Arthur Penn, RIP


Arthur Penn, who just died at age 88, is best known for directing Bonnie and Clyde, but his most influential work behind the camera might have come seven years earlier. As Dave Kehr reports, Penn

advised Senator John F. Kennedy during his watershed television debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (and directed the broadcast of the third debate). Mr. Penn's instructions to Kennedy—to look directly into the lens of the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy—helped give the candidate an aura of confidence and calm that created a vivid contrast to his more experienced but less telegenic Republican rival.

I'm not sure how Kennedy's debate coach managed to get a gig as a debate director as well, but Nixon was probably stewing about it for years afterward.

Penn's other credits include the revisionist western Little Big Man, the paranoid thrillers Mickey One and Night Moves, and the Arlo Guthrie vehicle Alice's Restaurant, described by my colleague Nick Gillespie as "the greatest anti-hippy movie this side of Joe." He also directed Penn & Teller—a duo infinitely preferable to Kennedy & Nixon—in the cult favorite Penn and Teller Get Killed.

I suppose Bonnie and Clyde is Penn's most "important" movie: It set off the whole New Hollywood period, so even if you don't care for the film in itself you have to give it credit for paving the way for all those great early-'70s flicks starring the likes of Jack Nicholson and Warren Oates. But my favorite Arthur Penn picture is Night Moves, with Gene Hackman as a pro football player turned private eye pursuing a mystery that never quite resolves itself. In a sane world, it would have had an impact far greater than that of any mere president.