MICKEY ONE A-
USA (93 mi) 1965 d: Arthur Penn
The ride was over, I was trapped and I find out suddenly I owe a fortune.
—Mickey One (Warren Beatty)
Is there any word from the Lord? —Jeremiah 37:17
Forget it, you don’t have to pay. Gambling’s illegal in Illinois.
A rare, one-of-a-kind film, the likes of which they don’t make any more, all set in a mindblowingly experimental, Black and White underground noir style, a dissonant portrait of madness, confusion, and fear, perhaps a reference to the artistic blacklists of the 1950’s during the McCarthyist Red scare, where nightclub comic Warren Beatty, young and brilliant, supposedly goes on a drunken gambling rampage and ends up owing some astronomical amount to the mob, apparently so large an amount they won’t even tell him how much, though he can’t remember what he did to incur the debt. Opening wearing a suit in a steambath, Beatty spends the rest of the film drifting in and out of his own imagination, a dreamlike, nightmarish state of mind filled with startling imagery where only Fellini comes close in comparison. Just to comprehend the inventiveness on display, before the opening credits roll there are nightclub scenes with the strikingly sensuous Donna Michelle as the Girl doing a kind of modern dance with a scarf during his gambling euphoria, underwater sequences, mirror reflections, the use of splitscreen in the same shot, or shots superimposed over others, but most striking are the close ups of faces saturated in light, almost like masks, creating a hypnotically surreal effect. Much like the French New Wave, there are startling jump cuts, showing quick mood swings between what’s real and the imagination, using a dreamy jazz score by Eddie Sauter with Stan Getz on saxophone, creating a sad, moody, and melancholic portrait of a man on the run, as Mickey decides to change his identity and get out of Detroit, which is immediately followed by visits to hobo jungles and starkly threatening images of cars being demolished and compacted at a junkyard. The interior mental picture is portrayed as a nightmarish, existential wasteland. 36 years later the film still feels modernist, like a Waiting for Godot theatrical production where there's only one guy onstage talking to himself, stuck in his own purgatory.
While it’s hard to make sense out of any of this, as much of the time Beatty is doing his onstage schtick telling jokes to canned laughter, where he’s not the least bit funny, but there are definitely signs of ISHTAR (1987) in his nightclub act. There’s also a sense of meandering, where the pace of the film mimics the aimlessness of the character, who would prefer to remain an undiscovered comic. When Mickey moves to a strip club in Chicago, the city never looked more luminescent, where pristine nighttime panoramas blend into a daytime skid row district where he hangs out, mostly shots of back alleys and secondhand stores, where the Polish landlady keeps trying to rent his room while he’s still in it. Eventually she succeeds, where Alexandra Stewart as Jenny is thrust upon him. He goes through an entire repertoire of conflicting thoughts before deciding she may be the one for him, all expressed in an endlessly meandering soliloquy that he expresses to her. It’s a kind of well-written, off-Broadway theatrical rush, as it’s a highly inventive way to show them getting to know one another, all communicated through his intensely personalized mind’s view. Somewhere off in the distance is Jean Tinguely playing a mime that follows him around like his conscious, a guy who’s quite inventive and entertaining himself, who puts on a modern art exhibition called Yes, suggesting courage is freedom, introducing a large kinetic sculpture, a mechanical monstrosity created by Robert Fields, an industrial design student at the School of the Art Institute, that actually plays music before self-destructing into a series of giant explosions, turning into a blazing bonfire requiring the intervention of the Chicago Fire Department to put it out, ending the show on a sad note, a portrait of the American Dream gone wrong.
Wouldn’t you know that there’s an upscale nightclub called Xanadu that suddenly enters the picture, which is actually the now torn down Gate of Horn folk club on the southeast corner of Dearborn and Chicago Avenues? There’s also shots of the Woods Theater downtown which is screening THE CARDINAL (1963), the same theater that premiered this film in Chicago. The interior nightclub shots were filmed at Chez Paree, 400 N Wabash, now defunct. The Xanadu owners themselves are quite peculiar, where Hurd Hatfield as Castle (a Kafka reference) plays the eccentric owner who only eats organic food and whose office looks like an antiseptic hospital room. But when he sees Mickey perform at the Pickle Club, just another dive strip joint, he won’t take no for an answer and insists that Mickey come work for him, telling him “The successful comic is the King of show business,” though Mickey prefers his anonymity knowing he could be detected at any minute. At this point, the film starts to resemble the Orson Welles depiction of THE TRIAL (1962), where Mickey becomes K, a nameless second-hand comic who’s guilty of crimes he may never have never committed. Jenny attempts to get him to stop running, where Mickey describes the feeling of being onstage, “Sometimes it’s the only place in the world where you’re free,” or “Onstage, I’m a Polack Noel Coward,” perhaps believing all of this madness is in his mind, and helps prepare him for the Xanadu (a Welles reference), which switches gears on him, where there’s no visible audience, just an Oz-like voice behind the lone spotlight in an otherwise completely darkened theater, a nightclub audition from Hell that is copied almost exactly in Bob Fosse’s LENNY (1974). It’s like being locked inside of your own conscious with no way out. The film is an existential ballet of mood swings, highly symbolic, using a hyper aggressive camera style shot by Ghislain Cloquet that resembles Cassavetes Faces (1968), yet coming four years earlier and may, in fact, have influenced the young Cassavetes. It’s a highly ambitious, modernist style unlike anything else out there on the American film landscape, a wonderful example of an artist taking a chance, as it’s a unique vision of a director that has complete control over the finished product, a rarely seen fringe film made for under $1 million dollars that remains heavily influential, as do most all of Arthur Penn’s films.