The Left Handed Gun
The strange career of William Bonney as an outlaw, and Pat Garrett as a lawman.
Very brilliant filming, twice using the screen as a window (steamed over for a diagram of the visible street or viewing a man shot dead slide down its surface), accurately registering the shades of emotion in a death, sad, brutal, funny, insignificant, absurd, momentous.
A good deal of guff has been written by critics and Hal Erickson, fortunately Brando (One-Eyed Jacks) and Wiard (Tom Horn) have taken analytical views tied to the escape, also there is Eastwood (Unforgiven).
And of course one of Penn’s sources is Kazan’s Viva Zapata! for the personage of Moultrie, and Kazan’s source is Conway’s Viva Villa!.
The Miracle Worker
The title and the plain conception are extensions of the “miracle” in Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda, the child is not an imbecile.
A major structural valuation is introduced with the Grant-at-Vicksburg motif. And the main basis of Penn’s construction is slapstick, Laurel & Hardy, especially in the carefully-built and very famous dining-room battle.
“A raid on the inarticulate,” Eliot calls his work.
Pinter & Beckett, for years. The best montage effects in the business.
The global market and its counterpoison. Kafka throughout, just a hint at the end.
Zedekiah and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:17). The critics work for someone.
The opening sequence behind the credits manages to convey both Pinter’s Party Time and his The New World Order, at the end of it the merry-go-round ride is over and there’s a debt to pay that looms larger and larger. The hero is a nightclub comic ditched by his girl, busted at craps.
Lambasted by the critics, ironically, as pretentious and symbolical, by which is meant “not escapist fare”.
The so-called New Wave elements simply cross a threshold already reached by other filmmakers. A more brilliant film has not been made.
The mystery of Lee Harvey Oswald is that he was a luckless loser. The death of John F. Kennedy is put down to Texas hooliganism in this surreal film à clef with a mild debt to Sirk’s Written on the Wind and Brown’s Intruder in the Dust.
Not that anybody seems to have noticed, and in a critical and box office failure everyone is at fault except the critics and the public.
It might be an occurrence of small importance, but if you marshal enough forces against it, the sheer force of perception (which might threaten to obliterate it) magnifies it by a hundred thousand eyes.
Scenes pile on or are built up until the aggravated reality is replete like a bad dream.
Bonnie and Clyde
A good joke, giving rise in passing to a passionate use of the slow motion camera, and a vision from Kienholz.
Penn has just about everything going for him here. The script is executed across a finely-modulated mise en scène that is splintered by the editing into splices of lacerating detail.
Like King Kong, this owes a debt to Scarface. The beautiful finale adds brass to this by having the lovers meet death in Arcadia, Louisiana (which may be a point of fact) after eating an apple, first her then him. The last few frames are a key to the taut strip of celluloid that’s being projected.
This or Gone With The Wind will demonstrate the Hollywood method of achieving a particular time and place. The constant mitigation of makeup and clothing is a stylistic necessity that Penn exploits to find the cinematic basis of the film. The early scene in the harvested wheat field strewn with isolated bales depends on pictorial irony, as it is seen that these two hoodlums are as lovely as a shock of wheat and as handsome as a tree, respectively. This is where the film becomes tragic, and this very scene is repeated in the consummation scene at the end.
Just before their nemesis undoes them, a Texas Ranger and deputies with “sub-guns”, Bonnie is asked (she of the porcelain Little Bo-Peep) by Clyde if all is well with her after their unique tryst. “Yes,” she dreamily replies, “just.”
Everything is in it, the Mom ‘n Pop freak farm, show business, taking out the trash, the pottery, the draft, leaving home, progenitors, “anything you want”, as the song says.
Little Big Man
Penn’s work is founded on the pictorial. The opening frames of Jack Crabb’s narrative tell an epic tale before anything happens. A family of pioneers have been attacked on the Plains, the smoldering wreckage “befouls the prairie,” only the two children are left. “I ain’t had no use for the Pawnee ever since,” Crabb reminisces a hundred years later. A Cheyenne warrior, one of the “human beings” as they style themselves, carries Jack and his sister to the Indian camp.
Vincent Canby was not averse to the script, but he did not find it especially witty, either. Alas for the Times, it is incomparably witty throughout and without let. In this sense, and in concert with the acting, music, editing and setups, it’s a real match for Leone’s achievements a few years earlier.
Jack learns to be a brave, then he’s recaptured and learns to be a white man. He becomes a gunfighter dressed in black, who surlily crosses a muddy street on a thoughtful plank and rises instantly, guns drawn, when it breaks (this bit of slapstick shows one of the foundations of the style). He tries all the white man’s trades, Christian hypocrite, snake oil salesman, shopkeeper. He even joins Custer’s regiment as a muleskinner and scout.
What with one thing and another, he’s among the Cheyenne, who know him as Little Big Man, as often as not. You perhaps recognize a Buster Keaton gag in all this, and there is the important precedent of Rudolph Maté’s Branded. Five Easy Pieces was made in the same year as Little Big Man.
There is much to be said about this film, there is no end of things to be said about it (that prostitute is Jerusalem, goes a venerable Surrealism, paradoxes make the goyim wonder, Mel Brooks saw the point in Blazing Saddles with his Yiddische Injuns), but what must be said is something about the editing. Already in Bonnie and Clyde you can see Penn cutting on action, it’s a brilliant model in that respect. The wide open spaces and a consuming satire free him in Little Big Man to conceive of editing rather as the mind does (the entire film is a recitation into Krapp’s own tape recorder by 106-year-old Crabb), rendered as swoops and lashes and droll vistas, the POV, long lens and tracking shot interspliced in perfect rhythms (Jack is a raconteur), the agony of perception mitigated by time, the joy of temporal existence. So it’s tragic, and epic, and comic, from shot to shot and within the shot.
A curious anagram of Lolita, with the plane and the pumpkin (inbound, not outbound) from North by Northwest, and the climax of Contempt.
Here the spectacular reaches of Penn’s art are brought into a careful consideration by dint of authorship. Hammett and Chandler and Smight laid the ground, the Tinguely museum-smasher is an object, too. The forms present themselves for inspection at leisure, in a vast view of the city.
For Penn in such a work the main portal is Harper ten years on, whence you arrive at The Big Sleep, among other things (The Maltese Falcon, even Billion Dollar Brain). Florida looks like a structural feint, but it gives you Key Largo.
The great elegance is generally achieved by cutting on movement or camera movement (or both), which is probably derived from Huston.
Details of construction are varied and choice (the airframe in Quentin’s lot, the two men with a cane, symmetries and distorting mirrors).
Penn’s night exteriors show an adaptation of common practice that renders floodlighting realistically.
Much depends on generating scenes capable of persistence of vision. The outer world impinges by night, the inner corruption by day, at last these seem equivalent.
Possibly the reference to Rohmer is a jibe at Sarris, and the final shot a Giotto O.
The Missouri Breaks
Way up in the heaven of Canada are Mounties who get their man even down below, but otherwise the nether regions are rife with horse thieves and the law is pretty scanty unless a well-to-do rancher hires a “regulator”, and that’s the essence of the tale unnoticed by any of the clucking tongues deprecating Brando’s performance.
In his various guises he’s an Irish frontiersman or an itinerant preacher or a granny, that’s his way of working out a job, which made no sense to the critics.
All of the acting is very good and has been noted, still there is a very good example here of a performance that can’t be understood without understanding the film, which is more often the case than our critics will allow.
The screenplay manifests a round robin of bildungsroman spiced with lines such as, “I can’t understand how you can write poems to me and still cling to facts,” and, “the excess of all this is a little staggering,” and, “why does everything take so long?” These are sublime in context, said by a high school belle, the widow of a nabob gone gun-crazy at his daughter’s wedding, and the belle some years later.
The kidnapping of an American wife and mother in Paris antedates Polanski’s Frantic by three years. Her husband is a CIA man now in business under another name in Texas.
The opposite number is Mendelssohn, rightly Schroeder, East German. Operation Clean Sweep wiped out his family.
Remy Julienne in Hamburg. Checkpoint Charlie (the Texan reads Len Deighton’s Berlin Game). The wife is touring with The Masquers, son wants to be a stock car mechanic.
Dead of Winter
Penn’s idea of motion picture production as something like Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare, a surreal presentation.
Various films also figure in it as snippets or suggestions, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Kubrick’s The Shining, Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace.
Forty below on Broadway, casting call, producer’s home (with butler) for the test shoot, on video. A dastardly plot.
Murder and mayhem, blackmail, a girl with a bagful of money and a waiting assassin.
Penn & Teller Get Killed
The Laurel & Hardy of magic have devised this as a dramatic extension of their stage act, and in the hands of Arthur Penn it’s a very precise work of art.
It opens with their famous upside-down routine, which launches them into a late night talk-show interview (their adoring manager looks on). Much later, the key gag lays the basis for this scene: Teller is pierced by a dozen electric drills onstage at the hands of a blindfolded Penn (one of the audience volunteers is The Amazing Randi, holding a rope and embodying bedazzlement for the nonce), the bloodied remains are wheeled away to applause from the nightclubbers (seen in a reverse shot from the stage), and in the wings the trick is revealed. Back on the talk show in the opening scene, they expand the murderous gag by speculating on assassins.
By and by, one appears. He’s a hireling of one or both, a fan of the duo, a maniac, whatever, he fills the bill. They acquire protection, a policewoman who is revealed in the end to be their manager in disguise. Teller kills Penn with a blank pistol round that isn’t, then kills himself. Their manager, deranged with grief, leaps out the upper-story window. The assassin puts a bag over his head and shoots himself. Two policemen arrive as the camera helicopters away from the building and more shots are heard. A voiceover by Penn says the duo is dead, which is going to make the sequel “a bitch”.
Much of the film consists of their back-and-forth pranks, like Penn taking a knife in the gut, dispatching Teller after the assailant, then walking off whistling. Or the gag justly admired by the New York Times, which has Teller slipping a metal ball into Penn’s coat pocket as he passes through airport security, and devising ways to keep him passing and repassing through the metal detector.
Very rich stuff, no doubt about it. The curious thing is that The Washington Post didn’t get it at all, Hal Hinson being of the opinion that Arthur Penn was losing all his marbles, directing like a beginner, or some such nonsense. This is a greatly refined outlay of technique on the sort of bare-bones structure favored by Beckett, the location filming and hocus-pocus can’t disguise the fact. A capital joke that really deserves a more just appreciation than it has received, or are we just to admit these barnstormers bested our finest wits and left them wide-eyed, like The Amazing Randi holding the rope?
“The Inquisition,” as Poe says, “in the hands of its enemies.”