In the mid-1960s, Warren Beatty worked to push the envelope of possible leading man roles in Hollywood. Influenced by the anti-heroes and non-commital style of the French New Wave, he sought as actor and producer to move away from the typical pretty boy roles in bland films that other Hollywood actors were performing.
In the rarely-screened Mickey One, he plays a stand-up comic on the run from the mobsters who gave him his start and now own him. Such a plot sounds like the set-up for a farce along the lines of Some Like It Hot, but in the hands of Beatty and director Arthur Penn, it becomes instead a dark, paranoia-filled trip through the underbelly of the nightclub industry. It’s never entirely clear whether the mob is still after Mickey as he slowly returns to the stage, supported by Jenny, the girl who urges him that his fears are unfounded. The hints that they are may merely be in his head, transferred to the audience through our identification with him.
Unfortunately, Beatty and Penn don’t always get the tonal balance between American crime film and New Wave drama quite right. New Wave heroes project a devil-may-care bravado even over their inner fears – a confidence Mickey can’t even believably feign most of the time. He desperately wants to know who exactly is after him, why, and what he can do to either confront and eliminate them or escape them permanently; but he is too afraid to actually try to find out – until the end when recklessness overcomes even his paranoia. The only times the awkward tension between deterministic apathy and paranoid truth-seeking seems to work unequivocally are during Mickey’s comedy routines (including his impromptu goofing when he first meets Jenny). When he’s performing, his forced bravado and tormented anguish merge uncomfortably, yes, but believably, turning him into the chatty version of Truffaut and Godard’s quietly desperate characters – he just wears his desperation on the outside instead.
The difficulty of melding New Wave styles into American film stems, to some degree, from the philosophical differences between France and the United States in the early to mid 1960s. France had lost two World Wars (or won only with foreign aid after surrendering), undergone a painful conflict with Algeria, and was nearing the political upheavals of the late 1960s – combined with the influence of existentialism, the fatalism of New Wave heroes is not wholly unexpected. The United States was still riding the tail end of the post-war boom, and though American noir of the 1940s and 50s had its share of existential heroes, American films tend to be more optimistic. (And the 1960s mainstream Hollywood that Beatty was reacting against could be almost sickeningly optimistic.) Yet, it’s not an impossible feat – Beatty and Penn would incorporate New Wave style into a quintessentially American story perfectly only two years later in Bonnie & Clyde. So count Mickey One as a not wholly successful but still extremely interesting and worthwhile experiment on the way to the heights of Bonnie & Clyde.
*note: I’m sure there are other influences on Mickey One; Cassavetes seems probable. I use the New Wave because I’m more familiar with it, and sort of in love with it right now. Plus the programmer at the Silent Movie Theatre mentioned the New Wave in relation to Mickey One and Bonnie & Clyde, so I had it in my head while I was watching the film.