He is not as famous as Spielberg, Lucas or Peckinpah, but Arthur Penn did as much as anyone to shape modern cinema, with his 1967 classic gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde. In his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind gives the film much credit for ushering in what is now recognised as a golden age in Hollywood, although most commentators at the time believed cinema was in its death throes.
"The movies had been overtaken by live television and consequently what they did was invite those directors from live television, me included, to make a film," says Penn. "We came out to demoralised studios, with shifting executives, none of whom really quite wanted to undertake the responsibility of making decisions, which largely then devolved upon us."
Penn will discuss his work in a Film Festival Reel Life session at Edinburgh's Filmhouse on 24 August, and his detective film Night Moves is part of the festival's 1970s American cinema retrospective. He argues that the prevailing mood of despondency and desperation led studios to take chances and give new film-makers a huge amount of freedom. Bonnie and Clyde's explicit violence and frank treatment of sex rewrote the cinema rulebook and set the agenda for a generation. But it is easy to latch on to those elements and ignore the subtler way in which he changed the nature of film heroes and anti-heroes.
In Bonnie and Clyde he depicted two gangsters as products of social injustice and champions of the underclass, appealing to the growing mood of rebellion, with established values and authorities coming under attack as never before. "There was a vast response to the Vietnam war, and a vast counter-culture developed... Vietnam at that point threatened the young men of that age group," says Penn.
Penn was no "movie brat". He was 44, had worked extensively in TV and theatre and explored some of the themes he would develop in Bonnie and Clyde in his debut film The Left-Handed Gun in 1958. Paul Newman, who had worked with Penn on TV, played Billy the Kid not as a psychopathic serial killer, but as an angst-ridden, misunderstood teenager.
He secured an Oscar nomination for The Miracle Worker in 1963, but was replaced as director of The Train, had a flop with Mickey One, had The Chase taken away from him in the editing studio, and was virtually unemployable when Warren Beatty, the film's producer and star, approached him to direct Bonnie and Clyde just a few years later.
- Night Moves screens at the Filmhouse on 24 August at 5pm. Arthur Penn's Reel Life follows, at 7.30pm.
Read the article in full in The Scotsman