ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
Often dismissed as a failed experiment, this oddity from Arthur Penn is a constantly surprising and enigmatic classic. Two years ahead of Bonnie and Clyde, this New Hollywood prototype is ragged and frantic, a skewed but thrilling attempt to rewrite established narrative form. Warren Beatty, showing fine cabaret talents, plays nightclub comic Mickey—a man who may or may not be wanted by the Mafia. Mickey is sure that he owes them a debt, although he isn’t exactly sure just what he owes. It’s either $20,000 or the “whole damn life I’m living,” he bemoans. This metaphysical arrears sends Mickey into hiding, riding freight trains, washing dishes, stealing a social security card from a dead Polish man. Ultimately, Mickey cannot deny his comic talents and he winds up performing again in the certain knowledge he will attract attention to himself and be destroyed. Thus, the narrative is balanced precariously between Penn’s ghoulish reality—all fractured angles and quick editing—and Mickey’s paranoid fantasy of significant glances and suspicion, which makes for a curiously unnerving experience.
Penn and Beatty have proven to be courageous filmmakers throughout their careers, resulting in a string of big gains and fat losses. Beatty, in particular, has a penchant for oddball enterprises, more so perhaps than Nicholson, Hoffman and Redford, his immediate contemporaries. It’s fair to say that this predilection for challenging projects has often backfired. Still, Beatty has always put himself on the line and for every Ishtar or Town and Country, there’s been a Heaven Can Wait or Bulworth. For a man reportedly obsessed with his projected image, Beatty is a committed risk-taker. In fact, the role of persecuted performer seems quite apt for him; Mickey seems equally plagued and defined by the perceptions of his tormentors.
Many of Penn’s films seem to deserve reclaiming. Temporarily overrated for Bonnie and Clyde before being systematically dismissed, Penn is a director of great worth, other missed marvels including The Left-Handed Gun, Night Moves, and The Chase. Perhaps the director is just too damn subtle for his own good. His trajectory is not dissimilar to that of Michael Ritchie, another refugee from the small screen who found in Redford a way of reaching a wider audience, albeit an exposure of a fleeting kind, much in the way that Penn’s relationship with Beatty was mutually beneficial. Penn pulls out all the stops here and offers more than what many casual reviews claim to be an adoption of the French New Wave style. He goes further than playful interruptions, into a realm of practically dystopian psychological horror.
On IMDB, the summary section reads: ‘The synopsis is empty, please supply synopsis:’ this is either a functional statement or a call to Arthur Penn and screenwriter Alan Surgal to fill in the considerable blanks. This is oddly, or not so oddly given the dismal critical reception, the only film Surgal has written. A wasted talent, it seems. The dialogue is cracking and the showman shtick pitched perfectly. The gaps within the narrative are something of a pleasure, leaping from moment to moment, almost dangerously out of sequence for the viewer, who at any moment might topple from such liberating demands. Often described as a Kafka-esque story, visually it’s like some fractured Italian Futurist sketch: easy to approach, impossible to figure out. The Kafka lead isn’t a misleading one by any means. The sense of overbearing but untraceable guilt, transient identity and victimization is well-realized.
Specifically, Penn’s film draws on the overarching sense of personal dread so effectively deployed by Orson Welles in his adaptation of The Trial a few years before (1962). In that film, Jozef K, played with ticking disquiet by Anthony Perkins, is at least given the opportunity to defend himself, even if the charges are unspecified and the punishments obscure. Mickey, on the other hand cannot even be certain that he is being interrogated. Penn comes up with a brilliant trick of shining the spotlight into Mickey’s eyes when he is on stage. His performances are delivered with a grimace of dread, stuttering and sweating his way through the act to an audience he cannot see, who may not even be there. The light becomes excruciatingly bright, searching for the truth without asking any questions.
Throughout the film, Mickey runs into a horrid figure, a kind of grinning scrap-yard Gypsy clown who turns up wherever he tries to hide. This tormentor may or may not be a netherworld spy, may or may not even be real. Within the surreal landscape that Penn has created, such a bizarre element seems perfectly, ludicrously apt. Unable to escape the harassment of forces out of his control, Mickey finally reaches a kind of Zen acceptance, illustrating a point made by Hastner in The Trial, that “to be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free.” It is only when Mickey accepts his predicament and stops running that he understands he controls it.
The film is scored by Eddie Sauter, with improvisations by Stan Getz. The result is a nervy, faltering and haunting collection of tunes that suffuses into the heart of the film, allowing indecisive insight into Mickey’s internal maelstrom. There’s no doubt that Mickey One is a film worth seeing, not only as a rarity, but as a missing piece in the careers of both its director and star. It’s a pity that Beatty’s ambition seems to have dwindled and his interest in filmmaking flagged. He seems content now with, admittedly, one of his most challenging roles: stalking the Governator around California. Penn also seems to have called it a day, occasionally popping up with an episode of “Law and Order” or a small acting role in low-budget efforts. Successful formal experimentation and disruption in mainstream cinema—such as the sterling work of Pulp Fiction, The Limey and The Machinist—shows a willingness to push the boundaries of the medium and offers the audience the kind of challenge it desperately needs. Mickey One is the best attempt Hollywood has made to shake off the classic narrative and leap into new, unprotected territory.