Tag Archives: Arthur Penn

Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

Little Big Man is episodic. It has to be. Director Penn knows he can’t reveal the tragedy of the film right off because it’d be unbearable but he also can’t avoid it. The film starts in a bookend with an incredibly aged Dustin Hoffman beginning to recount the story; he do so out of anger. It prepares the viewer, but then John Paul Hammond’s music starts and the film starts defying all expectation.

Hammond’s score is more modern Country/Western than the nineteenth century setting. It’s playful, amplifying the humor in the film. Why does the film, a considerable tragedy, need humor? Because Penn’s telling the traditional American Western movie from the Native Americans. Only, it’s not supposed to be actual, it’s still supposed to be Hollywood, still supposed to be a Western. At least until Hoffman’s performance develops more as the film progresses.

Penn takes the film–which is an epic American story on an epic scale–and makes it small. He doesn’t let the viewer indulge in the production value. He hurries past the artificial, opening up in the locations. Wonderful photography from Harry Stradling Jr. but truly exceptional editing from Dede Allen. Man moves beautifully, with Penn keeping the camera tight on the personal action. The genre commentary needs the story and vice versa.

Great “guest starring” turns from Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey. Richard Mulligan’s Custer is bewildering, amazing.

But it’s Chief Dan George and Hoffman (and Penn) who make Man sore like a hawk.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; screenplay by Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Thomas Berger; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by Dede Allen; music by John Paul Hammond; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Stuart Miller; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Jack Crabb), Martin Balsam (Mr. Merriweather), Richard Mulligan (Gen. George Armstrong Custer), Chief Dan George (Old Lodge Skins), Jeff Corey (Wild Bill Hickok), Aimée Eccles (Sunshine), Kelly Jean Peters (Olga Crabb), Carole Androsky (Caroline Crabb), Robert Little Star (Little Horse), Cal Bellini (Younger Bear), Ruben Moreno (Shadow That Comes in Sight), Steve Shemayne (Burns Red in the Sun), Thayer David (Rev. Silas Pendrake) and Faye Dunaway (Mrs. Pendrake).


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Dead of Winter (1987, Arthur Penn)

Loathe as I am to be glib about a director like Arthur Penn, Dead of Winter comes off like a TNT Original Movie. Penn proves himself–with the exception of maybe one scene and even then it’s awkward because it’s Arthur Penn using Steadicam–almost completely inept at directing a thriller. The script’s hardly anything special and maybe a good deal of the problems come from it, but Penn fails to instill any foreboding into the film. There’s some goofy stuff in the last act (another reason it reminds me of a TV movie is how every single development in the climax is utterly predictable–like a stage play with spotlights on important objects or ideas), but the goofy stuff only hurts it a little; insignificant damage.

The opening scene is bad, poorly handled because of details the viewer isn’t supposed to know yet, but Dead of Winter recovers immediately following. Mary Steenburgen and William Russ make a good couple–though their marital status comes as a bit of a surprise later on–and they help the film find its feet. The scenes with Steenburgen as the working actress (soaps and commercials) are good. So good, I didn’t even notice Canada was standing in for New York (which might be Penn’s greatest achievement with this one). Even Roddy McDowell is good at the beginning. Later–everything with Dead of Winter is later, because of how poorly the script handles the big reveal–the script cuts McDowell’s character loose and he gets progressively hammier.

As the plot developed, I got the feeling Penn was going for a modified haunted house thriller. He doesn’t. He plays the entire thing straight and that approach is why it’s a TV movie. It’s not even a glorified TV movie, given the cast. As good as Jan Rubes is in the film as the villain, his best moments are probably off-screen; the script hints at his deviousness, but never shows it.

I really do want to give away the film’s final plunge into risibility, but it is a surprise and Dead of Winter is–kind of–worth seeing. Watching Penn fail is painful, but it’s an interesting flop.

But the biggest problem with the film is the script and its handling of Steenburgen’s character. The viewer is supposed to believe Mary Steenburgen is a complete fool. Not just a complete fool, but a complete fool of a New Yorker who somehow managed not to end up dead in a trash can during her time there. Steenburgen’s character’s so stupid, she’d have trouble opening doors. But, only when it comes to her dupability. The rest of the time it’s Mary Steenburgen and she’s with it.

The character’s guilelessness throughout the film makes the third act impossible to believe, when Dead of Winter gets around to having that third act all thrillers need to have.

It was clear from the start there was something off with the film, but it maintained a decent mediocrity–combined with Penn’s bewildering direction–until the last twenty-five minutes or so. Then it just got worse and worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Bill Brodie; produced by John Bloomgarden and Shmuger; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Dr. Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley) and Mark Malone (Roland McGovern).


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Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989, Arthur Penn)

I really wish I knew what Arthur Penn was doing directing (and producing) this film. I suppose it’s a follow-up of sorts to Alice’s Restaurant or something. Penn did some great stuff in the 1970s, so seeing him doing a fill-in job (anyone could have directed this film) is kind of strange. Maybe he really likes Penn and Teller or something.

Besides the oddity of Penn directing it, the film’s really got nothing going for it. Turns out Teller’s a good actor. Penn (Jillette, not Arthur) appears not to be, but the film’s paced so you can’t really tell. Caitlin Clarke spends the film doing one bad accent or another and the film never quite can make you believe she’s Penn’s girlfriend. The film showcases a few of their tricks and loosely continues through different tricks, ones either Penn or Teller are playing on the other. After the movie gets going on its path–Penn invites people to kill him and a crazed fan takes the challenge–things go from being mildly amusing to tedious. The film’s from 1989, so maybe it was relying on the viewer being unfamiliar with Penn and Teller beyond late night appearances.

There’s one really annoying black and white sequence, which goes on forever, and some long, drawn-out ominous chase scenes. There are funny ideas throughout, but they’re rarely successfully executed. Arthur Penn didn’t direct any other comedies and it shows. The film has a forced quirkiness about it and only finds its footing in the last moments–if the movie had started with the last scene (not in terms of framing, but tone establishing), it probably would have turned out a lot better.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Arthur Penn; written by Penn Jillette and Teller; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, John Arnone; released by Lorimar Film Entertainment.

Starring Penn Jillette (Penn), Teller (Teller), Caitlin Clarke (Carlotta), David Patrick Kelly (Fan), Leonardo Cimino (Ernesto) and Celia McGuire (Officer McNamara).


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Mickey One (1965, Arthur Penn)

Mickey One is what happens when you mix an American attempt at French New Wave and a director (Arthur Penn) experienced in television directing. Arthur Penn did eventually shed those old TV trappings, but certainly not at this point in his career. He’s got lots of shots in Mickey One–its editing is so frantic and the camera angles, while mostly familiar TV ones, never return once cut from–and it actually reminds of a Michael Bay movie. Really.

The story is intentionally complicated (that French New Wave attempt), with Warren Beatty maybe on the run from the mob and maybe not. Beatty’s a stand-up comic of the Hennie Youngman variety and Beatty’s terrible at delivering the jokes. The role requires something Beatty can’t bring to it, some depth, while all his inflictions are the same (except when he’s trying an accent, which are some painful moments).

The film’s interesting mostly because I kept waiting for something tricky to happen. After a while, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge becomes a serious possibility. The film’s intentionally absurd, intentionally nonsensical, but it isn’t done in any sort of admirable way. There’s a bunch of fluff, swirling and mixing, and there’s nothing underneath. It runs short, around ninety-two minutes, and it really moves–because it doesn’t have scenes for the most part, just the ends of them, another pointless stylistic choice. It is an incredibly different film, but it’s also an example of when being different isn’t the same as being good. That observation made, it’s a passable way to spend ninety minutes, just a shockingly empty film from Arthur Penn, whose great works are usually 20,000 fathoms deep.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Arthur Penn; written by Alan M. Surgal; director of photography, Ghislan Cloquet; edited by Aram Avakian; music by Eddie Sauter; production designer, George Jenkins; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Warren Beatty (The Comic), Alexandra Stewart (Jenny), Hurd Hatfield (Castle), Franchot Tone (Rudy Lopp), Teddy Hart (Berson), Jeff Corey (Fryer) and Fujiwara Kamatari (The Artist).


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