Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Alan M. Surgal
Stars: Warren Beatty, Alexandra Stewart, Hurd Hatfield, Franchot Tone, Kamatari Fujiwara
The Story: An ultra-cool Detroit nightclub comic finds himself on the wrong side of his club’s mobbed-up owner. Fleeing on the lam to the seedy side of Chicago, he imagines killers are hiding in every shadow… but he has a pathological urge to return to the stage...
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie has two big problems: it’s always divided audiences, and it’s always been hard to find. After wildly mixed early reviews, it was dumped as a drive-in movie, where audiences must have been truly baffled, since it was one of the first attempts to do a dryly-surreal American art-film. The movie has never been on video, and even when it shows up in revival theaters, it continues to attract as many detractors as fans. I happen to love it.
Why It’s Great:
- By 1965, there was a huge gap between the unapologetic artistry of European cinema and America’s widescreen technicolor blandness, but a few brave souls wanted to drag Hollywood into the modern age, and none moreso than Warren Beatty (of all people). He really wanted to hire Godard or Truffaut to come over the pond, but instead, he made do with ambitious American TV director Arthur Penn. This was their first attempt to import a new wave sensibility, and they succeeded onscreen, but not in theaters. Nevertheless the pair tried again two years later with Bonnie and Clyde and finally ignited an American Renaissance.
- American street-level noir and European high-minded existentialism have always been incestuously entertwined: Nobody believed Camus when he said that “The Stranger” was merely his attempt to imitate James M. Cain, but he wasn’t half wrong, and noir itself never would have taken hold without the infusion of émigrés fleeing Hitler. (even then, it took the French to recognize the genre and name it). Penn’s oddball intellectual noir delicately straddles the end of one era (noir) and the beginning of another (art cinema), not belonging to either but worthy of both.
- The offbeat sensibility and staccato rhythms make this movie the visual equivalent of jazz, and so it’s only fitting that it’s got a hopping jazz score by the great Stan Getz.
- Beatty always seemed miscast to me in movies like The Parallax View and Dick Tracy… Basically I think that he’s only really good at playing one thing: angry, half-witted loverboys whose charm masks a deeper angst. ...But whenever he got a role like that, he was amazing. After all, many or our greatest stars made a nice living for themselves by doing one thing well.
- This kafka-esque nightmare is actually a great metaphor for the bleak life of a stand-up comic, then and now, where the goal is to “kill” onstage before the audience can do the same to you. At least these days the mob no longer runs the nightclubs, so that’s less literal, though just as figurative.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another fun attempt to merge jazz sensibility and noir style was the short-lived 50s TV show “Johnny Staccato”, starring John Cassavetes as a bebop pianist who moonlights as a hardboiled detective. It’s now on DVD. Alice’s Restaurant is another great Penn movie and Funny Bones is another darkly comic look at stand-up.
How Available Is It?: After the floodgates broke open last week, there’s no stopping me now: This is another only-on-bit-torrent special. The print I found is good but a little small.
Actually you can get a decent DVD legally for purchase. Sony makes is on demand and sells it through their studio website and Amazon.com.
BONNIE AND CLYDE notwithstanding, I've always thought Arthur Penn was one of the more underrated directors of his generation. LITTLE BIG MAN is by far my favorite, but there are so many other good ones too, including his Billy the Kid movie THE LEFT-HANDED GUN, his wayward Brando/Nicholson Western THE MISSOURI BREAKS and NIGHT MOVES.
Well I'll be damned. Netflix should add it.
I need to see "Little Big Man" again. I saw it way back in high school and it didn't stay with me, but I need to give it an all-grown-up viewing. I absolutely love "The Missouri Breaks".
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