduated to writing television plays for the likes of MacDonald Carey and Joan Caulfield, as well as directing an experimental show called “First Person”, produced by his old Army friend Fred Coe and written by the cream of a new generation of writers including Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote. He also directed several episodes of the series ”Goodyear Television Playhouse” and ”Philco Playhouse”. In 1956 Penn adapted a work for television that he would return to twice over the next six years in different mediums: The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, starring Teresa Wright and Burl Ives. Gibson’s work would again be presided over by Penn when he returned to the theatre to direct Anne Bancroft and Henry Fonda in Two for the Seesaw, which was a resounding success that ran on Broadway for almost two years: from January 16,, 1958 to October 31, 1959 (3). The critical and commercial triumph of that play then allowed Penn to stage his cherished pet project The Miracle Worker again, which actually opened before Two for the Seesaw had closed (October 19, 1959), and which played until July 1, 1961 (4), earning him a Tony award in the process.

Between these two Broadway hits, however, came a venture into yet another medium, this time one not quite so young as television, but one in which he made even more of an impact: the cinema. The Left-Handed Gun (1958), adapted by Gore Vidal from his own television play The Death of Billy The Kid and described by Robin Wood as providing “A remarkably complete thematic exposition of Penn’s work” (5), re-tells the story of the legendary outlaw for the rebel-without-a-cause generation, offering a particular emphasis on the unstable, un-nurtured and often inarticulate mindset of its adolescent and misunderstood protagonist. It also, as Wood suggests (and in a way that strongly prefigures Bonnie And Clyde [1967]) (6), dramatises almost diagrammatically Penn’s abiding concerns with the outsider in society, with the fragile, precarious order that gives way all too quickly to irrational violence, with the tension between impulse and rationality and also with the disparity between image and reality, facade and truth.

Billy (Paul Newman) is realised in the film as a perennial outcast turned outlaw, as someone on whom fate, circumstance and his own character confer a particularly inexorable tragedy that he is ultimately unable to comprehend, let alone halt. He is a character both fascinated (the way he holds onto the newspaper report of his own death) and disturbed (his uneasiness with the shotgun a photographer demands he hold for a photo at Pat Garrett’s wedding) by his own image, his own legend. He is perpetually driven by impulse and instinct. From his consuming desire for revenge on Tunstall’s killers to his inability to see the broader consequences of those actions, the chain is set in motion by his behaviour. Also, directly prefiguring The Chase (1965), the sense of violence begetting violence and engulfing both people and the community in a mob mentality is vividly illustrated when, following Billy’s killing of Sheriff Brady and Morton in revenge for Tunstall, the townsfolk quickly swarm around and, on a less than concretely factual pretext, immediately burn down the house of McSween, where they believe Billy to be.

The film also revealed Penn’s genius with actors: the very close way he would work with them in order to utilise the full body, from small gestures and intonations to grand outbursts, as a means of revealing character. One example will suffice: towards the beginning of the film, as Billy is finding his feet as a member of Tunstall’s extended family, he sits with said patriarch and looks upon a gypsy wagon slowly going by. As they watch, Billy talks about the gypsy’s religious ceremony of Pasquas, wherein a straw man is burned and his ashes left to the wind. “Why do they do that?” enquires Tunstall. And Billy, after thinking hard for a moment (he has never thought before to wonder at this) simply shrugs his shoulders in the most casual possible fashion. His whole personality particularly his lack of real knowledge of the world and his almost hermetic inability to see or understand anything beyond his own (limited) range of experience or to think about motivation or purpose (that will seal his fate later in the film) is elucidated in one small, seemingly inconsequential gesture.

If The Left-Handed Gun firmly established Penn’s ability to direct genre material, then his next film would make clear just how much more he had to offer in terms of raw human drama. However, that film was over four years in coming, as his auspicious debut had been both cut against his wishes by the studio and had been less than enthusiastically greeted domestically (although it was greatly acclaimed in Europe). The result, after the success Penn had already tasted in the theatre, was a return to that medium in which he could work far more freely and with far less constraint. Only after this did he chance his luck on another shot at the cinema, and then he played it safe in directing an adaptation of The Miracle Worker for the third time in only six years.

The Miracle Worker

Starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft (both of whom starred in the Broadway play), Penn’s 1962 film version of the story of Helen Keller, deaf and blind child, and Annie Sullivan, the almost equally troubled woman (emotionally and psychologically) who teaches her, demonstrates again the director’s tremendous ability with actors as well as with compassionate, intimate and unsentimental human drama. Like the people in Werner Herzog’s documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1970), Helen Keller has to overcome the twin disabilities of blindness and deafness and find a way of connecting and communicating with the world from which she is so mercilessly alienated. Like Billy the Kid, but in a much more concentrated way, she gropes throughout the film toward an understanding of herself and toward tactile self-expression. Still, she is a less common Penn protagonist in that social ostracision is forced on her by the psychical rather than the psychological make-up of her character.

Beside this is set Annie Sullivan, in many ways a kindred spirit to Helen as she too is imprisoned, in her case by her past: her tenure in an almshouse for the mentally ill and her feelings of guilt over the death of her brother. In Helen she sees herself (something Penn, always cinematic, visualises in superimpositions of one over the other), and the development of their relationship stresses that they become more than just teacher/pupil: they become mother/daughter. Robin Wood further sees a correlative between Billy the Kid in The Left-Handed Gun and Annie in The Miracle Worker, as both suffer a symbolic blindness (though Annie does actually suffer from weak eyesight, another link with Helen) to their own motives and both are driven by desires and needs they don’t fully comprehend (7).

The Miracle Worker was a considerable success for Penn. It did reasonable box-office and gained almost universal critical applause, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and actually winning for both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. On the back of this, Penn wanted to remain working in the cinema alongside his still ongoing theatre commitments, and the opportunity arose in 1963 when Burt Lancaster requested he direct The Train. Once again, however, fortune did not smile on him, as (according to Lancaster’s biographer Kate Buford) the temperamental star had him replaced (by his contemporary John Frankenheimer) barely a week into shooting (8), with the result that Penn once again beat a hasty retreat from the door of cinema. However, the following year he also suffered quite a substantial failure on the stage, when his production of an original play called Lorenzo closed after only two days. And so, once again, Arthur Penn looked to the screen. But this time he came back with a film over which he had total artistic freedom (he was producer as well as director), one that is still regarded as one of his strangest, most experimental works.

The Kafka-esque story of Mickey One (1964) has Warren Beatty as a neurotic nightclub comedian suffering from what seems to be an acute persecution complex, though the mob themselves could be hunting him for a past indiscretion that he himself, like Joseph K in The Trial, knows nothing about. Described by Geoff Andrew as “His (Penn’s) most infuriating and one of his most intriguing films” (9), Mickey One is certainly the director’s most overtly European picture, replete with Nouvelle Vague-like jump cuts, narrative ellipses and fragmentation and a frequent use of loaded symbols such as mirrors. Even so, Beatty’s protagonist is very much a typical Penn character, one in search of a stable identity and understanding of himself (as a popular entertainer he has a persona and an image but there exists a deep gulf between that and his real self, a gulf that he himself cannot understand).

The disparity between reality and facade comes to a head in a very disturbing scene in which Mickey (his real name is never learned, another cue in to his identity crisis) finds himself in a darkened auditorium and picked out by a merciless spotlight. After making several weak jokes for the silent auditors to no avail, he panics and flees in desperation. This short scene elucidates perfectly the inability of the facade to cover for the lack of any real depth of character, any true sense of self, and the nightmare feeling communicated is very close to Kafka via Orson Welles, whose adaptation of The Trial was released only two years prior.

In the last instance though, this film must be regarded an artistic failure. The abstract, intellectual idea of modern alienation that seems to have been at the core of the film for Penn is half-baked and confused, never running organically through the whole fabric of the work but rather feeling imposed onto it. The art-cinema urge in Penn is best expressed in more subtle ways in his other work, and not in the explicit technique of this film. It is certainly interesting, but shows today more than ever how his very best films are built on a solid, concrete foundation of established norms that he can work on and against. The next picture he would make would prove the point beyond reproach.

The Chase, another commercial, and this time critical, disappointment for Penn, seems today to be his first real masterpiece. Like John Ford with My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956), Howard Hawks with Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Rio Bravo (1959) or, to broaden the horizon, Ingmar Bergman with The Seventh Seal (1957) and Persona (1966), The Chase lives and breathes as an Arthur Penn film. And it shows him at the very height of his creativity. As Robin Wood has observed: “The director’s intelligence informs every sequence…it is perhaps Penn’s completest [Wood’s italics] film” (10). As elsewhere in his career, the story is ostensibly a simple one: prison escapee Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) returns to his hometown in search of shelter and justice, and manages, on the night of a community convention, to stir up a veritable smorgasbord of guilt, corruption, lust, betrayal and violence lurking not so far beneath the surface. However, the clarity and depth of vision that Penn imbues in the story gives it an almost mythic resonance as well as an ongoing contemporary relevance.

The Chase

Based on a play by Horton Foote, The Chase offers the first, and arguably the fullest, instance in Penn’s work of a modern capitalist society in which victimisation and greed are the norm, and the superficial mores and codes governing “polite behaviour” are simply for show. There is a constant tension between surface and reality, and as the film progresses, the strict social distinctions and structures witnessed most clearly in the three simultaneous parties (those of Val, The Stewarts and the teenagers) begin to corrode, until at the end anarchy reigns as order breaks down completely (appropriately enough in the central location of a junkyard). As in The Left-Handed Gun, the notion of violence seething under the skin of a community en mass is palpable, and Penn’s close work with the actors in building up and subtly revealing their characters is in evidence throughout. As in, for example, Redford lying tired and soaking wet on a river bank after his arduous escape excitedly miming the act of shooting geese, or the fidgeting, uncomfortable manner of Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) in his formal attire for the convention (after we have seen him quite rigorously, and lengthily, getting himself ready).

The Chase is a moral film in the very best sense of the word, not in that it has a simple message about right and wrong or the way we should live our lives, but in that it engages with the whole concept of morality and human experience, the human condition, and the uneasy bedfellows the two often make. It succeeds in conveying something of the immediacy, indeed primacy, of violence and social conflict, and crucially Penn never looks down on his characters and never lectures from a distance. Like his contemporary Sam Peckinpah, he understands where violence comes from and what its costs and effects are, and he burns in the flames with the rest of us.

If The Chase can be viewed in hindsight as a peak achievement in Penn’s career up to that point, then his next film would up the ante even further, bringing him a resounding commercial triumph to go with the artistic acclaim and notoriety, and ushering in a new era of screen action and bloodletting into the bargain. Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the eponymous depression era outlaws, is now considered, as Leonard Maltin points out (11), a milestone in American cinema. It can also be seen as a deeply pivotal film, in that it looks back to the studio system with its generic base (and in being produced by Warner Brothers, who were behind all of the original 1930s/’40s Cagney/Robinson gangster classics) whilst anticipating the movie brat American arthouse cinema with its Nouvelle Vague, early Godard-esque lurches in tone, episodic narrative and, on one level, romanticisation. In fact, François Truffaut was originally approached by the film’s writers, the European film buffs David Newman and Robert Benton (later director of such fare as Bad Company [1972] and Nadine [1987]), to direct, and he did actually have a hand in the screenplay as it was shot by Penn.

Bonnie and Clyde

In many ways a companion piece to The Left-Handed Gun in its treatment of outlaws obsessed by their image and driven by impulses they only half comprehend, Bonnie and Clyde extols a sense of legend even at the level of mise-en-scène, with Burnett Guffey’s photography of barren landscapes in lush gold, browns and greens lending an almost storybook, subjective fantasy feeling of representation to the film (the credit sequence, interspersed with real photos, also underlines this from very beginning, as does Bonnie’s poetry and the whole wish of the pair to gain notoriety). Contrasted with such a style is Penn’s typically resonant exploration of characters inexorably impelled to act out a narrative that can never end happily: that, in fact, can only ever have one outcome. Bonnie and Clyde are born from the hard times in which they exist, and, as with the protagonists of The Chase and The Left-Handed Gun, are more victims than criminals in a capitalist society that has left average people behind in its quest for wealth.

The violence in the film, the most graphic and stylised in Penn’s whole oeuvre, is now regarded as heralding the winds of change for its representation in Hollywood cinema. Although the slow motion shots of bodies as violence is inflicted is traceable further back than Bonnie and Clyde (probably to Kurosawa and The Seven Samurai [1954] 13 years previously), it was this film that opened the floodgates in America, pre-empting Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) by two years, and in hindsight which seemed to capture the zeitgeist like very few other films of the time. It signalled that period when the major studios were in severe crisis, more out of touch with audience tastes than at any other time and in financial trouble after backing a series of very costly flops. And ready, if begrudgingly, to take more chances with new material than ever before. Bonnie and Clyde capitalised on this, and is arguably one of the most important films in post-classical Hollywood.

Penn, having now reached something of a nadir in his cinematic career (with a commercial, critical and Oscar winning success), took a long break from the theatre to concentrate on filmmaking. So much of a break, in fact, that his next work, the melancholy hippie drama Alice’s Restaurant (1969), was actually scripted by himself, in collaboration with Venable Herndon. Based around Arlo Guthrie’s “Talking Blues”, Alice’s Restaurant seems today to be another era-defining picture, in which a very incisive portrait of ’60s rural America, on the cusp of the disintegration of the great hippie dream of love and peace, emerges as a backdrop to Guthrie’s wanderings. Penn engages fully with the hippie community in this, his most gentle and warm film. Though thematically, tonally and in terms of subject matter it is the odd one out in his great first 20 years as a director, it is far from an uninteresting work. Indeed, if one sees Penn’s forte as probing the workings of a capitalist society built on greed, power and with a latent violence barely (and never always) held in check, then Alice’s Restaurant is the director’s attempt to explore the antithesis of such a structure. In that sense it seems if not a wholly successful undertaking (it does suffer from a lack of clarity of purpose and thematic organisation) then at least a bold and affectingly personal one.

From this largely mongrel work (not meant pejoratively), Penn moved straight back to the more concrete, pedigree world of genre, though this time with an eye to rewriting classical rules and regulations. Little Big Man (1970), adapted from the novel by Thomas Berger, stars Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb who, as a 121 year old in the present of the diegesis, tells his own story of being orphaned as a child, raised by Indians and ultimately being the sole white survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn. It is not made explicit in the film whether or not this man is a veritably unreliable narrator, but the story he spins out is clearly, for Penn, an investigation into a hitherto (socially and cinematically) dispossessed people and culture, with his recurrent image/reality disparity here playing out as Crabb relates his tale to a journalist, whose preconceptions (perhaps matching the audience’s) are overturned by the (apparent) Indian’s information.

Little Big Man

However, the film in many respects still follows on from what Tom Milne describes as ”The be-nice-to-the-Indian cycle of the ’50s” (12): works such as Anthony Mann’s Devils Doorway (1950), Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964), as well as prefiguring Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) in its presentation of the whites as unsympathetic brutes and savages. It is instructive that this picture should follow Alice’s Restaurant because, like that film, Little Big Man immerses itself in an alternative and neglected culture that Penn rather idealistically tries to construct as an alternative to the kind of harsh society that had persisted in his work up to and including (perhaps reaching its zenith in) Bonnie and Clyde. There is more of an attempt to present the Indians as humans here, and to demythologise certain figures (Custer) and events (Little Big Horn), although Penn never really reconciles the mutually exclusive poles of his desire to portray them as both human and (as previously mentioned) as an idealistic alternative to the whites.

In an article in Film Quarterly, Leo Braudy (13) made the point that Little Big Man ultimately fails because Jack Crabb “Separates into an incoherent handful of selves” (14); that, basically, no one Crabb emerges over the course of the narrative. Relating this back to the image/reality incongruity, one could argue that this is part of the film’s strength: the refusal to paint a definitive picture of the man in this sense lending credence to an almost Rashomon-like representation of subjective fantasy and wish fulfilment. Of course this reading and Braudy’s don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, and this is where the bold ambiguity of the film simultaneously perplexes and frustrates, as the lack of the reality to place the image in leaves the work somewhat hollow. However, with an oeuvre that progressed almost teleologically from The Left-Handed Gun to Bonnie and Clyde in terms of the central characters as fascinated, indeed in some sense driven, by a glamorous, glorified image of themselves, it seems slightly short-sighted not to see such a structure at work at some level in Little Big Man, even if less effectively realised.

The generic revisionism undertaken by Penn in Little Big Man can clearly be seen to extend into his next project, which actually took over four years to come to fruition (although in the meantime he directed The Hightest, a section of the Olympics film Visions of Eight [1973]). Night Moves (1975), perhaps Penn’s most underrated picture, emerges today as, in Phil Hardy’s words, “A key film of the ’70s” (15), and arguably the bleakest (certainly after The Chase) of the director’s career. Perhaps the best way to view it now is as the dark Yang to the much lighter Yin of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Both films have a comparable project: to take apart and in some ways reinvent the hard boiled private eye popularised in the novels of Chandler and Hammett and in the screen adaptations of their work (The Maltese Falcon [1941], Farewell, My Lovely [1945], The Big Sleep [1946] etc). However, where Altman (actually adapting a Chandler novel) re-imagines Philip Marlowe as a shambling, anachronistic, laid-back bum in the bright lights of modern Los Angeles, playing fast and loose with the surface style and iconography of the character whilst keeping the ideals more or less intact, Penn and writer Alan Sharp take a journey deep inside the genre archetype (played by Gene Hackman), finding in him a bitterness, an emptiness and, typically for Penn, an obsessive compulsion to pursue a course of action that leads not to redemption but to damnation. They also overturn genre conventions in giving the PI a wife and an errant father, as well as (logically) a life outside of his profession.

The plot, which has Hackman’s detective pursue a lost daughter for her wayward mother, is a powerful pretext for the journey into his heart of darkness, as it mirrors (not unlike Michael Mann’s Manhunter [1986] which further shares with this film a protagonist who lives by the sea) the equally troubled state of his own home life. Penn also captures an era-defining mood of post-Watergate paranoia and despair, a feeling that the government is at least as crooked as the criminals and that corruption reaches into the very highest echelons of power (something echoed ten years later in Target). With a dark, muted, almost noir palette, Night Moves is a substantial addition to a genre that was at this time (with The Long Goodbye, Chinatown [1974] and Dick Richards’ remake of Farewell, My Lovely [1975] starring Robert Mitchum) enjoying a comparable vogue (backed by not too dissimilar social circumstances with Vietnam) to its original flowering in the 1940s/’50s.

Staying squarely in genre territory, Penn returned to the western immediately after completing Night Moves, and came up with perhaps the most contentious film of his oeuvre: the offbeat and quirky The Missouri Breaks (1976). Starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson as, respectively, lawman and outlaw in a Butch Cassidy-type pursuit narrative, the film was a commercial disaster that effectively slammed the lid shut on Penn’s career, a lid that hasn’t fully been removed since. As hasn’t the poor reputation of this film as an indulgent vehicle for Brando’s flamboyance (he sports a thick Irish brogue, sings to his horse, uses a harpoon, wears a dress and generally minces around like a camp Buffalo Bill). This is by and large unfair, as it is by no means a terrible work, and has, in critics like Tom Milne, its staunch admirers. But it never offers any sustained outlet for Penn’s creativity, and the characters never really come to the kind of vividly realised life so common in Penn’s other work.

Despite a very sure handling of landscape in the psychological, Anthony Mann mould, a genuinely epic grandeur and a typically powerful and resonant sense of the very real nature of violence (in some ways pre-empting Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven [1991]), The Missouri Breaks, ultimately imbalanced by Brando’s histrionics, is nowhere as deeply felt and communicated as Penn’s best films. It betrays a restlessness, a lack of focus, and only a fitful connection to the subject on the director’s part with the pace at times faltering. The film just never builds with the remorseless, inexorable logic and tension one might expect from Penn. So, whilst no artistic failure, The Missouri Breaks is a disappointment, and its poor reception and performance marked a certain disillusionment with the cinema for the almost 55 year old filmmaker, who quickly returned to the theatre and didn’t make another film until 1981.

In the long years since 1976, Arthur Penn has never enjoyed the kind of cinematic career (in terms of distinctiveness) that his first 20 years heralded. The sadly little seen Four Friends (aka Georgia’s Friends, 1981), though it doesn’t feel like an Arthur Penn film, is nonetheless a very tender and poignant character (and era) study reminiscent in tone and style of John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) or Lawrence Kasdan’s later The Big Chill (1983). Target (1985), which re-teamed Penn with Gene Hackman, is an espionage thriller in which a father and son (played by Matt Dillon) must search for their missing mother/wife amidst much Le Carre-esque international conspiracy and corruption. Besides its tense, edgy action, the film is notable for the way the son’s image of his dad as a boring, staid materialist is progressively eroded as his past in the CIA gradually comes to light, as well as for the provocative way in which literal and metaphorical (the antagonistic entities who work against the protagonists) notions of family collide and contrast.

Penn & Teller Get Killed

Penn’s next work, Dead of Winter (1987), is one of his most nondescript and routine films, one of the very few times in his career when he seems to have taken on a project that he felt no connection with or even any great admiration for. Starring Mary Steenburgen, the picture is a perfunctory thriller about a struggling actress who travels upstate to audition for a part in what turns out to be a ramshackle old house inhabited by a sinister cripple, but who little realises what she is in for. Such a creaky synopsis does not, unfortunately, do the film a disservice, and despite an old fashioned sense of straight ahead narrative construction, there is little to recommend it. Another two years elapsed before Penn’s next project, and it was a surprising choice. Penn & Teller Get Killed (aka Dead Funny [1989]) stars the eponymous popular illusionists in a film built around Penn’s (the magician) announcement on live television that he wants someone to try to kill him: cue many practical jokes, plot twists and a very idiosyncratic sense of humour. Again one would not otherwise detect that this was the work of the director of The Chase or Bonnie and Clyde, and the film is ultimately little more than a prolonged exercise in narrative sleight of hand, but it does anticipate David Fincher’s The Game (1997) in some respects (the particulars of the shock twists), and develops quite an incisive satire on media and celebrity culture.

The only other two films Penn has directed to this date (excluding his effort in the cinema centenary picture Lumière & Company [1995]) have been serious dramas made for American television. The Portrait (1993), starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, is an On Golden Pond (1981) style family drama in which a daughter returns to her childhood home to complete a portrait of her parents, and has to deal with everything from the selling of the home to the rift between her and her father. It is a calculating tear-jerker, but enlivened (like the above film) by the cast, as well as by the heavily connotative central conceit of the daughter (as in On Golden Pond played by the ageing central actor’s real daughter: here Cecilia Peck) trying to paint a picture of her parents; trying, in effect, to crystallise a moment in a world where time is flying by and in which nothing remains the same for long. Inside (1996), a powerful if overly simplistic and black and white drama about an investigation into political prisoners and corruption in South Africa at the height of a callous racist government in apartheid, saw Penn at least tackling the complexities of a brutal society in a similarly resonant way as The Chase and Little Big Man, with which this film shares similar plot details: notably the (slightly too schematic) subjugation of ethnicity, of an “other race”, by whites.

In amongst these all too sporadic ventures into filmmaking, Penn has once again worked in the theatre (even directing William Gibson’s sequel to The Miracle Worker, entitled Monday After the Miracle, in 1982, and more recently an original play called Fortune’s Fool with Alan Bates and Frank Langella). He has also returned to the medium in which he began his career in the 1950s: television, working on, amongst other things, 100 Centre Street, and in 2000 becoming executive producer on the long running series Law and Order, on which his son, Mathew, is a director. With Penn turning 81 this year, it is doubtful whether he will return to directing films again anytime in the future. But his continued output, and the fact that his career has now come back around full circle, attests, if nothing else, to a creative drive that can’t, or won’t, be extinguished.

Arthur Penn was, in his heyday, one of the most complex and interesting figures in American cinema. Like all great artists, his passionate involvement in what he was doing led to work that was among the most resonant and deeply felt of the time, and the (thematic and institutional) tensions on which his films are built – American versus European filmmaking, facade versus reality, instinct versus rationality – have kept that work interesting, even vital, to this day. And whilst he never created what one could refer to as ”the Arthur Penn style”, his thematic preoccupations have more than qualified him for auteur status. Criminally, only one book length study of Penn has been produced, Robin Wood’s Arthur Penn, and that has never been updated, so even if one finds a copy today it only covers his career up to Little Big Man. It is, however, a thorough study of the director, and it seems fitting to give the last word to Wood, who sums up the essence of Arthur Penn very succinctly in one short sentence: “The cinema of Arthur Penn is the cinema of ‘whole man alive’” (16).

Arthur Penn


As director:

The Left-Handed Gun (1958)

The Miracle Worker

Mickey One
(1964) also producer

The Chase

Bonnie and Clyde

Alice’s Restaurant
(1969) also cowriter

Little Big Man

The Hightest
(1973) short segment in Visions of Eight; this section of the film concentrates on the skills and difficulties of pole vaulters.

Night Moves

The Missouri Breaks

Four Friends
/Georgia’s Friends
(1981) also co-producer


Dead of Winter

Penn & Teller Get Killed
/Dead Funny
(1989) also producer

The Portrait
(1993) made for American television

One minute film in Lumière & Company (1995)

Inside (1996) made for American television


Goodyear Television Playhouse
(1951) directed several episodes

Playhouse 90 (1956) directed the episode “Portrait of a Murderer”

Two for the Seesaw (January 16, 1958–October 31,1959) original play, directed by Penn

The Miracle Worker (October 19,1959–July 1,1961) original play, directed by Penn

An Evening With Nichols and May (October 8, 1960–July 1, 1961) comedy special, directed by Penn

All the Way Home (November 30, 1960–September 16, 1961) original play, directed by Penn

Golden Boy (October 20, 1964–March 5, 1966) original musical, directed by Penn

Flesh and Blood (1968) made for American television, producer only

Sly Fox
(December 14, 1976February 19, 1978) original comedy, directed by Penn

Monday After the Miracle
(December 14, 1982December 18, 1982) original play, directed by Penn – sequel to The Miracle Worker that follows Helen and Annie’s relationship and how Annie’s subsequent marriage to John Macy was affected by it

Inside the Actor’s Studio
(1994) appears discussing his art

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
(1995) appears talking about American cinema

Arthur Penn
(1995) appears in critic Richard Schickel’s documentary about him

Marlon Brando: The Wild One
(1996) appears talking about the actor with whom he worked twice

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood
(2003) discusses Hollywood in the 1960s

100 Centre Street
(2001) directed the episode “The Fix”

Fortune’s Fool
(April 2, 2002July 21, 2002) original play, directed by Penn

Reel Radicals: The Sixties Revolution in Film
(2002) appears again discussing Hollywood in the 1960s


Leo Braudy, “The Difficulties of Little Big Man”, Film Quarterly, Fall 1971, vol. XXV, no. 1, pp. 30–33.

Corey K. Creekmur, “On the Run and On the Road: Fame and the Outlaw Couple in the American Cinema” in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds), The Road Movie Book, London, Routledge, 1997.

Lester D. Friedman, (ed.), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Cambridge Film Handbooks, Great Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Eric Rhode, “Radical Compromise, 1956-1970” in A History Of The Cinema From Its Origins To 1970, England, Penguin Book Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1976.

Robin Wood, Arthur Penn, New York, Frederick A. Praeger Inc., 1969. (A revised edition was published in French only in 1975)

Robin Wood in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol. 2, K-Z, Great Britain, Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1980, pp. 775–778.

Robin Wood, Bonnie and Clyde, USA, Continuum Intl Pub Group, 1983.

Joel Stewart Zuker, Arthur Penn: A Guide to References and Resources, Great Britain, Gale Group, 1979. Contains a full, authoritative bibliography.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Loose Ends in Night Moves by Bruce Jackson

Night Moves Around Maud by Bruce Jackson

Web Resources

The Director’s View Film Festival
Provides a full filmography, a list of television credits and also the exact dates (opening and closing) for the plays Penn has directed.

Bonnie and Clyde
Provides a brief history of the films reception and lineage, as well as a quick reading. Also full cast/crew/studio credits.

Arthur Penn @ Catharton Directors
Provides biographical data and a list of available works to buy with links.

WNET: Arthur Penn Interview
Excerpts from an interview with Arthur Penn.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
A few online articles can be found here.


  1. Robin Wood, Arthur Penn, New York, Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1969. p. 139.
  2. Leonard Maltin, http://www.imdb.com/Bio?Penn,Arthur. p. 1.
  3. The Director’s View, http://www.dvff.com/PennBroadwayCredits.htm. p. 1.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Wood, p. 19.
  6. Ibid, pp. 19–20.
  7. Ibid. p. 38.
  8. Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster An American Life, London, Aurum Press Limited, 2000, p. 237.
  9. Geoff Andrew in John Pym (ed.), Time Out Film Guide, London, The Penguin Group, 2001, p. 709.
  10. Wood, p. 52.
  11. Leonard Maltin. http://www.imbd.com/Bio?Penn,Arthur
  12. Tom Milne in John Pym (ed.), p. 143.
  13. Leo Braudy, The Difficulties of Little Big Man, Film Quarterly, Fall 1971, vol. XXV, no. 1. pp. 30–33.
  14. Ibid. p. 33.
  15. Phil Hardy in John Pym (ed.), p. 773.
  16. Wood, p. 18.

About The Author

Adam Bingham h as contributed several articles to Senses of Cinema over the years.

Related Posts