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.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

Science Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

Cover Supervisor

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker