Arthur Penn was a solid director who is probably held in higher esteem than he should be, mainly due to Bonnie & Clyde. His best film was the cult detective thriller Night Moves, but Bonnie & Clyde took all the glory for the perception that it changed the shape of Hollywood and what you could see on screen in terms of violence. In reality, you had Psycho and Peeping Tom in 1960, Seconds and Blow-Up in 1966, early Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kubrick and many others.
However, the big change of the 1960s was the influx of European films into the public consciousness and, more important perhaps, into the consciousness of younger filmmakers. Arthur Penn was no spring chicken when he discovered the French New Wave, he was already a middle-aged man. Despite being so enamoured by films that have a really youthful energy, he grew great inspiration from them. This takes us to Mickey One which wears its Nouvelle Vague influences even more on its sleeve than Bonnie & Clyde (which in reality was basically an update of the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster film, so much that it was even greenlit by Warner’s in the first place.)
Mickey One is a crime film, but altogether much stranger one, with its Kafkaesque plot of a Detroit comic (Warren Beatty) who goes on the lam to Chicago to hide from gambling debts. He soon is doing his act again, but he is scared of getting too well known in case the mob comes after him. He wants to square his debts, but he doesn’t know who is after him, exactly what he did to incur their wrath, or even how much he actually owes.
The film didn’t set the world alight when it came out in 1965, despite having some positive festival screenings. The distributor, Columbia, was utterly baffled by the film (as was most of the audience) and it soon went to second- and third-run theatres. Joe Dante is a noted fan who followed the film’s various runs with his film buddies. It did eventually get a small cult following in the ’90s, probably partly in tune with the lounge revival, which the film plays into with its hip editing and jazzy score by Stan Getz.
The entire film rests on Warren Beatty, who is in almost every single sequence, heightening the film’s and the character’s paranoia. He is really magnificent: like his contemporary Robert Redford (who worked with Penn on The Chase) he was written off as a pretty boy, but both have real charisma and acting chops, and know how to pick interesting roles to display their talents. Both Redford and Beatty turned into good directors in their own right.
The stylistic choices owe obvious debts to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player. It’s full of jump cuts and kaleidoscopic photography, and has the freewheeling quality of those early Nouvelle Vague films alongside some of the pretentious philosophical mumbo jumbo. However, it certainly stands tall alongside its French counterparts, and I may even be bold enough to say it’s better than Penn and Beatty’s follow-up, Bonnie & Clyde: it’s better paced and shorter, for starters.
Powerhouse has given the film its due in this package, with newly filmed interviews with co-star Alexander Stewart, Arthur’s son Matthew, an audio from a Guardian lecture with Penn that plays over the film like a commentary track, Joe Dante’s Trailers from Hell commentary which always a treat (make sure you check out their Website or YouTube channel), and the trailer without the commentary. The first pressing includes a big booklet with new and old writing on the film. Its a UK home video premiere, and the release includes the film on Blu-Ray and DVD for all you luddites.