“I thought that if we’re going to show this violence, we should show it. We should show what it looks like when somebody gets shot. TV coverage of Vietnam was every bit, perhaps even more, bloody than what we were showing on film.”
“I would say that the only people who really interest me are the outcasts from society. A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out what its configuration is and where it’s failing.”
Born: 27 September 1922, Philadelphia, United States.
Died: 28 September 2010, New York City, United States.
Directing career: 1958 – 1995.
Movement: New Hollywood.
Traits: Themes of: antiheroes and outsiders and their challenges to and against authority; violence; subversion; dark humour. Genre revisionism; strong work with actors; a revived sensibility importing some European cinema influence into American movies.
Collaborators: Dede Allen (editor), George Jenkins (production designer), Warren Beatty (actor), Gene Hackman (actor), Faye Dunaway (actor), Marlon Brando (actor).
The Miracle Worker (1962)
The Chase (1966)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Several ground-breaking films (Easy Rider, The Graduate, The Wild Bunch…) helped kick off what came to be called the New Hollywood, that last golden age of American movies where complexity, darkness and ambiguity entered the mainstream in a way they hadn’t since the film noir era. But it was Arthur Penn’s film, with its criminals on-the-run and its violence both romanticised and depicted more boldly than ever, which captured both the cinematic and cultural traits that would characterise the forthcoming era. Two glamorous, bank-robbing lovers were morally questionable protagonists by 1967 standards, especially when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway make them so likeable and the film is largely sympathetic to them — they are after all rebels during the Great Depression when nobody but the Rich has anything worth stealing.
The lack of preachy moralising was fresh and helped reach out to younger audiences who’d been alienated by the staleness of Hollywood’s output (although audiences still needed a healthy shove from critic Pauline Kael before eventually flocking to see this picture). Bonnie and Clyde also brought the spontaneity of the French New Wave to US cinema; these two dangerous but chic outlaws could come straight out of a Godard or Truffaut riff on the American B-gangster film, and famously the screenwriters first offered it both those directors, one of those intriguing what-might-have beens of movie history. Most notoriously, and here it can be paired up with the aforementioned The Wild Bunch, it raised the bar for graphic violence, with the elegiac and romantic yet utterly bloody death of its two protagonists, riddled with bullets helpless but at least together and sharing a final glance before the inevitable end they see coming. Such carnage making it onto the screens of theatre houses was a logical extension of the cultural zeitgeist. Millions were seeing daily TV footage of the Vietnam War, and movie violence had to catch up to that in order to feel real.
Penn went so far as deliberately adding a small chunk of flesh flying off as Clyde gets shot in the head, a gruesome realism and also a bled-in reference to the other great American trauma of the times, the JFK assassination. Other allusions pop up. At one point Clyde and an accomplice are shot at while in a moving car, before hiding from police inside a cinema theatre, just like Harvey Oswald had on that grisly day. Penn was a close friend of JFK’s, and had even worked on his presidential campaign for television. For him and a whole generation of Americans, something was lost forever that day in Dallas 1963, metaphorically reflected in Bonnie’s haunted nostalgia for her lost family. As great a yarn as this classic is (and it tells us so much about Clyde when he innocently looks so delighted after Bonnie’s song about him tells ‘his story’, as if that was all he’d ever wanted), it also tells us so much about the period in which it was made. (April 2017)
Little Big Man (1970)
Night Moves (1975)
The Missouri Breaks (1976)
To be updated.