Arthur Penn 1922--2010

Arthur Penn, director of The Miracle Worker  (1962) and Bonnie & Clyde (1967) has died, of congestive heart failure, the morning after his 88th birthday. The Philadelphia-born son of a nurse and a watchmaker -- and younger brother of photographer Irving Penn -- was a terrific director of actors (see Paul Newman as Billy the Kid in The Left-Handed Gun, Penn's 1958 debut or Robert Redford in The Chase) and a man with obvious sympathy for outlaws (Bonnie & Clyde) and underdogs (Little Big Man). One of the defining filmmakers of the tumultous 1960s, Penn struck a social nerve by suggesting that violence was an expression against corrupt authority. Many of his films, as David Thomson has observed, were allegories dressed up in period clothes. Among American filmmakers, he was the one most visibly influenced by the French New Wave, as evidenced in that compelling curiosity, Mickey One (1965), with Warren Beatty as a nightclub comedian who owes money to the mob. (On Saturday at 6:15 pm, Turner Classic Movies will show a double-bill of Mickey One and Bonnie & Clyde.)

Penn came up in live television (where he did an early version of The Miracle Worker) and in theatre (Two for the Seesaw), where he elicited unusually naturalistic performances. This interview conducted recently contains the surprising detail that Penn was an intimate of Alger Hiss.

Why Penn's career waned after the mid-1970s I do not know. But Night Moves (1975), his melancholy portrait of private eye Gene Hackman hunting down 15-year-old runaway Melanie Griffith, still haunts me. As does the Miracle Worker's confrontation between Anne Bancroft's Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke's Helen Keller, primal in its intensity. Those are my favorite Penn films. Yours?