by Steve Dollar
Time has not worn dull the oddball charms, nor solved the existential riddles of Mickey One. Arthur Penn's much-neglected 1965 film is long overdue for wide reappreciation, which will be a lot easier now that it's out on DVD, presented in a digitized version of a fabulous restored print, one that lends seductive depth and richness to its black-and-white palette. The visual scheme is slyly well-suited to the surreal tilts and spontaneous freak-outs that punctuate the story, paced by saxophonist Stan Getz's improvisations on an imaginative jazz score.
The film remains as curious as ever. Its opening scene establishes a phantasmagorical tone that it rarely departs for long, as a nightclub comic (played by budding heartthrob Warren Beatty, fresh from Lilith and acting his 28-year-old ass off) lights up a cigar in a sauna, sitting fully clothed in foppish finery as a laughing chorus of fat, old guys cackles at him. Must be the 1960s.
Penn, who died in September at the age of 88, was flexing his creative muscles after an Oscar nomination for The Miracle Worker helped to win him a hands-off, two-picture deal with Columbia. "I didn't want to hear a bunch of suits talk to me about script changes," the director told me in 2008, when he presented the film at the Museum of Modern Art. "The idea was for it to be an unexpected movie." Penn was so successful at that goal, expanding writer Alan Surgal's stage piece into a kind of Kafka-meets-the-New-Wave fever dream, that Mickey One actually forecast the '60s. The movie's prevailing air of paranoia—as Beatty's title character goes on the lam to escape an unspecified mob menace and invents a new identity—and blurry regard to consensus reality succinctly captures the bizarro zeitgeist of the times.
Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who would collaborate with Robert Bresson on several classics, contributed greatly to the film's fugue-like atmospherics, with its pulp-fiction mugs of bartenders and bums leering as if through the bottom of a shot glass.
"I wanted black-and-white because I thought, there's nothing about this film that's colorful,” Penn asserted. "Conversely, when we were going to make Bonnie and Clyde, they said, 'Do you want to shoot this in color?' And we had to. If it was black-and-white, it would be a documentary."
But most of all, it's the score, by big-band arranger Eddie Sauter with solos by Getz, that defines the spirit of Mickey One. The music matches, or anticipates, Beatty's fallen playboy every step of the way, as his character improvises a new identity and tumbles through the back alleys and burlesque dives of Chicago. The music alters its shape as vertiginously as Mickey perceives the city's underbelly, cutting between Dixieland bustle and passages of breezy bossa nova, Bartok-inspired abstraction, and fiery bop, constantly lit up by Getz's improvisations.
The latter was a happy accident.
"There we were, getting the score down and I didn’t anticipate that Stan Getz was a great pal of [Sauter's]," Penn said. "Stan kept dropping by the scoring sessions, and picked up his horn and went to work."
The film was very much a reaction to its times. "I was pissed off at the movie business," Penn said. "I had started to work on a film with Burt Lancaster, but it turned out he had made a secret deal with John Frankenheimer to take it over. Burt arrived and had me fired."
Eager to create something he could shove in Hollywood's face, Penn also was responding to the previous decade in American life. "The paranoia? Oh yeah. The heritage of the McCarthy era. He scared a whole generation."
It was Penn who apparently instilled fear in his studio. Columbia opted out of the second picture in their deal. The director re-teamed with Beatty to shoot David Newman and Robert Benton's New Wave-inspired screenplay of Bonnie and Clyde, and nothing was ever the same again. Mickey One, meanwhile, has lingered in the shadows, like one of Getz's plaintive tenor solos.
"They didn't get it," Penn sighs. "They really didn't. But left by itself, it continued to have a life. It's incredible that as time goes by, there's a higher estimation of it."
[Mickey One is available for rental from GreenCine, but not Netflix. The film will also be screened next month as part of "Night Moves: Claude Chabrol & Arthur Penn," a retrospective tribute to the two recently departed directors, running Dec. 3-9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]
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