Film, TV and theater director Arthur Penn died last night in New York of congestive heart failure. He was 88.
Penn was a seminal figure in Hollywood, credited with transforming movies made in “good taste and moral clarity”, according to the NY Times obit, to an intense, stylized focus on sex and violence, thus paving the way for a new generation of contemporary filmmakers.
Penn was born in Philadelphia to Russian-Jewish parents; his brother was renowned photographer Irving Penn.
Arthur Penn was born on Sept. 27, 1922 in Philadelphia to parents of Russian-Jewish heritage. His father, a watchmaker, and his mother, a nurse, divorced when he was three, and Arthur and his brother Irving (who would achieve fame as a photographer) went to live with their mother in New York and New Jersey, changing homes and schools frequently as she struggled to make a living.
But it was as a film director that Mr. Penn left his mark on American culture, most indelibly with “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of ’60s European art films to American movies,” the writer-director Paul Schrader said. “He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.”
Many of the now-classic films of what was branded the “New American Cinema” of the 1970s — including “Taxi Driver,” directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Mr. Schrader, and “The Godfather,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola — would have been unthinkable without “Bonnie and Clyde” to point the way.
Loosely based on the story of two minor gangsters of the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, “Bonnie and Clyde” had been conceived by its two novice screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, as an homage to the rebellious sensibility and disruptive style of French New Wave films like François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”
In Mr. Penn’s hands, it became something even more dangerous and innovative — a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by Mr. Beatty and a newcomer, Faye Dunaway, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and hayseed comedy, set to a bouncy bluegrass score by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face, and were stunned when this attractive outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion as their clothes turned red with blood.