Chasing Arthur Penn
On what today would have been the 94th birthday of the great stage and screen director Arthur Penn (1922-2010), we live in an America roiled by ideological rifts that regularly bring combative urges to the foreground, with humanist leanings tamped down by the media (social and otherwise)-hyped bombardment of fears, personal prejudices and heightened self-interest. As the filmmaker of touchstones The Miracle Worker (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970) and Night Moves (1975), Penn crafted vivid and exciting cinematic experiences from lived-in tales – some set in the present, some in earlier times but always contemporarily relevant – of personal striving, societal rebellion and shocking physical or psychological violence. He was a shrewd deployer of actors, having risen through years of television anthology dramas for Playhouse 90, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and their ilk, followed by years of Broadway success with the original productions of Two for the Seesaw, The Miracle Worker (itself born out of William Gibson’s earlier Penn-directed Playhouse 90 teleplay), Toys in the Attic and All the Way Home. When Penn was secure at the helm, the results proved powerful. The Chase (1966) should have been a Penn picture for the ages, with its screenplay by Toys in the Attic’s Lillian Hellman (adapting a play by the venerable Horton Foote) and produced by Sam Spiegel, the larger-than-life mogul behind The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Its cast blazed with talent: Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, James Fox, Janice Rule, E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall and other rising and veteran luminaries. And talk about your mirror of the times: its seething story of one weekend in the life of the insular, corrupt and self-destructive small town of Tarl, Texas, where its multigenerational, multiclass and multi-reprehensible citizens await the arrival of an escaped convict, a native son with connections to them all and whose return could bring the burg’s dark secrets into the unflattering light of day. Although the overheated plot bore a devastating relevance to the assassination-blighted, Vietnam War-divisive times and Penn and the cast felt a deep connection to the material, the Hollywoodization of the shoot became an impediment to Penn being secure at the helm. According to many accounts, Spiegel kept a tight fist on the production, constraining the shoot to studio backlots instead of actual locations, saddled Penn with a veteran cinematographer whose exacting methods slowed the schedule, meddled with the script throughout and removed Penn from the editing process at its conclusion. But just as time has properly lifted Penn into the lexicon of important, pioneering directors, so too has time been kind to The Chase, which has been reevaluated by subsequent audiences and critics as an unruly yet signature movie of its era and its director. Fifty years after the movie’s short-lived theatrical run, The Chase has received 4K restoration treatment by Sony Pictures and its prescient, gripping dramatics are now on splendid display via Twilight Time’s new hi-def Blu-ray, featuring John Barry’s scorching and moody score on an Isolated Track and TT historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on a wonderful warts-and-all Audio Commentary. Hunt this one down when it lands October 11. Preorders open tomorrow, September 28, the day on which Penn left us six years ago, leaving behind a forceful film legacy.