When Arthur Penn died at 88 last September, obituaries listing career highlights reinforced the notion that he was one of those directors — others include Mike Nichols and George Roy Hill — who were BFDs in the 1960s and ’70s yet rapidly faded from prominence thereafter. In Penn’s case the decline was especially steep, particularly given that during arguably the single most roiling period of change in mainstream American filmmaking, he was at the top of the heap in terms of prestige and thematic adventure.
Did he simply lose interest? Did some significant flops dishearten him? Whatever the cause, post-1976 his occasional films — he was never very prolific — became those of any competent journeyman whose projects seemingly picked him rather than vice versa. (Particularly dismaying was 1981 “turbulent ’60s” drama Four Friends, in which he reduced that era of his own greatest impact to stereotype-ridden soap opera.) After the respectable 1996 TV movie Inside, about apartheid, he never directed another feature.
The Pacific Film Archive’s June retrospective is titled “Arthur Penn: A Liberal Helping.” That moniker pays tribute to his lefty conscience, yet in another sense this assortment isn’t so liberal: there’s nothing here dating from after the 1976 Bicentennial Year, when both he made his last identifiably personal film and saw it widely trashed. (That would be The Missouri Breaks, a Jack Nicholson-Marlon Brando revisionist western that deserved better than it got but was doomed to ridicule by one of Brando’s deliberately bizarre later performances. Now, of course, that’s its major attraction.)
What we’ve got here is an extraordinary run: encompassing 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, one of those movies that changed the movies in general; 1969’s counterculture pulse-taking Alice’s Restaurant; Little Big Man, the big-noise historical black-comedy literary adaptation (along with Nichols’ Catch-22) of 1970; and 1962’s The Miracle Worker, a joltingly good translation of the play he directed on Broadway. Even his commercial failures were exceptionally interesting, from 1958 film debut The Left Handed Gun (Paul Newman as Gore Vidal’s neurotic Billy the Kid) to 1965’s Mickey One (a dazzling, pretentious expressionist nightmare with Warren Beatty at its bewildered center) and 1975’s Night Moves (private eye Gene Hackman wading into a morass of Florida Keys corruption).
But there was a blot even during those glory days. In the mid-1960s the country was in thrall to civil rights struggles, and them “Hollywood liberals” duly responded. Penn’s 1966 The Chase was arguably the worst, most artificial “prestige” effort to deal with the issue this side of Otto Preminger’s 1967 Hurry Sundown, which humiliated Jane Fonda even more. (It has a scene in which she tries to arouse probably-gay Southern tycoon husband Michael Caine by fellating his saxophone.)
Hopes were high for a while, though. Adapting The Chase, Horton Foote’s 1952 Broadway failure about an escaped con settling a score with a Texas sheriff was no less than literary lioness Lillian Hellman, penning her first (and as it turned out, last) screenplay since being blacklisted as an alleged commie threat.
Everybody was excited about their involvement in the prestigious project, packed as it was with high-profile talent on and off-screen. (Besides Brando’s sheriff, Robert Redford’s fugitive, and Fonda as his pining ex-wife, the cast included E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, Miriam Hopkins, Robert Duvall, and James Fox.) Penn wanted to prove he could direct a large-scale commercial picture; Fonda to break away from sex-kitten roles; Redford to establish himself as a movie star; etc. All were thrilled about working with the exalted Brando, who badly needed a hit. He also strongly identified with the (initial) script’s potent commentary on civil rights struggles.
Like Foote before her, Hellman envisioned a taut, intimate drama about small-town tensions boiling over during one long night of drunkenness, bigotry, and violence. But this was, above all, a “Sam Spiegel Production.” And the notoriously egomaniacal, controlling, duplicitous producer (one colleague called him “a corkscrew … very effective … but twisted and bent”), hungry for more Oscar gold after a major roll encompassing The African Queen (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), kept pressing her to make it “larger.” He eventually brought other writers in to further tart things up.
As detailed in James Robert Parish’s book Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops, the steadily cheapening rewrites continued daily even after shooting commenced. Morale sank, with Brando the most conspicuous malcontent. (One scene he remained enthused about was his sheriff being badly beaten by local bigots — onscreen it’s as if the sleepwalking actor suddenly wakes up for a couple vivid minutes.) Penn clashed with the old-school cinematographer he hadn’t chosen. Adding insult to injury, Spiegel managed to exclude the director from the editorial process, insisting that the film be cut in London or Los Angeles while fully aware that Penn was stuck in New York City on a Broadway assignment.
The result was crude, inauthentic (it was shot in SoCal), stagey-looking, with variably laughable Texas accents and barn-door-broad sexual innuendos. Aiming for importance in the worst way imaginable, it instead recalls the lurid finger-waggling Southsploitation of such later non-triumphs as Shanty Tramp (1967), The Klansman (1974), Scum of the Earth (1963), Mandingo (1975), and (more recently) Hounddog (2007), albeit on a more grandiose scale. Embarrassingly, this movie about Southern prejudice and injustice kept any people of color waaaay in the background: its lone “noble Negro” was played by Joel Fluellen, billed 21st.
Reviews were scathing (“witless and preposterous drivel,” “a phony, tasteless movie”) and the expensive project tanked commercially as well. It also turned Spiegel’s luck for keeps: all his subsequent films were ambitious disappointments. Penn recovered, and then some — next stop, Bonnie and Clyde — but one suspects that he (or Foote, or Hellman, or Brando) never quite got over being so callously undermined and pushed around. For the next decade, at least, he made sure he’d never be in that kind of compromised position again.
ARTHUR PENN: A LIBERAL HELPING
June 10–29, $5.50–$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.