Thursday, August 24, 2017

Mickey One: Stand-Up Paranoia

Where and when did I first see Arthur Penn's 1965 black and white Mickey One? Was it on TV or maybe Telegraph Avenue, or perhaps at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road? Maybe all three. Because it's one of those films that seems more like a dream than an ordinary movie. And like a dream, the film is a bit skewered, in parts incomprehensible and not without its flaws and idiosyncrasies. In spite of that, or because of that, it remains, along with Night Moves, my favourite Arthur Penn movie. And along with the Parallax View,  my favourite Warren Beatty movie. Because it was so seldom screened, Mickey One seemed to be one of those films you longed to see again, just to find out if it's really as good as you thought when you last saw it. At least that's how the affected me. Now with this nicely packaged DVD from Indicator (with excellent essays by Nick Pinkerton and Richard Williams, along with extras including an National Film Theatre interview with Penn, and interviews with actor Alexandra Stewart and Matthew Penn on the making of the film) you can finally view Penn's film as many times as you like and come to a decision for yourself as to its worth.

In fact, for me, Mickey One holds up quite well. I'd forgotten the film includes not only Franchot Tone, in perhaps his penultimate  performance, but, significantly, former blacklisted actor Jeff Corey. Significantly because Penn intended Mickey One to be about McCarthyism, or, at any rate, overcoming McCarthyism, with the protagonist deciding, as  Penn says  in one of the interviews,  "Fuck it, I've had it. I'm going to stand up and take it and deal with it." And it would certainly fit right into Beatty's particular liking for portraying paranoid protagonists. As he would  demonstrate throughout his career, from The Parallax View to Bulworth. But as a celebration of paranoia, Mickey One is also a very funny film. As it should be since Beatty plays a standup comedian who can't figure out why "they" are after him.  The humour, which Beatty carries off in his off-cantered dead-pan manner,  is mostly  due to Alan Surgal's punchy Kafkaesque script based on his short play about a third-rate comic. Surprisingly, it would be Surgal's only film credit, though he previously had written a pair of screenplays for  TV's Robert Montgomery Presents. And that was after serving an apprenticeship writing comedy sketches for middle of the road comedians like Red Skelton, Danny Thomas and Bob Hope.

Cloquet (in cap), Penn, Beatty
For all its anti-Hollywood, new wave feel, Mickey One was made only two years before Bonnie and Clyde and a year after The Train, a considerably slicker affair. It's hard to even think that those two films were made by the same person who made Mickey One. As Penn puts in an interview, "I was influenced by the New Wave, but I was also trying to do something essentially American in Mickey One..." In fact, Penn would never make another movie quite like this one, which seems to have as much in common with French film noir as European new-wave. You can blame that on the great Belgian cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, a veteran of French cinema responsible for shooting Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette, Demy's Young Girls of Rochefort, Renais's Night and Fog, Bunuel's Expulsion of the Devil, Louis Malle's Le Feu Follet, as well as French noir classics like Jean Becker's A Man Named Rocca and  Claude Sautet's incredible Classe Tous Risques. Filmed mostly at night on the streets of Chicago, Mickey One's ability to move from deep paranoia to dark humour can be attributed not only to Surgal's screenplay, but to the Cloquet can catch light as well as shadow, the surreal as well as the ordinary, the street as well as claustrophobic interiors. Interesting that Cloquet would work with Penn again on the latter's 1981 reunion film Four Friends, but the result would look nothing like Mickey One.

Then, of course, there's  the music, which Richard Williams covers so well in his splendid essay that accompanies  the  DVD. Suffice it to say that, along with the likes of Miles's score for Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud, Jackie Mclean and Freddie Redd's collaboration on Shirley Clarke's The Connection, Mingus's score for Shadows, and perhaps Johnny Mandel's music on I Want to Live, Mickey One's  Getz and Sauter collaboration is one of cinema's most evocative of jazz scores. So memorable is it that I thought the film included more of it,  though what is there comes from the famous Getz/Sauter Focus recording, a legendary session for which Sauter composed a comparatively modernist score around which Getz would so flawlessly improvise.

Finally, this is a film that bridges two eras: McCarthyism, of course, but also the post JFK assassination era that has fascinated Beatty for so long. Nevertheless, it doesn't wallow in darkness.  Penn sums things up nicely when he says in the original liner notes to the soundtrack lp, "The story of Mickey One is the expression of fear in a human being- terror wrought in the mind of a man which grows out of all proportion to the situation that induced it. A mind given over to panic, reading doom and despair into every waking moment: living with an unseen enemy who at any moment might destroy him- he becomes the fox among the silent hounds of his imagination." In the end, as Penn goes on to say, "The film was about saying 'yes' instead of saying 'no.'"


john eskow said...

Fascinating, as always. One note: The Train was directed by John Frankenheimer.

Woody Haut said...

Thanks John. Of course you are right, though Penn was the original director of The Train, and quickly fired when it became obvious that his take was at odds with the producer, who sought a technological rather than Penn's psychological approach.