50 Years Ago This Week – Arthur Penn’s Mickey One

Mickey One, produced and directed by Arthur Penn, opened on September 27, 1965. A harbinger of the New Hollywood, it had the misfortune of arriving ahead of its time; had it been released two or three years later, it surely would have met with greater success and acclaim. But in 1965, a moody, expressionistic film that was more allegory than narrative was still hard-pressed to find a sizeable audience. 

As far as the story goes, Mickey One follows the trail of a stand-up comedian (Warren Beatty) who flees Detroit when he comes to realize that he (like many comedians in the fifties and sixties) was ruinously indebted to and essentially owned by mobsters who ran the nightclub circuit.  Mickey hides out in Chicago, with but the passage of time and the dreariness of a series of dead-end jobs under his belt, he returns to comedy, performing well but always in fear, and sabotaging any success that might get him noticed by the wrong people. But the film, similar in mood to Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), is more concerned with broader and existential questions than what will happen to Mickey. For Penn, those questions are “Who owns me?” the unanswered query that sends Beatty running, and, more implicitly, “What have I done that has put me in a state of obligation that confines my freedom of choice?”

Mickey One points most directly towards the emerging New Hollywood with its obvious debt to the French New Wave. As Time magazine reported, the film reflected Penn’s express desire “to push American movies into areas in which Fellini and Truffaut have moved.”  As early as 1963, he described the French New Wave as “the only movement I really like.” As a successful and established film and theater director, Penn had negotiated with Columbia a two-picture deal that traded very small budgets in exchange for his control over the content.  And he took full advantage, embarking on a film that was “extremely meaningful” to him despite the obvious lack of enthusiasm (at best) from the studio.

Penn’s film was not a commercial success, but it did succeed in achieving his ambition to make a French New Wave film in America. Truffaut and Godard visited Penn on location in Chicago; the soundtrack (following the extraordinary Louis Malle/Miles Davis collaboration in Elevator to the Gallows), features improvisations by jazz musician Stan Getz. Penn and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (who had worked with Alain Resnais, Jacques Becker, and Claude Sautet, and had just finished working on Malle’s The Fire Within), honed a visual style that combined stylized compositions for dark nighttime exteriors and almost neo-realist documentary-style street shooting by day.  Bosley Crowther, chief film critic of The New York Times did not enjoy sitting through such “grimly realistic” scenes “played in such disagreeable places.”  (Of course Crowther, famously, hated Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde so much he panned it three times.) 

Had his old-school sensibilities not been so offended, Crowther might have caught up with Penn’s main point, which was not so much about Mickey as it was an allegory for McCarthyism—what the  director saw as a “country paralyzed by fear,” and people who feel hounded and “guilty,” but are not quite sure of what. (Mickey says he is guilty “of not being innocent.”) This theme is most apparent in Mickey’s relationship with Ed Castle (Hurd Hatfield), the manager of the Chicago nightclub eager to hire him.  But Castle, like Mickey before him, answers to his backers.  “You have to make certain compromises,” the impresario explains, and it is not a stretch of the imagination to see his character as representing the failure of liberal Hollywood, fearing for its business, to stand up to McCarthyism.  

Penn, who survived the Battle of the Bulge, was less quick to compromise.  After Mickey One, he would next direct (and disown the studio cut of) The Chase with Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Robert Redford, and then reunite with Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, which, coming two years later, proved to the right film at the right time, and was an enormous and influential hit.

Mickey 1 1

Nightclub Star on Top of the World


Mickey 1 2

Should Have Known Who was Cutting His Checks


Mickey 1 3

Before it was Too Late


Mickey 1 4

Comedian, or Commodity?


Mickey 1 5

Down and Out in Chicago


Mickey 1 6

No Escape


Mickey 1 7

Sitting Duck?