Arthur Penn: Director whose best-known film 'Bonnie and Clyde' articulated the youthful disenchantment of late-'60s America

The director Arthur Penn is considered to have changed the face of American cinema with his seminal gangster film Bonnie and Clyde.

It is the film with which his name will always be associated, and it influenced a generation of directors, prompting a new level of violence that surfaced in such later films as Badlands and Natural Born Killers. It also marked Penn as a director with sympathy for the youthful disenchantment of the era. For many, it brought the American cinema closer to the freewheeling, realistic flavour of the French New Wave, though for others it was ultra-violent, and immoral in its attempt to paint its protagonists in a sympathetic light.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were the Depression era bank robbers and killers who become folk heroes, and the film's climax, in which the couple are ambushed and killed in a hail of machine gun bullets, was particularly daring – violent death had never been shown so graphically in mainstream cinema before. Penn said the sequence was the reason he directed the film. "I wanted an ending that would, in a certain sense, transport – lift it – into legend. And it wasn't until I woke up one morning and I could see that scene with multiple camera speeds and the shape of the almost ballet of dying, and then I knew that that was a film I wanted to make – desperately."

Of Russian-Jewish descent and the son of a watchmaker, Penn was born in Philadelphia in 1922 to an unhappy home life. His parents divorced when he was three and he lived with his mother in New York and New Jersey, frequently changing addresses and schools, until he was 14, when he returned to his father and helped run his business. He was to state later that his fascination with outsiders searching for their identity was nurtured by his insecure upbringing. "The only people who really interest me are the outcasts from society."

In 1943 he was conscripted and served as an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge. Later he was posted to Paris, where he helped Joshua Logan stage shows for the troops, and he stayed after the war's end to direct plays for the occupation forces.

Funded by the GI Bill he continued his education at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and the universities of Perugia and Florence. At the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio he studied acting, and in 1951 he worked as an NBC floor manager on the Colgate Comedy Hour, rising to assistant director. Fred Coe, an NBC producer, had become a buddy during the war, and he offered Penn the chance to direct 1st Person, an experimental series of 30-minute plays in which performers addressed the camera. Its success led to Penn directing plays live for the prestigious Philco Playhouse and Playhouse 90 series. One was William Gibson's The Miracle Worker (1957), an adaptation of Helen Keller's autobiography, about Annie Sullivan, who taught the blind and deaf child to communicate.

Penn's Broadway career started with a flop, but his second attempt, Gibson's Two for the Seesaw (1958) was the first of seven Broadway hits between 1958 and 1966. Seesaw, the story of a mid-Western businessman, in New York while his wife gets a divorce, who becomes involved with a bohemian girl, benefited from its two-strong cast – Henry Fonda, and Anne Bancroft, who, after several years pursuing a mediocre career in Hollywood, became an overnight sensation.

Penn then directed An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, a series of satirical sketches, and followed with two plays which won the Drama Critics' Circle award, Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic (1959) and James Agee's All The Way Home (1960). He also directed a musical, Golden Boy (1964), based on the Clifford Odets play. His seventh straight hit was the tense thriller Wait Until Dark, in which a blind woman (Lee Remick) is terrorised by drug smugglers buts gets the better of them when she destroys all the lighting in her apartment.

Penn's Hollywood career was less consistent than on stage. His first film, The Left-Handed Gun (1958), from Gore Vidal's television play, was an off-beat depiction of the life of Billy the Kid, with a mannered performance by Paul Newman (in a role meant for James Dean). It did better in Europe than in the US, but it was four years before The Miracle Worker (1962); the powerful movie won Oscars for Bancroft and Duke plus a nomination for Penn.

Mickey One (1965), a study in paranoia, starred Warren Beatty as a comedian on the run from the Mafia. It was another failure, though Cahiers du Cinema admired its homage to the existentialist leanings of the New Wave, and jazz fans responded to its musical soundtrack. Set in a Texan small town, The Chase (1966) had a cast headed by Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and a script by Lillian Hellman but it emerged as an overheated, sleazy melodrama.

Penn was then asked by Beatty to direct a film he was producing and starring in, Bonnie and Clyde. The script, by David Newman and Robert Benton, had been sent to Beatty by François Truffaut, who thought it would be ideal for Beatty and his lover, Leslie Caron. Penn objected to the emphasis on Clyde's bisexuality – the writers were inspired by Truffaut's Jules et Jim and they had Bonnie, Clyde and driver CW Moss in a ménage à trois – but Penn convinced them that "it rings false"; he brought in Robert Towne to refashion the script with Benton and Newman. Penn and Beatty agreed the French star's accent was too strong, so Natalie Wood was asked, but she was in analysis. Tuesday Weld was pregnant, so Faye Dunaway got the part. Gene Hackman was cast as Clyde's brother Buck after Nicholson turned it down, and Estelle Parsons played his wife, winning best supporting actress Oscar.

Penn extracted wonderful performances from all four leads, his touches including scenes of romantic lyricism (the idyllic family picnic, filmed in glowing soft focus) and a confident mixture of moods from comic to brutal, as in the film's first killing, when the robbers cannot find the getaway car – a farcical moment shattered when a teller jumps on their running-board and Clyde shoots him in the face – but the film was not initially liked by many critics. Bosley Crowther (New York Times) deplored the "hideous depredations of that moronic pair, as full of fun and frolic as the jazz age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie".

A few months later it was re-released to great acclaim, many critics happily reversing their judgements. Joseph Morgenstern (Newsweek), who had called it "a squalid shoot-out for the moron trade", called his review "grossly un-fair and regrettably inaccurate". Pauline Kael wrote, "Penn has a gift a gift for violence and, despite all the violence in movies, a gift for it is rare. Eisenstein had it, and Dovzhenko and Bunuel, but not many others."

The film was cited as defining its time, USA in the Sixties, its title characters alienated by a society that seems indifferent to their needs. Alice's Restaurant was another reflection of the flower-power era, following the escapades of a Sixties hippie (Arlo Guthrie) in a tale inspired by Guthrie's popular hit, "The Alice's Restaurant Massacree", and it was followed by Little Big Man (1970), a sprawling account of the reminiscences of a 121-year-old pioneer (Dustin Hoffman) who survived Custer's Last Stand, having been present at every major turning point of the West in the previous century.

Penn's reputation faltered with a series of middling movies. He worked with Hackman again on the convoluted Night Moves (1975), in which Penn's liking for complexity and ambiguity marred a mystery tale reminiscent of Coppola's superior Hackman vehicle, The Conversation. He then directed Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks (1976) as hired killer and horse thief. Considered by some to be the nadir of Penn's career, it is accepted by others as campy, if violent, fun.

Penn returned to Broadway, where he had success with Sly Fox (1976), based on Volpone, and a musical, Golda (1977), about Golda Meir. He returned to Hollywood, without significant success, with Four Friends (1981), a 1960s tale of a Yugo-slav immigrant's journey of self-discovery; the ineptly plotted Target (1985); Dead of Winter (1987), an ill-advised remake of the 1945 "B" movie gem My Name is Julia Ross; and Inside (1996), a flat anti-apartheid tale. He continued to work in TV, and in 2000 became an executive producer on Law and Order, episodes of which were directed by his son Matthew. He returned to Broadway in 2002 to direct Alan Bates in Fortune's Fool, for which Bates won a Tony. His older brother Irving Penn was a renowned photographer.

Arthur Penn, theatre, film and television director: born Philadelphia 27 September 1922; married 1955 Peggy Maurer (one son, one daughter); died Manhattan, New York 28 September 2010.

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