“I couldn’t be funny if my life depended on it . . . And it did.”
Two years before his landmark film Bonnie & Clyde effectively kicked off what’s since been dubbed the New Hollywood movement, Arthur Penn delivered something much stranger & more deliberately obscure with that film’s same star, Warren Beatty. New Hollywood’s loosely defined aesthetic has several distinguishing features: anti-hero protagonists, avoidance of tidily happy endings, counter culture rebelliousness, etc. A large part of the movement’s appeal, however, derived directly from young American directors borrowing stylistic technique from the films of the French New Wave, particularly in their approach to unconventional cinematography. The film Beatty & Penn made before Bonnie & Clyde didn’t exactly pull influence from the French New Wave the way their breakthrough hit would. Mickey One was more of a French New Wave pastiche than a direct descendant. It wholesale borrowed everything it could grab from directors like Godard & Truffaut right down to their stark black & white cinematography. Just about the only things Mickey One kept distinctly American were the accents & Warren Beatty’s face. The results were messy & less iconic than Bonnie & Clyde and far too pretentious to strike a chord with American audiences in the same way, but they are fascinating as an artifact. It’s like watching New Hollywood’s unevolved ancestor crawling out of the primordial cinematic ooze. It ain’t pretty, but you can’t look away.
In a dizzying opening credits sequence we’re introduced to Beatty’s troubled charmer protagonist as a hopeless lush. He drinks, gambles, and philanders his way through his minor celebrity as a stand-up at nightclubs owned almost exclusively by mafia types. In what feels like the credits to the world’s weirdest sitcom, we learn everything we need to know about this doofus: his world, his ego, his thirsts, his enemies. It’s chaotic surrealism, drunken delirium, abrasive jazz, kaleidoscopic noir. Much like with the opening minutes of the proto-blacksploitation piece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s easy to be convinced in Mickey One‘s intro that you’re about to watch one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of all time, only to have that same exciting energy turned around to beat your enthusiasm into mush. A young, handsome Warren Beatty lives the high life in those credits and immediately crashes once they conclude. Instead of serving as a makeshift court jester for the club-owning mobsters he amuses with corny punchlines he becomes a persecuted target for an offense no one can name. We’re never sure if Beatty’s tortured stand-up faulted on an outrageous gambling debt, slept with a mobster’s wife, or, quite possibly, never committed any crime at all. Mickey One stubbornly clouds its central conflict in an oppressive air of mystery. It’s a choice that might have worked if the film’s abrasive, jazz-driven pace & tone ever slowed down long enough to allow the audience to properly sink into its sense of existential dread, but it’s just a little too frustrating as is.
Penniless & on the run from faceless, mysterious mobsters, our broken hero finds himself greasy, homeless, as handsome as ever, and hiding under a false pseudonym. After a short period of bottom-of-the-barrel blue collar labor, the spotlight calls to him. He starts gravitating towards the types of nightclubs he used to headline, first as a heckler and then as a performer, despite the danger of breaking his anonymity. A Marcel Marceau-type billed simply as “The Artist” pops up every now & then to mime encouragement and to draw him out of laying low. As his love interest puts it, he’s hiding from he doesn’t know what for a crime he’s not sure he’s committed, but he can’t help delivering corny jokes to mildly amused audiences in the meantime. This all whips by in a blur, only ever settling down for two distinct scenes: one where his mime-muse constructs an intricate Rube Goldberg-style art instillation that reflects his greatest fear (the mob disposing of his body in an automotive junkyard) and one where he “auditions” for faceless mobster club owners, the only visible presence in the room being the menacingly divine shine of the spotlight. Mickey One’s jokes aren’t any funnier than Rupert Pupkin’s in The King of Comedy. Its tone is in a continuous, chaotic shift that never allows its audience to get lost in its world. It’s undeniably messy, embarrassingly pretentious, and has essentially zero potential for commercial value. And yet, you can never shake the feeling that it’s just a half step away from being breathtakingly brilliant.
Distribution companies weren’t sure what to do with Arthur Penn’s French New Wave pastiche in 1965 and silently dumped it in drive-ins instead of giving it a prestigious theatrical release. Fifty years later, I’m still not sure what to do with the badly damaged, mostly forgotten art film mishmash. In an abstract sense I greatly admire the way the source of its Kafkaesque paranoia is never made literal and Beatty’s pre-Clyde anti-hero is made to live out his own stand-up comedy-themed version of The Trial. I was just never given much more than that vague paranoia & some terrible one-liners to associate with the character. It was difficult to care about his anxiety & the beautiful, energetic imagery that borders it in any way outside of distant, detached fascination. There’s never any question why Mickey One isn’t the Beatty-Penn collaboration that broke through instead of Bonnie & Clyde. Its limited appeal is immediately apparent. I do find it weirdly compelling as proto-New Hollywood weirdness, though, and I could easily see my cautious fondness for it growing with a few repeat viewings. The problem is that I can also see my nitpicking annoyances with it growing as well.