Arthur Penn, who died of congestive heart failure at his New York City home on Tuesday, Sept. 28, at age 88, is best known for the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, whose explicit violence was supposed to reflect the then-raging Vietnam War (or so those involved in the film claim).
Now, despite its undeniable qualities — Dede Allen’s editing, Burnett Guffey’s Oscar-winning cinematography, Michael J. Pollard and a few of his fellow actors — Bonnie and Clyde isn’t one of my favorite gangster/crime movies.
I much prefer, for instance, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), in which James Cagney plays a psychopathic criminal with a mommy fixation. Next to the mommy in that film, Margaret Wycherly, Bonnie and Clyde’s Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway come across as spoiled brats with toy guns.
Yet, Bonnie and Clyde — not White Heat — has become a milestone in American film history. The buckets of spilled blood in that movie eventually led to more buckets of spilled blood in myriad other Hollywood productions, from Taxi Driver to the Friday the 13th flicks.
As for the sexual insights and motivations found in Bonnie and Clyde, well, there was nothing really new or daring about them. Once again, check out White Heat. Or Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Or Roy Del Ruth’s The Maltese Falcon. Or Howard Hawks’ Scarface.
And as for the portrayal of criminals Bonnie and Clyde as glamorized anti-Establishment rebels, well, there was nothing groundbreaking about that particular approach. After all, Edward G. Robinson was an anti-Establishment rebel/criminal back in 1930 in Little Caesar, and so were James Cagney in Public Enemy, and Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney in City Streets in 1931, and Paul Muni in Scarface in 1932.
I’m not a fan of Penn’s other prestige picture, The Miracle Worker (1962), either. Starring Oscar winners Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, I found this melodrama about the triumph of the human spirit both artificial and theatrical — perhaps because Penn, Bancroft, and Duke had worked on the story and characters on Broadway a zillion times before transferring them to the screen.
(Had they gone on to show that Helen Keller grew up to become a communist, I wonder how many The Miracle Worker fans would have wished Keller had remained a blind and deaf wild animal-like individual.)
Now, in addition to the well-known Little Big Man (1970), a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, I do like two underappreciated and lesser-known Penn efforts: The Chase (1966) and Four Friends (1981).
The Chase, an expensive flop that might have ruined Penn’s career if it weren’t for Bonnie and Clyde’s success the following year, is an over-the-top melo — written by Lillian Hellman from Horton Foote’s play — starring Marlon Brando as a sheriff on the look-out for fugitive Robert Redford while fighting small-town America corruption, hypocrisy, and overall nastiness. The extensive cast also includes Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, E. G. Marshall, Janice Rule, James Fox, Martha Hyer, and veteran Miriam Hopkins.
Written by Steve Tesich, Four Friends chronicles the ups and downs in the life of a working-class young man (Craig Wasson) and three of his friends who come of age in the 1960s. A box office flop at the time, Four Friends shows a disturbing picture of American society that apparently wasn’t what US audiences wanted to see the year Ronald Reagan became president.