Arthur Penn was one of the most prominent figures in shifting the tides of the Golden Age of Hollywood into the New Hollywood. Bonnie and Clyde broke out and polarized audiences with it’s innovative use of violence and sexuality that was taboo and unseen by audiences prior. Penn’s influence with Bonnie and Clyde invited other directors around the country to portray their films with more realism, which ultimately led to an era of some of the grittiest, most director-driven films ever made!
Over the course of over 30 years, Penn made films. Some great, some not so great. Check out our ranking of our favorite films by Arthur Penn below!
13. TARGET (1985)
Target is a film with a lot of potential that falls flat due in part to its less than mediocre script. Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon Star as a father and son who travel to Paris to find they’re kidnapped wife/mother. Walter, played by Gene Hackman, is a pretty regular conservative father who seems to have nothing in common with his son until it’s revealed he used to be apart of the CIA. Now, why was his wife kidnapped? There’s no good answer and perhaps there doesn’t need to be. The movie borders on ridiculousness and any attempt to make sense of why any of them are in their current situation is cause for headache.
12. THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976)
Penn was known for defying genre tropes and he did so once again with the Western genre in The Missouri Breaks, a story about a gang of thieves led by Jack Nicholson who buy land next to a wealthy land baron after he hangs one of their best friends. However, the baron has no tolerance for their actions and hires a manhunter, played by Marlon Brando, to take each member of the gang down one by one. The premise is very promising, but isn’t executed quite as well. Penn’s telling of what life is really like in the West is admirable, but films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller did it far better. The story is a little convoluted at points, but it’s the performances of Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Brando, in what is one of his strangest characters, that really carry this film.
11. PENN & TELLER GET KILLED (1989)
A goofy movie that feels somewhat out of place in Penn’s filmography, Penn and Teller Get Killed follows the magic duo Penn and Teller as they escape near-death (many times) after Penn tells a late night host that he wished someone would try to kill him, to give his life more meaning. The movie then takes a more formulaic approach as it begins to repeat itself, but it’s got some legitimate comical moments and seeing some of the inside tricks to their magic is worth the watch. But, by no means is this a perfect (or even great) movie.
10. THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962)
A touching look at the childhood of Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker stars Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, a teacher who helps Helen Keller (Patty Duke) adapt a language to communicate with others. The movie got a lot of Oscar attention and is a classic, but is perhaps one that I’ll enjoy more as I get older. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke both give exceptional performances, but I can’t help nodding off every time I sit down to watch this one. The sentimentality is so forced it’s no wonder it was such a hit at the Oscars.
9. FOUR FRIENDS (1981)
I feel like I can’t give an accurate review of Four Friends, no matter how much I’d like to, considering this is one of the hardest films of Penn’s to find online, and the only stream is like watching a movie filmed on a GameBoy. However, that’s not to say that what I did see (or hear rather) wasn’t touching. Craig Wasson, best known from DePalma’s Body Double, leads a group of four friends who go through adolescence together before dispersing through young adulthood through the 60s. It’s played out in a series of vignettes that lend themselves nicely to the episodic nature of life, however if you look away for a second, you’ll see Wasson with a goatee then without one in a blink of an eye. It seems jumbled in parts, but maybe that’s due in part to the shitty streams. So, let’s leave this one here in the middle to be safe.
8. DEAD OF WINTER (1987)
Arthur Penn’s first and only ‘horror-thriller’ credit, Dead of Winter, is an homage to Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross. It plays out like any other lower grade horror film out of the 80s, which I honestly have quite an affection for. There’s a comfort that comes with watching these so-bad-they’re-good movies for me, and it’s because perhaps it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. The plot is rather silly and the overall story, convoluted, however it plays out as a fun exercise in suspense which is entertaining nonetheless! In fact, it contains a few nods to the master of suspense, Hitchcock, himself. Mary Steenburgen stars with support from Roddy McDowell who both give fun performance, within the confines of this somewhat goofy film!
7. ALICE’S RESTAURANT (1969)
Alice’s Restaurant is a counter-culture smash that came at the end of one of the most revolutionary decades in history. Based on Arlo Guthrie’s hit song ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, Alice’s Restaurant is a satirical take on the late 1960’s, particularly on the draft for the Vietnam War. Starring the songwriter himself, Arlo Guthrie is infectious as a character and was the perfect role for the face of the Hippie Revolution. While choppy in some parts, Alice’s Restaurant is still an entertaining look at what it was like to live in that era!
6. THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958)
Arthur Penn’s film debut came in 1958 with his take on the famous Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid story. The story’s been done many times, but Penn still has some great stylistic moments that shine to this day. Unlike the more famous Sam Peckinpah take on this story, Penn opts to focus more on Billy the Kid and his growth out of maturity and into adulthood; something Billy unfortunately never succeeded at doing. There parallels between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid have been portrayed much better by other directors, but this is still a pretty fun movie with an infectious performance from Paul Newman as Billy the Kid!
5. THE CHASE (1966)
The Chase is a riveting film about corruption and infidelity in small town Texas. Penn works with a bigger cast this time around with Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, EG Marshall, and Jane Fonda in leading roles, all giving great performances. Penn’s style is still present as he documents the escaped convict Bubber, played by Robert Redford, and the mob of vigilantes that want to stop him back home. With an intense climax and a memorable scene of Brando being beaten by drunken members of the community, Penn introduces a strong sense of reality and cynicism that would further be explored in his next film, Bonnie and Clyde! This darkened sense of reality that looms over this film contains many of the characteristics that would define the upcoming New Hollywood movement.
4. NIGHT MOVES (1975)
Penn’s jazzy, 1975 neo-noir thriller Night Moves stars Gene Hackman as a has-been pro football star that now spends his day as a Private Investigator who’s been sent down to the Florida Keys to find a woman’s missing daughter. Night Moves is pretty gritty and encompasses a lot of the characteristics of 70s cinema, both stylistically and morally. Penn uses this story to study a man in search of his true self with Gene Hackman giving an awesome performance with support from two young stars: Melanie Griffith and James Woods!
3. MICKEY ONE (1965)
Arthur Penn’s 1965 stylistic noir, Mickey One, is still so riveting and exciting now, 50 years after its release! Warren Beatty gives an amazing performance as the title character, a comic who runs from Detroit to Chicago when the mob comes after him. This hypnotically stylish film is fueled by both paranoia and fear of success with Penn showing some of the earliest signs of the soon to be ‘New Hollywood’ era that would be started by Penn just a few years later. Taking influence from European greats like Godard and Fellini, Mickey One is as close to an American version of a French New Wave film as you can get – and while the story may feel a little jumbled at times due to its experimental nature, visually it will have you captivated from beginning to end!
2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970)
Once again Arthur Penn revolutionizes another genre by taking on the Western genre in one of the most curiously fascinating ways ever done on film. Little Big Man stars Dustin Hoffman as a 121-year-old man who retells his life story to a historian. His life story is pretty wild and he claims he was a mule skinner for General Custard, was raised by Cheyenne Indians, was a gunslinger, and was the only white survivor at General Custard’s Last Stand. The retelling is ferociously comical while also taking a look at what it literally means to be a ‘human being.’ Penn’s parallels to the Indian race and that of the human race is gracefully done and Dustin Hoffman, as always, gives an incredible performance as the Little Big Man!
1. BONNIE & CLYDE (1967)
One of the most important films in history, Bonnie and Clyderevolutionized how cinema was both created and viewed. Arthur Penn’s masterpiece on the historical outlaw duo Bonnie and Clyde, shifted Hollywood into a place where filmmaking was now much more cynical and realistic. Violence and gore were no longer played down like it was in the Golden Age of Hollywood and instead was substituted with a grueling sense of realism that all films began to consider from this point onward. Taking influence from the French New Wave, Arthur Penn combined stylistic editing and camera movement with consistently shifting moods to tell the story of this erratic gang of bandits in a way that defied all of the norms Hollywood had provided filmmakers. Over 50 years later, Bonnie and Clyde is just as riveting and still stands as one of the finest works, not only by Arthur Penn, but by any American filmmaker!