Mickey One (1965)


(director: Arthur Penn; screenwriter: Alan M. Surgal; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Aram Avakian; music: Eddie Sauter; cast: Warren Beatty (Mickey One), Alexandra Stewart (Jenny), Hurd Hatfield (Ed Castle), Franchot Tone (Rudy Lopp), Teddy Hart (George Berson), Jeff Corey (Larry Fryer), Kamatari Fujiwara (The Artist), Donna Michelle (The Girl), Ralph Foody (Police Captain); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Arthur Penn; Columbia; 1965)
“Pretentious art film that lacks the power to hold the viewer’s attention.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hollywood goes French New Wave and comes up holding only a few bubbles with this lulu of an attempt at an allegorical film about America in distress. Arthur Penn (“The Chase”/”Bonnie and Clyde”/”The Left Handed Gun”) directs this pretentious art film that lacks the power to hold the viewer’s attention, though it has great noirish photography and a scene or two that’s interesting (like the one where Warren Beatty is auditioned in a silent, darkened auditorium). Writer Alan M. Surgal weighs it down with obscure symbolism till things become too fuzzy to care about what the symbolism means. A miscast Beatty, in a too mannered performance, shows no credibility as a comedian, but unfortunately is cast as the ‘everyman’ comedian star on the run from either himself or the mob or from the American Dream—take your pick, as the curio keeps things needlessly enigmatic.

Mickey (Warren Beatty) is a second-rate New York nightclub comedian and piano playing singer working out of Detroit, where he’s a surprising smash. The comedian becomes extremely jittery over the accumulation of large gambling debts and trouble over dames, and becomes convinced the mob is after him though there’s no reason to think so. He flees to Chicago by freight train and finds a social security card on skid row with the name Miklos Wunejeva, which he uses to get work in a restaurant kitchen cleaning pots and pans. Known now as a Polish guy with the nickname of Mickey One, he seeks out a showbiz agent, George Berson (Teddy Hart), who is impressed with his talent and books him at the posh Club Xanadu that’s co-owned by the narcissistic talent scout Ed Castle (Hurd Hatfield).

Mickey meets the attractive Jenny (Alexandra Stewart) when his landlady tries to evict him and move her into his flat. They end up living together. The paranoid Mickey is fearful of everything, and is suspicious that Castle may be in contact with the mobsters who might be after him. The film gets bogged in how Mickey manages to get along with Jenny, Castle and his fears, and in the filmmaker’s own arty agenda.

Mickey One becomes more grating as it goes on in this obscure manner without telling us what Mickey fears. We are led to believe it’s the Mob or America at large or his conscience or a quest for a more meaningful life, and after a while the viewer’s only test is one of endurance to see whether or not he/she can sit through such pretensions without shutting off the TV.

It was a commercial flop even though Hollywood offered none of its usual interference and allowed Penn complete artistic freedom, as he tried to offer his rendition on Kafka’s The Trial. Too bad the filmmaker couldn’t do his part of the bargain and put together a more lucid or pungent film. Penn has stated that this low-budget, experimental drama was meant to convey the type of paranoia sweeping through Hollywood during the Communist witchhunts of the late forties. If that was his plan, it didn’t materialize onscreen.