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Arthur Hiller Penn (born September 27, 1922) is an American film director and producer with a hefty background as a theatre director as well. Although best known as the director of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Penn amassed a critically acclaimed body of work though the 1960s and 1970s, keenly focusing on themes relevant to the times.

Life and career

Penn was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Sonia (née Greenberg), a nurse, and Harry Penn, a watchmaker. After making a name for himself as a director of quality television dramas, Penn made his feature debut with a Western, The Left Handed Gun (1958). A re-telling of the Billy the Kid legend, it was notable for its sharp portrayal of the outlaw (played by Paul Newman) as a psychologically troubled youth (the role was originally intended for the archetypal troubled teen James Dean).

Penn’s next film was The Miracle Worker (1962), the story of Anne Sullivan's struggle to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate. It garnered two Academy Awards for its leads Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke . Penn had directed the stage production, written by William Gibson, also starring Bancroft and Duke, and he had directed Bancroft's Broadway debut in playwright Gibson's first Broadway production, Two for the Seesaw.

In 1965 Penn directed Mickey One. Heavily influenced by the French New Wave, it was the dream-like story of a stand-up comedian (played by Warren Beatty) on the run from sinister ambiguous forces. Ambitious, startlingly shot and elliptically edited, it baffled critics and audiences alike. It may be worth noting that Mickey One’s atmosphere of sweaty paranoia foreshadows some of the conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s- not least Warren Beatty’s later Parallax View. (Penn himself later contributed to the genre with Night Moves.)

Penn’s next film was The Chase (1966) a thriller following events in a small corrupt Southern town on the day an escaped convict returns (played by Robert Redford). Although not a major success, The Chase nonetheless caught the mood of the turbulent times, a ‘state of the nation’ tale of racism, corruption and the violence endemic in American society. The film is also notable for an extended brutally violent scene where Marlon Brando’s sheriff is beaten to a bloody pulp.

Re-uniting with Warren Beatty for the rural gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Penn once again showed that he had his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, perfectly catching the youthful disenchantment of the late '60s. Although depression-set, it was very much in the spirit of the counter-culture. Bonnie and Clyde went on to become a worldwide phenomenon, at the same time (along with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch two years later) pushing the limits of acceptable screen violence with its bloody machine-gun climax.

Once again the film drew strong influence from the French New Wave and itself went on to make a huge impression on a younger generation of film-makers. Indeed there was a strong resurgence in the “love on the run” sub-genre in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, most notably Badlands (1973) (where Penn received acknowledgement in the credits).

Next came Alice's Restaurant (1969), based on one of Arlo Guthrie’s songs, a satirical account 1960’s counter culture. His next film after this was a return to the western, Little Big Man (1970), a shaggy dog account of one man's life (played by Dustin Hoffman), a white man adopted into Native (Cheyenne) society.

In 1973 Penn provided a segment for the Olympic film Visions of Eight along with several other major directors such as John Schlesinger and Miloš Forman. The director’s next film was a paranoid L.A.-set thriller, Night Moves (1975) about a private detective (played by Gene Hackman) on the trail of a runaway.

Next came another comic western which reunited him with Marlon Brando, The Missouri Breaks (1976), a ramshackle, eccentric story of a horse thief (Jack Nicholson) facing off with an eccentric bounty hunter (Brando).

Four Friends (1981) was a traumatic look back at the '60s, returning to the old themes of Vietnam, civil rights, sexual politics, and drugs. Penn’s career subsequently lost its momentum: Target (1985) was a mainstream thriller reuniting the director with Gene Hackman. Dead of Winter (1987) was a horror/thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock.

Since then Penn has returned to work in television, including an executive producer role for the crime series Law & Order.

Throughout the years, Penn has maintained an affiliation with Yale Universitymarker, occasionally teaching classes there.

In July 2009, Penn was hospitalized with pneumonia but was "expected to make a full recovery".




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