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Remembering Arthur Penn

by Stephen Becker 30 Sep 2010 8:37 AM

Arthur Penn, the director of the most important film ever shot in North Texas, died on Tuesday. As it turns out, the director who ushered in a new era of violence on screen couldn’t have been a nicer guy.


Arthur Penn, the director whose 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde helped usher in a new way of thinking about violence on screen, died on Tuesday. He was 88.

Arthur Penn (right) with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway on the set of Bonnie and Clyde.

While Bonnie and Clyde is known for bringing a no-nonsense approach to graphic violence in film, it’s also known for being the most important movie ever shot in North Texas. It stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the famed bank robbers and was headquartered in Dallas. From its base, the production team scouted and shot in Denton, Waxahachie, Midlothian and other towns that looked like they could still pass for the 1930s.

In 2008, Penn was a guest lecturer at a fellowship I attended at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Ahead of my trip, I watched Bonnie and Clyde and studied up on all things Arthur Penn should I have the chance to meet him. The one thing I didn’t really consider – what he looked like.

At the opening night cocktail party held at the Upper West Side apartment of a very wealthy benefactor of the museum, I was sitting by myself scouting out the scene. Soon an older guy sat down in the chair next to me. I smiled and said “hi,” and he stuck out his hand and said, “hi, I’m Arthur Penn.”

What followed was a lengthy, very personable conversation about the movies, his career and all the other things I wanted to ask him about. He told me about how he spoke with the people who lived in those small North Texas towns he was shooting in about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Often, they would run home to retrieve some souvenir – a scrap of cloth, a bullet shell – that was left behind after the duo left town.

We also talked about movie criticism. And he told me something I never forgot.

“I don’t really care if you liked or didn’t like the movie,” he said. “What I want from a review is for you to put it in context.”

I always think about that piece of advice whenever I’m writing something critical. It eventually dawned on me that if I do a good enough job of the latter, the former will come through.

  • Jennifer

    Wow! That’s neat that you got to meet and get advice from such a legend.