Mickey One, 1965. 7/10

Warren Beatty’s Mickey is on the run from the Detroit mob. So, he finds himself on Chicago’s South Side comedy club circuit. A great cast supports this jazzy, noirish drama: Franchot Tone, Hurd Hatfield, Alexandra Stewart, Terry Hart, Jeff Corey, and Kamatari Fujiwara are Ruby Lapp, Ed Castle, Jenny, George, Larry, and, simply, The Artist, respectively.

Ed runs club Xanadu, George becomes Mickey’s agent, Jenny is Mickey’s eventual girlfriend. The Artist literally gets into the act. Mickey does all right for himself for a bit, he can’t quite shake the long reach of the mob boys. There’s been quite a lot of buzz that Mickey One is Kafka- or Fellini-esque. We’ll see.

Well, maybe so. Cute girls draped over hot cars, and lounging with the lizards (Mickey as number one lizard) in clubs and pools. But then “they” call in his marker for Mickey’s hedonistic lifestyle that we’ve seen a quick slice of. At the Lapland (Ruby’s spot), he bugs out after a lousy last performance. Mickey does burning his draft card one better by burning all of his ID. Onto Chicago.

Appropriately staggering from a baggage car with a pint of Jim Beam, he lands in a junkyard. Looking precisely like an urban hell, Mickey runs a gauntlet of menacing characters and mechanical monsters, emerging on some ugly streets, watching him own reflection. First stop is a sort of Christian reading room.

At least he can grub-up. Finding a rolled bum, he grabs the guy’s social security card (he’s now officially Mickey). That ruse enables him to get a dishwasher job. He literally rubs up against Jenny–soon they’re hanging out–in a tough guy way. “You’re a nice girl” he finally admits. For real kicks, he goes down to the seedy, but swinging part of town.

A terrible comedian and other acts get minimal applause from a dead place. He talks his way into going on stage; next stop, to get legit, is George the agent. So he’s doing his act in a strip club. Due to weird juxtapositions, it’s not clear whether he’s on stage or behind the curtain.

His agent talks to Ed, who’s indifferent at first, but soon comes to like Mickey. For some reason, Mickey’s skittish about working the upscale Xanadu. At an arcade, he’s transfixed by a peepshow. Anyway, Ed and George come calling on him: Ed is very flattering “the successful comic is the king of entertainment!” Still he’s comprehensively creepy.

Mickey storms into his place; Jenny’s there, it looks like one of them is being evicted. “I’m not interested in you sexually!” Oh, I think he is. He wants her to move in with him. For some reason, she also is living under an assumed name. She figures that he’s an entertainer. He describes being on stage as a type of “freedom.” They gel quickly.

He runs into the mob guy in a butcher shop. “There’s no place you can hide from ‘them’.” Actually, this scene is rendered as part of a flashback (4+ years worth) that he narrates to Jenny. Here’s a nice surrealist beach scene with he, Jenny and a bunch of others trampolining. For about the tenth time, the Artist pokes in, this time with his “Yes” device in full song. After a fireworks display, the thing destroys itself. Well, The Artist got plenty of attention.

This goes on a bit too long, reminding me of the sudsy swimming pool scene from the 1963 Troy Donahue spring break movie, Palm Springs Weekend. Finally, back to Mickey and Jenny’s apartment for an argument. She wants him to play the Xanadu, but he’s got some mental block against it. Well, they do love each other.

Tonight’s the night: he’ll do the Xanadu, Jenny will come by to show support. Ed is wary as Jenny tells him about Mickey’s mental state, i.e., his lack of “trust.” Larry is there to ‘look him over’ for the Midwest club circuit. It’s as though Mickey equates this Larry with the Detroit mob. Now he blames Jenny. Weirdly, Larry’s just a disembodied voice for the audition.

Left alone on the stage, with spotlights pinning him down, Mickey starts to panic. Very gradually, he recovers, and goes into an improv routine; but he melts down completely, and breaks out a window onto the street. Jenny follows him into an alley. Her entire role seems to consist of nurturing him.

He sends her off to find George. Meanwhile it’s Larry that’s going ape with Ed. At a bar, Mickey tries to find out who is after him from a friendly bartender, who’s confusedly named Eddie. Mickey actually goes to the cops too. Finally, Ed corners him “Find someone to clear me!” he says. Ruby, apparently, is dead. Ed tells him ultimately to leave town, but Mickey wants in at a high-stakes craps game.

The doormen exchange knowing looks when he goes to find the “big game.” Instead he gets jumped by these exotically-dressed guys. Only a ton of cops save him– a huge free-for-all distracts the goons. Stealing a taxi, he splits to the junkyard from the movie’s beginning. A bunch of creeps try and draw him into a junked van, the Artist pops in yet again, but he gets back to town, and to Jenny, safely.

So, he is going to perform at the Xanadu. Finally on stage, he starts so slowly that it sounds like a poetry reading. He’s mesmerized by the spotlight, but this time we know he’ll not freak out. Well, the scene shift to the top of a skyscraper tells us all we need to know: he’s on top of the world. The end.

Mickey One is very entertaining, but hard to evaluate. The surrealist stuff is nicely done, and, thanks to The Artist, peeps out with a certain flow. Mickey’s angst is linked to that undercurrent, which he doesn’t shake free of until the very end. I wouldn’t say this film is Fellini-esque as much as Abstract Expressionist Noir.

I made up that term; the gritty, down-and-dirty urban environment is nothing if not film noir, and what we see as a sideshow, so to speak, has a lot of non-representable content (even the name “Yes” on The Artist’s thingie is an abstraction). The result is sometimes fascinating, but, overall, a bit confusing.

There’s really two movies going on simultaneously. It’s through Mickey’s perspective that we see all the weird stuff–as opposed to mere happenstance, like the soup kitchen and street people–which are odd scenes, but public, and therefore believable.

The Artist, for example, is just there; he’s part of the cityscape quite apart from Mickey’s fixation on him. That’s all very much psychological thriller territory. But the mental aspect is underplayed, despite Mickey’s obvious paranoia and hallucinations. We’re to believe that the Detroit gangsters are dogging him throughout.

It would be nearly impossible to trace someone, in those pre-internet days, who has changed his identity in such a clean way as has Mickey. He comes out of his funk when he feels better about himself, in, we might say, an holistic sense. He can perform again; he has a great girlfriend, and good (if oddball) business contacts.

So, what’s the point of the absurdist stuff? It’s lingering about, begging to be integrated into the main plot, but never really makes it. That disconnect makes Jenny’s role a bit unbelievable. Viewers might rationalize that women were more willing to put up with needy guys back then; there’s that interpretation.

But she’s hardly a passive dependent type. She doesn’t need Mickey, but can’t distance herself from him. They’re obviously attracted to each other. She has to be much more than his lover, however. Add on: shrink, nurse, job-coach, mom, etc. It would make better sense if there were more psychological depth to their relationship. She runs interference for him, that’s it.

Steve McQueen starred in the superficially similar The Cincinnati Kid from the same year. McQueen’s character also has to high-tail it out of town to escape gangsters, and, like Beatty’s character, has to set up shop again in seedy surroundings (with an equally beguiling love-interest). But The Kid is straightforward drama–slick, clever, and rough.

It’s good that Mickey One gives it’s protagonist so much nuance; nonetheless, there’s incongruous junk just shoved into the plot. As The Kid, McQueen has plenty of angst–enough to increase the humidity in those dingy cardrooms. That movie has plenty of atmosphere; Mickey One has too much.

Can’t complain about the performances. Beatty makes an ideal anti-hero. In fact, Stewart’s role has the only accessible personality here; everyone else is off key, or just plain off-the-grid. This is a very credible experiment in mood, tone, and ambience. In making its interesting detours, though, we’re kind of stranded at the end. 7/10.

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