Arthur Penn died today, making this an even sadder week for cinema lovers.
Penn was responsible for helping to drag both the American cinema and more importantly, the American cinemagoer, kicking and screaming into maturity. As a result I don’t think it’s hyperbole, to call his one of the most important careers in its development.
In a perfect world, I’d be writing an indepth consideration of his entire career, as the blog is about five seconds from going into lock down mode, I’ll simply share with you my impressions of five (well six) of my favorite Arthur Penn films.
All of them are great movies, and Little Big Man didn’t even make the list.
While this doesn’t have the same tragic kick of Sally Menke, the man was after all eighty eight, and by all accounts lived a full and happy life. But whenever a great man passes, we must show a little respect. So stand up, take off your hat, and enjoy these five great films from a great filmmaker.
5. Mickey One /The Missouri Breaks
Neither of these are movies I’d recommend, or say were good in any traditional sense. And yet I don’t think any filmgoer’s diet, especially one with the taste for the esoteric could do without it.
They are simply two of the most inexplicable movies ever made.
Of the two Mickey One is the easiest to understand at least the impulse behind it. It's Straightforward in its ambition, if not its content, to make an American New Wave Movie. It does this quite badly (This was two years before he would do it quite expertly).
To quote Mark Harris in his seminal deconstruction of the era, Pictures At A Revolution;
“The budget of Mickey One was low, though not nearly as modest as its commercial potential. Penn shot the wintery film in bleached, deliberately raggedy black and white, and it was assembled with muffled sound; an impressionistic, only semidiscernible plot that cast Beatty as a minor nightclub comedian on the run from a group of Detroit mobsters; jumpy, discontinuous editing; and a surreal climactic scene involving a performance artist whose work eventually bursts into flames and is destroyed. A reasonably appropriate metaphor for the film itself.”
I can only imagine how this all must have played to the average audience circa 1965. But I can imagine it pretty well, since everyone on screen looks just as befuddled.
And Missouri Breaks makes Mickey One look about as commericial as Star Wars by comparison. A perfectly average Saturday Afternoon in Bizarro World (We Do Opposite All Earthly Things!). This is a movie that features Marlon Brando in drag, in a ridiculous Oirish Brouge, scalping Harry Dean Stanton and making out with a horse.
Those scenes I described? They’re not just in the same movie, THEY’RE IN THE SAME SCENE!!!
The unquestionable pinnacle of crazy Brando, featuring Jack Nicholson doing his best to try to keep up. When Brando went full boor most directors shrank back in horror, Penn followed right behind him.
4. Targets: As understated as the last two where over the top. Targets was panned upon its release and ignored at the box office. But it’s held up really well, despite it’s non existent reputation. A gritty proto Bourne thriller, made during the time that Remo Williams was more par for the espionage course then John Le Carre.
In their third and final collaboration, Gene Hackman plays a retired CIA agent, who is forced to unretire, and drag his son, played by Matt Dillon, along when old enemies kidnap his wife.
Hackman is gritty and resourceful, and Penn keeps the pace quick and tense. It’s a great little programmer, ripe for rediscovery.
3. The Left Handed Gun: Another under seen, underappreciated little gem (and the one I ended up personally watching in tribute to Penn). It's Billy The Kid as a juvenile delinquent. And while the film has its flaws, Paul Newman replaced James Dean, and unlike in Somebody Up There Likes Me, where he made the role his own, he basically spent The Left Handed Gun doing an impersonation, one that unfortunately underlined the worst of Dean’s habits.
But there are many things to recommend it, Penn was already experimenting with New Wave Techniques, and does so much more successfully here then in Mickey One and the script based on Gore Vidal’s play is sympathetic and interesting. Also Newman’s Newman, even when he’s goofy he’s charismatic.
But it’s a starting point for a lot of things in Penn, his impulse of expirementation (the shot where Billy executes the sheriff’s deputy with the infamous shotgun full of Dimes is home to one of the most effective rack focuses in cinema), his expressions of slow motion violence, and his storys of doomed Outlaws. It’s a crystallizing film. And those are always fascinating.
2. Night Moves
One of the very few films that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Chinatown. Saying anything more about this wounded noir would be cheating. Only to say it might be Gene Hackman’s best performance.
1. Bonnie And Clyde