Pity the premature revolutionary. In a different, kinder world, what we now know as the ballsy, risk-taking Hollywood of the late ’60s and ’70s would have begun with an artsy, intense, somewhat pretentious French New Wave-inspired drama directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty. That might seem a little odd, considering what we now know as the ballsy, risk-taking Hollywood of the late ’60s and ’70s did begin with an artsy, intense, somewhat pretentious French New Wave-inspired drama directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty. That film, of course, was 1967’s Bonnie And Clyde, a game-changing classic about outlaws who accidentally becomes entertainers in a world where bank robbers doubled as folk heroes. But it could also have kicked off with a different artsy, intense, somewhat pretentious French New Wave drama directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty, this time about an entertainer who accidentally becomes an outlaw: 1965’s Mickey One.
Mickey One is one of the great what-ifs of American film. What if this were the film that started it all? What if American audiences lustily embraced a film that didn’t just borrow from the visual vocabulary of the French New Wave but actually looked and felt like it could have been made by Jean-Luc Godard (who was bandied about as a potential director of Bonnie And Clyde) as a follow-up to Breathless? What if the French New Wave was imported to these shores and exploded into the mainstream in an unusually pure and direct form, instead of via the New Wave mannerisms of Bonnie And Clyde?
We will never know, as audiences and critics alike didn’t quite know what to make of Mickey One. Actually, audiences and critics had no fucking idea what to make of the film. The film opened to violently mixed reviews and paltry box office. (It didn’t help that it was dumped into drive-ins in selected markets instead of art-houses.) Imagine how jarring it must have been to watch this trailer in 1965.
Stateside audiences hip to the Cahiers Du Cinema gang and their wildly influential aesthetic must have found the film awfully familiar, even if Mickey One looked and felt like no American film before it. Mickey One throws down the gauntlet with an opening-credits sequence that tells us everything we need to know about the title character—a glib, handsome, but fundamentally talentless and amoral stand-up comic played by Beatty—and the world he inhabits without a single line of dialogue. With little in the way of grounding, we’re thrown into a shadowy underground nighttime world that’s sexy, tawdry, and dangerous, the kind of place where thoughtless words or an untoward look at the wrong dame can lead to a one-way trip to fist city or a bullet in the brain.
Mickey One is awash in the iconography of ’60s cool: It has a hep jazz score highlighted by Stan Getz’s saxophone, a dashing, too-cool-for-school lead, and atmospheric black-and-white cinematography by Robert Bresson collaborator Ghislain Cloquet that transforms Chicago into a grimy urban wasteland. It’s a world of bright lights and sordid glamour ruled by mobsters and populated by molls, kept women, and good-looking jokers. Musicians are kept as pets by men in power as long as they stay in line and don’t overstep their boundaries. The rub is that no one quite seems to know where those lines are drawn or what happens when they’re transgressed, least of all Beatty, who is shocked and deeply disturbed to learn that his mob bosses in Detroit are intent on punishing him, preferably by death, for mysterious transgressions.
Mickey One shares with the work of Franz Kafka and the French New Wave a pervasive fatalism wedded to paranoia and free-floating dread. We never do learn conclusively why the mob is after Beatty, though we pick up plenty of hints; and from the cavalier, cocky manner Beatty handles himself, it’s easy to understand why sausage-fingered mobsters in ill-fitting suits wouldn’t want the glib charmer in the same area code as their dames. Beatty isn’t being punished for any specific sin so much as he’s being punished for who he is, for his attitude, swagger, and devil-may-care bravado. He’s being persecuted for being too cool. So Beatty goes on the lam, shedding his slick old identity to ride the rails and blend in with the suffering masses. A man accustomed to being the center of attention suddenly wants to slip out of his skin.
Penn and his brilliant cinematographer surround Beatty with gargoyle-faced grotesques that make his callow beauty stand out in even sharper relief. Beatty isn’t just prettier than everyone else; he’s a beacon of beauty in a cesspool of ugliness. Penn shoves his camera so far into the supporting cast’s mugs that you can practically count the nose hairs on the homely men cackling maniacally at Beatty. The film’s jittery rhythms and casual surrealism render everything creepy and borderline grotesque. The nightclub audience watches Beatty’s hacky routines rapaciously, devouring him with their eyes. Their laughter becomes mocking and foreign rather than reassuring.
Beatty eventually finds himself on the mean streets of Chicago’s West Side, where he goes undercover as a transient like Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels. He watches a hack comic perform his routine so often he’s able to remember it better than the comic himself. Without the oxygen of smoky clubs and spotlights, Beatty is just another schmuck; he needs the stage to feel alive.
This consequently poses an existential dilemma for Beatty. Taking the stage could conceivably give him his exciting, empty old life back—or it could kill him. Beatty is a stand-up, but his real art form is seduction; he’s a gigolo with jokes, and not very good ones. He’s always on. When he tells a woman foolish enough to try to love him about his family, his “confession” takes the form of the kind of jokes a comedy journeyman might pitch to Rodney Dangerfield: “I was the only kid in the neighborhood who had to go out into the street to learn how to swear. [My mother] never talked dirty. Later on I found out the words they said, she did.”
The future film icon plays a brutally unsentimental version of a character he’d play throughout his career: the shallow narcissist who bumps up hard against the limits of his facile charm. He poses and postures and struts like Jean-Paul Belmondo, but he’s empty on the inside. He’s running from himself as much as he’s running from his shadowy pursuers.
Mickey One posits its antihero as an existential nowhere man lost outside the comforting womb of a nightclub spotlight. When a dapper, if slightly menacing comedy impresario tries to kick-start Beatty’s career by having him play a chichi club on Rush Street, the title character is intrigued and terrified in equal measure. Losing his anonymity means making himself a target.
Yet Beatty is tired of running so he reluctantly agrees to try out for the new gig. But when he shows up, he’s not at all surprised, if understandably freaked out, to discover that he’s in for an existential reckoning rather than a proper audition. Trapped in the spotlight, Beatty quips and riffs for his life as a hoarse, unseen voice barks angrily in his direction. Beatty is never more alone than when he’s onstage in front of a crowd of people, except for when his audience is an unseen menace he suspects strongly, and not without reason, will be his executioner.
Mickey One captures the fundamental loneliness and vulnerability of the stand-up comic. It’s keenly attuned to the pathos of standing in front of an audience of strangers and trying to make them forget their troubles and your own. The film ends on a surreal note, with Beatty facing his unseen tormentor on a stage that disappears suddenly to reveal the star playing the piano against the imposing Chicago skyline. It doesn’t matter whether Beatty runs or hides; death is his ultimate destiny. There is no exit, no hope for redemption, no last-minute pardon from an indulgent and patient God. Comedy is hard but dying, well, that’s a motherfucker as well, even when you don’t have anything in particular to live for.
Penn’s film has been faintly damned as the quintessential “interesting failure,” an intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to fuse the French New Wave with American studio filmmaking. But time has been as kind to it as it has been to its star. (Seriously, does Beatty ever age?) There’s a fascinating cultural exchange watching Penn and Beatty riff on French filmmakers riffing on the film noirs and working-class American melodramas they idolized. It’s an American take on a French take on American film, not unlike Jim McBride’s shockingly not-terrible remake of Breathless.
Mickey One is deeply indebted to its inspirations on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s powered by a nervous, fatalistic energy all its own. It’s pure cinematic jazz, a dark little amorality tale about the ruin of a shallow man. It begins on a jarring note, and then sustains that note to its closing scene. It renders the familiar eerie and bizarre; my hometown has seldom looked so alien onscreen. The filmmakers make brilliant use of Chicago’s West Side, creating a bracing tension between the verisimilitude of shooting on location in some of my city’s least flattering corridors and the script’s periodic flights of fancy, many involving a silent, mysterious Harpo Marx-like figure played by Kamatari Fujiwara. (Coincidentally, the film was shot where Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo studios now reside). The film’s look oscillates between gritty naturalism and arch stylization.
All the elements that would transform Bonnie And Clyde into the film that kicked off a revolution were in place; Penn and Beatty just had to figure out a way to render them into a more audience-friendly form. Ah, but Mickey One is so much more than a dry run for one of the most important films in American history; it’s an auspicious, impressive, and singular achievement in its own right.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success