In the rush to sum up the career of Arthur Penn, the American film director who died recently at 88, journalists tended to focus on the same two themes. In one, Penn was important primarily because of the role of his best-known film, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as the harbinger of a new level of graphic violence in the movies, setting a bar soon to be raised by the likes of Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971). In the other theme, Penn helped pave the way for a cinematic Golden Age in the 1970s, in which Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and other American directors found room to pursue their most searingly personal visions, featuring a rogue’s gallery of outlaws and outsiders from Howard Beale to Travis Bickle. There are problems with both characterizations. One is that American cinema prior to 1967 was far from a pacifist affair. The Western, the gangster movie and film noir were often startlingly violent genres in which the hail of bullets that finally finished off Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker would have been notable but hardly unique.
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