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American original

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 29, 2008

The Miracle Worker initiated Penn’s Hollywood years and led him — through two overheated films, 1963’s THE CHASE (Friday at 7 pm) and 1965’s MICKEY ONE (Saturday at 7 pm) — to Bonnie and Clyde. (Mickey One, which marked the first time an American director had attempted to bring the sensibility of the French New Wave to these shores, is a disaster but such a bizarre one-of-a-kind picture it’s worth a look. And it has an amazing jazz score: the actors’ improvisations don’t come off half as well as Stan Getz’s.) The Miracle Worker wasn’t his first movie, though. In 1958 he directed The Left Handed Gun (Sunday at 9:15 pm), which was based on a Gore Vidal play, a Western that, in its contemporary reading of its hero, Billy the Kid, laid down a sort of blueprint for Bonnie and Clyde. With a young, camera-mesmerizing Paul Newman in the role, the film envisions Billy as a sensitive, troubled, essentially good-hearted kid, like the characters James Dean had played in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. (The project had been conceived for Dean.) Crude though its Freudian dramaturgy may be (and its touches of religious imagery), The Left Handed Gun is a vivifying and affecting movie, both of its time and ahead of it. Moreover, it established Penn as an actor’s director and his link to the American Method style. Newman was the first of the signal Method actors he worked with, a staggering list that includes Warren Beatty (Mickey One, Bonnie andClyde), Marlon Brando (The Chase, The Missouri Breaks), Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), Gene Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves), and Jack Nicholson (The Missouri Breaks).

The movies Penn made after Bonnie and Clyde were further efforts to grapple with the realities of living in America during and in the wake of the Vietnam War, when the old myths and genre conventions no longer seemed adequate. Some of these pictures don’t work: the 1975 film noir NIGHT MOVES (Saturday at 7 pm), with Hackman as a private eye investigating the disappearance of an LA teenager (a very young, touching Melanie Griffith), followed The Long Goodbye and Chinatown, so its treatment of rotted Southern California values felt old hat even then. (Hackman’s performance is solid, however.) THE MISSOURI BREAKS (Monday at 9 pm), from a screenplay by the novelist Thomas McGuane, is a hipster Western whose bounty-hunter antagonist (Brando) is meant to be an embodiment of the moral outrage of modern warfare, but it’s just as phony in its way as The Chase, with its besotted, bigoted Texas-small-town villains who bring pistols to their Saturday-night parties. What The Missouri Breaks does have is one of those jaw-dropping wild-card displays from Brando that no one who admires his work can afford to miss. Nicholson’s beautifully calibrated performance, which operates as a springboard for Brando’s glorious excesses, is a reminder of how controlled an actor he once was. And though it has some very funny episodes in the first half, Penn’s 1970 adaptation of the Thomas Berger novel LITTLE BIG MAN (Saturday at 3 pm), framed as the tall-tale reminiscence of a 121-year-old survivor (Hoffman) of Custer’s Last Stand, is so baldly ideological, with its Asian-looking Indians slaughtered en masse by a sociopathic Custer (Richard Mulligan), that, seen out of its era, it’s almost incomprehensible.

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