Warren Beatty IS “Mickey One”

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In a career full of interesting movies, Warren Beatty‘s most outre may be 1965’s Mickey One. Directed by Arthur Penn, this little known anomaly mixes elements of French New Wave, American film noir, jazz,  and Absurdist theatre. Beatty plays a hack night club comic who hears that the club’s owner, a mafia chieftain, wants to punish him for an infraction. He doesn’t know who wants to get him or why, he just knows he has to shed his identity and go on the lam. Eventually desperate for money, he eases back into comedy and gets back on to the mob’s radar again. Still not knowing what he did to upset the man at the top, he decides to keep plugging anyway, come what may. The Existential predicament in a nutshell! (It’s right there in the name. “One”, man solo, alone in the universe as symbolized by the stand-up comedian — the loneliest job in the world (I explored a similar thread in my play Nihils).

I’ve been able to learn next to nothing about screenwriter Alan Surgal, but I’d be shocked to learn the kernel of this tale didn’t come from Joe E. Lewis’s very similar life story…a night club comic on the run from gangsters. In addition to being gorgeously shot (in black and white) and exhilaratingly edited, with a very cool be bop sound track, there’s the documentary aspect, with lots of location shooting. This movie (a lot like another of my favorites The Loved One) is a snapshot of America at the cusp of a huge sea change…the very moment when men stopped putting grease in their hair and wearing hats.

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Strangely enough, Beatty is miscast in the role. He’s too young, he’s not naturally crude or urban or pushy (or yes, ethnic) enough. Tony Curtis would have been PERFECT.  Or better yet, stunt casting with someone like Milton Berle or Jan Murray. Beatty’s in this picture because it’s hip and experimental, but he’s not old school show biz enough for the character, despite the cigars he pretends to smoke. But that might have been a conscious choice, too. The “comedy routines” he delivers in the film are oddly unfunny and strange. They remind me of the ones in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, delivered by the dancer who decides he wants to be funny, but has a tin ear for humor. But maybe that’s intentional. Is Beatty’s character a comedian? Or is he just us?

Still, this is an amazing movie; it’s a crying shame it disappeared immediately after it was released, and pretty much lay under wraps for another three decades. (In the ’90s it came out of mothballs. I first became aware of it when it had a run then at Film Forum.) At any rate, two years later Beatty and Penn collaborated on another picture that enjoyed somewhat greater success at the box office: Bonnie and Clyde. 

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