Every actor or director probably has at least one movie in their filmography unlike anything else they’ve ever done before or since and for Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn that film would be Mickey One (1965). Allegedly inspired by the French New Wave films of the early sixties, Penn’s film is an enigmatic and existential tale of a nightclub stand-up comic who goes on the lam from the mob because of a huge financial debt he can’t repay.
Warren Beatty’s title character confesses at the beginning, “The ride was over, I was trapped and I find out suddenly I owe a fortune,” and with no more exposition than that, the rest of the movie repeats a pattern of Mickey One fleeing, hiding, being discovered and repeating the cycle until the unresolved fadeout which is open to interpretation and not the sort of ending the average moviegoer wants to see. It wasn’t what the Columbia Studio executives expected either and put them in panic mode, realizing they had a commercial flop on their hands.
Nevertheless, Mickey One is a fascinating example of the creative freedom that once existed in Hollywood in the late sixties and is a near impossibility now with everything focused on the bottom line of profitability. In some ways, the film could even be considered a success in retrospect because it led to the future collaboration of Penn and Beatty on the phenomenally successful and influential Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, the film that really made them both major players in the film industry on an international level.
The making of Mickey One is, in some ways, as peculiar and as unexpected as the film. Beatty, who had been impressed with Penn’s film adaptation of The Miracle Worker (1962), brought him a personal project in development called Honeybear that he hoped he would direct. Penn instead offered Beatty the lead in a low-budget, experimental drama he was creating called Mickey One which reportedly would convey the type of paranoia prevalent during the Communist witchhunts of the late forties. Beatty quickly agreed since he was still awaiting final script revisions from Woody Allen on What’s New, Pussycat?, a big budget comedy being developed for him by producer Charles Feldman. Once Beatty and Penn began working together on Mickey One, problems began to develop. “We had a lot of trouble on that film,” Beatty said candidly, “because I didn’t know what the hell Arthur was trying to do and I tried to find out…I’m not sure that he knew himself.” (from Warren Beatty: A Private Man by Suzanne Finstad).
One of the main frustrations for Beatty was his character. “To me the stand-up gags that the guy had to do in Mickey One were not funny,” observed Beatty, “and that was always my complaint with Arthur, that the jokes were some attempt to attain some sort of universality, some appeal to intellect that I didn’t find funny at all…I felt if I was playing a comedian I ought to be funny.” Penn also had a tendency to emulate director William Wyler’s notorious habit of requiring countless takes of the same scene until he was satisfied he had what he wanted. In one instance, he made Beatty do sixty-nine takes of one scene. Harrison Starr, the producer of Mickey One, recalled that Beatty “and Arthur had go-arounds…the role was basically a role of an eccentric, a person whose inner demons were reflected in the world he inhabited…and I think that was difficult for Warren to play. He wanted to play it more as a Broadway showbiz guy.”
The on-the-set frustration Beatty was experiencing was further heightened by his dismissal from the What’s New, Pussycat? project after a heated argument with producer Charles Feldman over the casting of Capucine in a key role; Beatty had vowed he would not do the film if Capucine (Feldman’s girlfriend at the time) was cast so he walked and was replaced with Peter O’Toole. At the same time, Beatty’s private life was also becoming complicated due to his passionate new affair with actress Leslie Caron who was still married to director Peter Hall.
Caron even visited Beatty on the Mickey One set and at first, in an attempt to be discreet, tried to disguise herself so she wouldn’t be noticed but the gossip columns were soon abuzz with the news. Peter Hall would divorce Caron that same year and Beatty would follow Mickey One with Promise Her Anything (1965), a lightweight romantic comedy with Caron as his leading lady.
As for Mickey One, Penn screened the completed film for Columbia executives. “People walked out,” recalled Arthur Penn’s assistant. “It was the gossip at the studio. Arthur, who had put his heart into it, was devastated.” As Penn elaborated, “I was able to persuade Columbia to back it on the basis of them not reading the screenplay…[and] we made it quite cheaply for an American film, but that did not in any way mitigate their consternation when they eventually saw it. They were very upset.”
The critics weren’t exactly a cheerleading squad for the film either but the reviews were more balanced and considerate. Time magazine wrote “Penn’s talent often seems equal to the task, for he has taken Hollywood’s old formula for a gangland chase melodrama and refashioned it as a hip morality play, alive with razzle-dazzle cinematic techniques….Mickey One is never boring but never very precise, and finally goes to pieces amidst the crash of its own symbols.”
Variety proclaimed that “Mickey One could be described as a study in regeneration, but the screenplay is overloaded with symbolic gestures which obscure the main objectives of the plot…” and The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote “The picture is interesting mainly for the elaborate photographics of Mr. Penn – his delight in using his camera to scan the phantasmagoria of city life, or to view a superfluously staged happening such as one of those pyrotechnical things done by the pop artist, Jean Tinguely. This, too, becomes pretentious and monotonous as the film runs along.”
Judith Crist, who Beatty befriended after she trashed his performance in Lilith (1964), was the only critic to praise Mickey One calling it “a brilliant original screen work” and that Beatty was “one of the remarkable young actors of our day.” Beatty was always diplomatic about the movie stating, “truthfully, I did not enjoy making it…I liked it on a personal level, the people involved…I do respect the picture.”
Arthur Penn, however, has run hot and cold on the film saying at one point, “Warren thought the script was too mannered and intellectual, and I have to admit he was right.” Penn would later admit (as noted in Nat Segaloff’s Arthur Penn: American Director) “My feelings about Mickey One change all the time. Although I have certain concerns about it, I believed it is an extraordinary film, not just as a film, but as an event in the history, or however you want to put it, of the American film. And I don’t take enough pride in that: that I sort of stood the studio system on its ear to make a film which is still celebrated. I wish I could say it was drawing a line in the sand, but I had to capitulate after that because we were broke.”
While Mickey One does have its share of pretentious and obtuse moments – a surreal sequence in a junkyard where Mickey is chased and threatened by salvage forklifts and garbage trucks, a comic, speeded-up clean-up of his grubby, rented room a la Keystone Cops, a street brawl where he is attacked and beaten by an odd assortment of penny arcade operators and street vendors – there are also aspects of the movie that are truly inspired. Since Penn wanted to make a European style art film with a distinct American identity, he filmed most of the movie in unfamiliar locations in and around Chicago with Belgium cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet. The latter had filmed Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966) and many other acclaimed European films and would eventually win the Oscar for Tess (1979). Cloquet’s extraordinary sense of composition, depth of field and use of dark and light in the black and white design are often so stunning that Mickey One becomes an exercise in high style and the equally innovative editing by Aram Avakian (Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Lilith) keeps the movie afloat through its frequent and incomprehensible shifts in tone and mood. Another major triumph of Mickey One is the lush, expressive jazz score by Eddie Sauter with soulful sax solos by Stan Getz that provide the emotional kick in some scenes that Penn’s direction and Beatty’s performance can’t deliver. It is also a great stand-alone score and is still available on CD.
Last but not least, the eccentric casting of Mickey One deserves a mention as well. Alexandra Stewart, a Canadian actress who was discovered by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet at the age of seventeen and had appeared in Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1959) and the 1960 epic, Exodus, is Jenny, Mickey’s on-again, off-again lover and roommate.
According to Suzanne Finstad’s biography of Beatty, “one day Arthur Penn is looking for a young girl, Midwestern girl, to play this sort of fiancée of Warren Beatty, who’s a pure sort of girl who doesn’t know what’s going on. And because Louis Malle was already quite a director, Arthur saw his movie Le Feu Follet  and said, “That’s her – we can give it kind of a European look.”
Hurd Hatfield, the peculiar screen presence who was ideally cast as the lead in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), plays a high strung, narcissistic talent booker who becomes obsessed with Mickey. Veteran character actor, drama teacher, and former victim of the blacklist in the fifties Jeff Corey also stands out as Hatfield’s volatile, insecure second-in-command.
Franchot Tone, in one of his final film appearances, is Mickey’s personal manager and Kamatari Fujiwara, a longtime member of Akira Kurosawa’s stock company, is memorable as the bizarre mime-like figure who constantly shadows Mickey, eventually presenting a Jean Tinguely-like performance piece with Rube Goldberg influences that could be a symbolic reenactment of a nuclear holocaust.
After Mickey One, Penn decided to direct The Chase, a big budget Hollywood project with an all-star cast headed by Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Angie Dickinson. Unfortunately Penn did not have creative control over the film and Columbia Studios had final edit. The result was another boxoffice disaster and received mostly negative reviews from critics. It is something of a miracle that Penn soldiered on within the Hollywood system and created a cinematic landmark the following year – Bonnie and Clyde.
Mickey One was originally released as a DVD-R by Sony Pictures in 2011. It was a no-frills edition with only a trailer as a supplement but the transfer was exceptionally good. It was later released on Blu-Ray by Indicator in the summer of 2017 and, for fans of the film, this is the keeper. Not only is it a superb looking disc but it comes with a wealth of supplements including interviews with Alexandra Stewart, Matthew Penn (Arthur’s son), a critical appreciation by Joe Dante and more. *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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