With Mickey One, Powerhouse’s Indicator label maintains its track record for high quality releases of underseen, historically significant movies. Never previously available on disc in high definition, or with supplemental material, Mickey One is a relic from a moment in American film history when filmmakers were actively looking to European art cinema for inspiration, but hadn’t yet figured out how to integrate the new ideas and approaches they found there into studio production. On its own terms it’s an interesting failure, a grab bag of borrowings stitched together without sufficient conviction or purpose to overcome their second-hand nature. What makes it more than a curiosity is the knowledge of what its creative team did next. Just two years later director Arthur Penn and producer-star Warren Beatty changed Hollywood with Bonnie and Clyde. In that context, Mickey One becomes an essential record of the thinking and influences that led to the Hollywood Renaissance.
From its plot and themes, it’s clear Beatty and Penn’s first source of inspiration was the French New Wave. Beatty stars as a nameless Detroit nightclub comedian who is told he may have angered his mob employers to the extent that they want him dead. Unable to corroborate this rumour, he does the cautious thing and goes on the run to Chicago where he assumes the pseudonym Mickey One. Down on their luck outcasts were the life-blood of many New Wave classics, and you can see Beatty fancies himself as a Belmondo-style outlaw, particularly once he acquires an implausibly attractive, loyal, intelligent girlfriend, played by Alexandra Stewart (who had just finished work on Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet). In contrast to the beautiful people, the film is laced with sequences and images that show the ugliest aspects of society: a scrap yard crushing cars (and a body), the faces of spectators at a strip show, a man mugged for a few dollars.
Yet in its maddening refusal to divulge whether its central character is actually in danger, and his apparent confusion about what he might have done, Mickey One also looks to Italy, and the subjective, ambiguous character studies then being produced to great international acclaim by Antonioni and Fellini. It’s a drama with existential pretensions, but the plot and presentation are sufficiently muddied that the question posed is not so much ‘why?’ as ‘if....then what?’ Mickey’s quest for identity and meaning isn’t helped by Beatty’s performance. For all that we’re assured he’s a talented and successful comic, Beatty never convincingly demonstrates stage presence or timing. He’s too young and bashful to be a hardened career entertainer. He’s better in intimate scenes, but when the script requires him to deliver contrived, enigmatic dialogue it’s simply not Beatty’s style. “I’m the king of the silent pictures, I’m hiding out here until the talkies blow over,” could be an amusing line, if said with the right off-hand playfulness. But Beatty speaks it with the same intense earnestness that permeates every other aspect of the production.
That is not to say that every aspect fails. Ghislain Cloquet’s cinematography is often stunning, whether on the streets of Chicago or in one of several dingy clubs. Scenes at the scrap yard have a geometric look that somehow anticipates the style of another, later Beatty star-vehicle oddity, The Parallax View. Cloquet (another former Malle employee) also memorably captures the film’s excellent supporting cast, notably Hurd Hatfield as a nightclub manager and Teddy Hart as Mickey’s Chicago agent. Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz contribute an effective jazz score. But neither the look nor the sound of the movie can help to disguise its hollow core. It’s the work of talented people learning a new language through mimicry. Thankfully, Penn and Beatty were quick learners. By their next film together they were fluent.
Indicator’s excellent package makes the most of Mickey One’s strengths, while helping to explain its weaknesses. The picture and sound are fantastic, presented with real clarity and impact without any obvious flaws. Once again, Indicator have pieced together a valuable selection of extras. There are original 20-minute interviews with Alexandra Stewart and Arthur Penn’s son Matthew. Stewart obviously relishes the chance to recount her experiences on the film, not always finishing one anecdote before proceeding to the next. She emphasises the international influences that hung over the production and laments her inability to get work from the odd young comic Beatty was studying for his role, who went by the name of Woody Allen. Matthew Penn, a young child when the film was made, gives a personal account of his relationship with the film, which has grown more appreciative as he’s aged. He also offers a good overview of his father’s career, particularly his early work in television and his strong working relationship with Beatty. Notably, both interviewees seem happier to talk about Bonnie and Clyde than Mickey One.
Thanks to an 60-minute audio recording of a 1981 Guardian stage interview, we get to hear from Penn himself, albeit hampered by a tentative interviewer (there are also questions from the audience). Penn is a humble, thoughtful and amusing speaker, who in retrospect is clear-eyed about Mickey One’s failings. He describes a visit to France prior to the film’s production, where he met Bazin, Truffaut and Godard and returned with “an overdose of rapture with the European film [...] and made this film which has a certain excessive degree of obscurity about it.” Penn’s entire career (until ‘81) is discussed, although there’s an odd emphasis on The Missouri Breaks.
The disk also includes an image gallery, the theatrical trailer, and an installment from Trailers from Hell, where Joe Dante introduces and discusses Mickey One over its trailer. Dante expresses his fondness for the film (which he saw during its original release), but admits bafflement regarding its meaning. He concludes, “Mickey One now seems the definitive student film of the 1960s,” which seems about right.
Review by Jim Whalley