Sunday, October 3, 2010

Unfulfilled Potential: Remembering Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis

Director Arthur Penn and actor Tony Curtis passed away one day apart last week: September 28 and 29. Both talents, it can be argued, were never truly fulfilled. At the very least, they never achieved their possible greatness. Considering Curtis was acting in films and TV from 1949 until 2008 (and was rumoured to be up for another role when he died), his reputation rests on very few projects: The Sweet Smell of Success, (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), The Vikings (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959), Spartacus (1960) and maybe The Boston Strangler (1968). Except for The Defiant Ones and Some Like It Hot, the pictures he's remembered for are ones where he was not the lead. Was he ever a great actor? Probably not, but when he was good, he could be very good. Yet, due mostly to his own choices in life (he was more interested in jumping the bones of, supposedly, 1000 women and living the Hollywood life, than in really practicing his craft), Curtis never thrived as perhaps he should have.

In Penn's case, in a career that began with live TV in the 1950s and ended in 2001 when he directed an episode of a show called 100 Centre Street, he only made 15 features (8 in the 1960s alone). Fifteen isn't that bad a number, but unfortunately the last five – The Missouri Breaks (1976), Four Friends (1981), Target (1985), Dead of Winter (1987) and Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989) – were either terrible and/or big commercial flops. His reputation is based on five pictures: The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Miracle Worker (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Alice's Restaurant (1969) and Night Moves (1975). You'll notice that I don't include Little Big Man (1970) on that list – my reasons will become clear shortly.

I'll be honest, of the best films, I've not seen Alice's Restaurant, or all of The Miracle Worker, and I avoided like the plague the four of the five 'bad' pictures mentioned above. So my own response to Penn is based on one-third of his output: The Left-Handed Gun, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves and Four Friends. Yet, if he had stopped there, and only made three (and a half) of those five films I'd remember him as one of the great filmmakers. The Left-Handed Gun tells the story of Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) from an almost Freudian point of view. Based on a play by Gore Vidal, it is a strange, moody film that broke new ground in the depiction of the Old West. Bonnie and Clyde? Well, we all know this film was a game changer. It was not all Penn, though. Warren Beatty, as producer and star, was also justifiably credited with pushing this film into the realm of greatness. It was this movie that was, and always will be, held up as Penn's greatest achievement. The success of that film gave him the clout to make a film he supposedly considered his finest: Little Big Man. Narrated from the present day by the 100+-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) as he recalled being, first, raised by Native Americans, and then fighting with George Custer, a little Little Big Man goes a long way. If this was what Penn considered his greatest achievement, then it was no wonder his greatness was never fulfilled. For all the fine acting in it (and Hoffman and Chief Dan George were both very good), the picture suffered from the insufferable liberal-guilt notion of white-man-bad, Native-American-good mindset that has continued to clutter the cinematic landscape (Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves being another prime example).

I think, after Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves was the best picture of his that I have seen. Made at the height of the 1970s' film-noir-in-colour phenom (Chinatown (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), etc.), Night Moves told the coal-black story of private dick, Harry Moseby, in present-day Florida who was hired for what seemed to be a simple missing persons case. Things spun out of control from there. For a variety of reasons, I've not seen it since its first theatrical run, but I still remember much of it to this day. Its ambiguous ending is almost perfect. But the film was a flop. Perhaps after that Penn lost his edge or desire, because first he made the crackpot The Missouri Breaks and then didn't work again for five years.

Four Friends was mostly reviled, but I have a soft spot for it if, for no other reason, two moments in it (perhaps a candidate for my Mini Masterpieces within Mediocre Movies). Set in the US during the turbulent Sixties with the Vietnam War as a constant presence, the film followed four friends from 1961 until the end of the decade. One sequence I remember was simple. Lead actor Craig Wasson gets into a fistfight with someone. His opponent punches him in the stomach and Wasson immediately vomits all over him, disgusting his antagonist. I'd never seen a moment like that in a film, but why I remembered it was because it felt so authentic to the circumstances. The other was much more complex and dealt with an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter. The revelation of that relationship was a true shocker. Sure, much of the film doddled and meandered, but I've always remembered how those two moments were so vividly believable.

The perfect summary of Arthur Penn as a filmmaker was perhaps that he had a few moments of glory, but the rest of his output doddled and meandered and never delivered the payoff we came to expect after such perfect films as Bonnie and Clyde and near perfect ones as Night Moves. Yet, in spite of all that, for both Penn and Curtis, we do have a few amazing projects to look back upon and marvel over. And that is no small achievement.

David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Details to follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment