“I’m the king of the silent pictures. I’m hiding out till the talkies blow over.” In other words, he’s a dead man.
A fast-living Detroit nightclub comic (Warren Beatty) learns that he‘s owned by the mob. Was it the gambling? Did he date the wrong girl? He doesn’t wait around to find out, taking the nuclear option by skipping town and burning his ID. He surfaces in Chicago with a new name, Mickey One, and an anonymous job, but anonymity doesn’t suit him. Mickey returns to the stage, where he draws the attention of a shady club owner with shadier connections. A terrifying audition convinces Mickey that he’s back on the mob’s radar and, rather than run, Mickey decides to face the music. But where do you turn yourself in when you don’t know who you owe?
Disappointed by the harsh reaction to The Left Handed Gun at home, Arthur Penn nevertheless found widespread critical acclaim abroad, as French critics, who had long made a career of rooting out the truffles in American imports, fully embraced Gun and its budding auteur. A trip to Paris and meetings with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard convinced Penn that the future of movies lay in the hands of the French New Wave.
Eager to bring French cinema to American screens, Penn returned and convinced Alan Surgal to transform Comic, Surgal‘s unproduced play, into a story worthy of the New Wave. Penn gave the project to Columbia Pictures, where he had a sweetheart two-picture deal that granted total authority to shoot whatever he liked, so long as the budget stayed at $1 million or less. Columbia hated the script—too artsy-fartsy—but had no choice but to fund it.
Penn covered his bases, hiring European cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet to shoot the film, and choosing hungry up-and-comer Warren Beatty to star in it. For a mere million smackers, Mickey One must have seemed like a sure thing. It wasn’t. Critics, unprepared for a studio to release such a bizarre experiment, savaged the movie. The studio, after confirming they’d been right all along, buried it. Penn once said that he’d never seen a movie disappear as quickly as Mickey One. Penn lost his deal and his power; by the time he was hired for The Chase, it was clear that he was simply an employee on Sam Spiegel’s film, not the man in charge.
Mickey One’s failure has a happy epilogue. Penn and Beatty worked well together on the set, and when Beatty acquired a script about two gangsters the following year, he knew just who to call.
McCarthyism. Mickey stands in for the victims of that collective American instanity—a man on the run, but not really sure of what he’s running from, or even his crime. Inadvertantly, Penn also caught the spirit of the coming youth movement that spurred off from that fiasco. Does the man upstairs own me, or can I make my own way in the world?
There’s a whimsical, silent little character wandering through Mickey One named The Artist (Kamatari Fujiwara) who seems to be on Mickey’s team, but who kind of scares the bejeesus out of me. The Artist appears wherever Mickey is, always waving him over like an old friend, and Mickey always turns him down and walks away. Fair enough, Mickey don’t need no help. Got it. But then we get a glimpse of the artist’s creation. Check out this clip, starting at around :30.
OK, I know he’s smiling and kind of fun, but that’s a destructo-machine made out garbage, and its entire purpose, its very existence, is to destroy itself. There it goes, in a fiery holocaust, while a crowd of onlookers cheers and boos appropriately. But the implication is that he sees a kindred spirit in Mickey, a piece of self-destructive trash in need of collecting. It’s a fairly pretentious scene—and mildly ripped off from The Rules of the Game—but there’s the movie right there. When I think of Mickey One, it’s this scene I remember first.
Mickey One is one of the greatest American films nobody’s heard of. At the Internet Movie Database, audiences vote for a film’s quality on a star rating system. A widely-seen, popular movie measures its votes in the tens of thousands. For example, The Dark Knight, as of this writing, has about 547,000 votes. By comparison, Mickey One has a scant 574.
Mickey One has about 1/1000th of The Dark Knight’s votes because it’s criminally underseen, and it’s criminally underseen because it’s criminally underreleased. Columbia buried the film in 1965, and it’s still buried. Apart from an obscure Laserdisc release, Mickey One has never seen home video, not on VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray. As recently as last year, the only way to see the film was to find a website willing to stream it. Thank god, Sony recently added the title to its print-on-demand DVD service, so it’s now fairly easy to own if you don’t care about things like quality transfers or special features. Or that your DVD is a shade of illegal-rip purple.
This is nuts because Mickey One is an exceptional picture, if a bit rough around the edges. It’s a surrealist fantasy about show business, an industry that’s always been darker than pitch just offstage. Death and metaphysical fear looms over the film and, by his own admission, Penn lays it on pretty thick. Still, there’s something truly magical happening here that no audience so far west of Cahiers du Cinema could have expected. While Coppola and the film school brats were just getting started, Penn lobbed a revolution into the studio’s lap. No surprise that it blew up in his face.
Mickey One takes a cue from French classics like Godard‘s Breathless by ditching plot, or at least deemphasizing it. The film suggests its story more than tells it. The opening credits, for example, establish Mickey through unconnected images. He‘s fully dressed in a sauna, gambling, cavorting with women, crashing a car. Three minutes later, he’s on the run, after an argument with a man who will not speak. The story is clear, but we’ve assembled it in our own minds. We’ve been told nothing, a cinematic trick still edgy in 1965.
Which was the problem, of course. American audiences, even in the vaunted art-house heyday, have never liked begging for answers, and Mickey One has none to offer. Mickey wastes the film searching for a truth he never actually receives (he has a lot in common with Night Moves‘ Harry Moseby in that way). With no plot to follow, we’re left only with what the screen gives us—Mickey. Why is he running? What is he afraid of? Death or slavery? Would I do the same? The heart of the French movement was disposing of narrative to turn the camera inward, on the characters’ feelings, to film what can‘t be seen.
Mickey One is the first bubble before the boil—inconsequential in itself, but a sign that something big is about to happen. Just two years later, two years, Beatty and Penn would reunite for Bonnie and Clyde, another Euro-inspired experiment, and that film changed the world. Mickey One didn’t change much of anything. It’s a breezy arthouse nugget set to jazz, a freestyle film that’s just riffing its way through the set, making its points, but making no friends. It’s also a brilliant little nugget of weird. I guess that’s what I love about Mickey One. It shouldn’t exist (and, judging by the film’s viewership, it barely does), but here it is, a wacky experiment in mood and cool and existentialist meanderings that now fits right alongside all the classics it was emulating, in aesthetics if not esteem. Truly, watch it with the sound off and you might be convinced it’s a lost Godard, a Breathless sequel with a hero inspired more by Henny Youngman than Humphrey Bogart.
In France, the Cahiers critics said they could make a better movie than the other guys, and so they did. Penn thought he could establish the New Wave here in America, and so he did, although it didn’t take nearly as well. But financial success and audience acclaim don’t seem like the proper measuring sticks for a film like this. What matters is that, no matter the talent, the venue, or the odds, you make damn sure that nobody owns you.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
4. Mickey One (1965)