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IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MICKEY ONE (1965)

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DIRECTED BY: Arthur Penn

FEATURING: Warren Beatty, , Hurd Hatfield, Teddy Hart, Franchot Tone

PLOT: A small-time comedian in Detroit runs afoul of the mob and skips town, but remains drawn to the stage—and his longing for the spotlight finds him risking unwanted attention from his pursuers.

Still from mickey one (1965)

COMMENTS: A turning point in the annals of American cinema came when Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn teamed up to apply the iconoclastic stylings of the movement to a classic crime story of a protagonist on the run from a relentless pursuer. That legendary collaboration, of course, is Bonnie and Clyde. Which makes it interesting to discover that landmark film actually represents a second bite at the apple. Before Bonnie and Clyde could run, Mickey One had to crawl.

Ostensibly about a comic on the run from the mob, Mickey One is deeply uninterested in the details of its plot. (Beatty is never told explicitly what he’s done wrong, and his attempts to buy his way out of his troubles are not so much rejected as ignored.) Instead, we open with a montage of Beatty’s high-flying comedian living the high life, and then immediately descend into full-blown paranoia. He sets fire to all his identification, rips the satin piping off his tuxedo pants, grabs a seat in hobo first-class on the next train out of town, and quickly submerges himself in a series of the lowest-level jobs he can find, assuming the name that gives the film its title. 

At this point, Mickey One seems to be a story of a confident man forced to become weak but unable to pull it off. His fear is genuine; he immediately dashes out of a restaurant the moment he hears it might have mob connections, and he regards anyone who tries to interact with him with disgust and anger. And yet, watching his fellow hacks at the mic, he can’t deny the call of the limelight, and so he tries to walk the line between satisfying his need to perform and desperately trying to avoid sending up a signal flare to his pursuers. Trying to balance these contrary impulses is destroying him, and that’s the character study we’re here for. Beatty is all jittery energy and barely contained rage; he never really demonstrates any actual comic ability (a complaint Beatty lodged throughout the production), but he’s got the loose rhythms and the nervous energy of James Dean or young Paul Newman, never sitting still and chewing on his words like gum. He’s all exposed wiring.

But there’s a turning point when the film suddenly becomes about something else. In a tense sequence, Mickey is maneuvered into auditioning for an unseen impresario, a scratchy voice barking out orders from behind the harshest spotlight ever aimed at a stage. Mickey is utterly terrified that whoever it is in the darkness will end him permanently, but everyone else—his girlfriend, his agent, a persistent booker—all seem equally terrified of their fate if he doesn’t perform. And that’s when it starts to feel like Mickey One is an allegory. We’ve been treated to metaphor throughout the film. Car crushers devour tons of metal on the outskirts of town. The booking agent (played by Hatfield, who I can only describe as a poor man’s James Olson) has an office that’s entirely white and seemingly decorated exclusively in glass. Benevolent societies sing at street corners about the coming judgment day, while a street artist makes enormous mechanical constructions that are destroyed by the authorities at the merest hint of a malfunction. And then there are the voices, speaking to Mickey from behind blinding lights and through faceless cameras. It all hints at meaning something bigger, but this is the moment when Beatty seems to be dueling with nothing less than God itself. Small wonder that he would run at the first opportunity.

Mickey One feels like an ancestor to any number of future Warren Beatty showcases: the overconfidence of Shampoo, the raw paranoia of The Parallax View, the collision of crime and entertainment in Bugsy. And that’s no small accomplishment, to be a rough draft of a style of filmmaking and a type of character study that will be accomplished more successfully down the line. But it ends up being more of an augury than a film that stands on its own. In that sense, the film is very much like its hero in the final scene: eager to put on a show, but exposed to the elements and fearful of the reception that is destined to come.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With its surrealistic, Felliniesque presence, ‘Mickey One’ is a stunning piece.”–Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle (1995 revival)

(This movie was nominated for review by Steve Mobia. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: OBSESSIONS (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Dieter Geissler, , Tom Van Beek, Donald Jones

PLOT: A carefree medical student’s life is thrown into disarray when a painting falls from his wall, creating a peep-hole to the neighboring apartment where he witnesses a world of LSD-fueled rape and murder.

Still from Obsessions (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The oft-hyphenated phrase, “by-the-numbers”, springs to mind when thinking of this picture. Trying to be a ian thriller, a drug morality tale, and (perhaps) a soft-core pornographic movie, Obsessions fails on all counts—with the only weird thing being that somehow let his name be associated with it.

COMMENTS: There is unfortunately little useful to say about this mish-mash of a Dutch film. The press release and DVD blurb hype it up as best they can, going so far to claim that Obsessions helped to jumpstart “auteur cinema in Holland.” That may well be true, but that’s something better explored by a film scholar (that is, some other film scholar). As it stands, all by itself, on its own, as a movie, it stands… kind of wobbly. Thinking back on it now, the only clever bit occurred during the plot setup in the opening credits.

A heavy, framed picture of a modified Van Gogh portrait (with super-imposed razor poking at the poor man’s ear) falls from the thin wall of Nils Janssen’s apartment, bringing with it a hunk of plaster and leaving behind a perfectly-sized peep-hole. Through this new portal, Nils (Dieter Geissler), an affable medical student, sees and hears strange doings across the way, finding that it’s not all scooters, cognac, and medical school in his trendy downtown world. His improbably attractive girlfriend Marina (Alexandra Stewart), a journalist for a fashion magazine with a sideline in pop-news, joins in his… “obsession” …and the two try to unravel a bizarre crime spree involving LSD, a series of addled young women, a fat drug-dealer with a lazy eye, a con posing as a US Army officer, and a masseuse who plies her trade with her feet. Before you can say “tight slacks,” things go south when the criminals discover they’re being spied upon.

Had this rambling plot been in the service of a pornographic endeavor (something the Netherlands didn’t shy away from in the 1960s), I’d feel more sympathetic to it. The amateurism of the acting, staging, and dialogue (not sure how involved Scorsese was in the writing; he was in his mid-20s at the time and only in town for another project) all smacks of high quality smut or low quality drama. For better or (more so) worse, Obsessions is the latter–and all the Hitchcock references and “gee-whiz!” camera tricks can’t change the fact that we travel through the film’s ninety minutes with a mix of incuriosity and relief at its brevity.

Pim de la Parra and his confrère Wim Verstappen went on to achieve notoriety a couple of years later with their full-blown adult feature, Blue Movie. Afterwards they cruised through the 1970s with a series of “mature” titles interspersed with the occasional drama and experimental film. While it seems P de la P could have pursued one direction or another after his late-60s crime-thriller, I’d wager that either genre isn’t any poorer for him having stepped away from it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with arty montages, plentiful nudity, and Hitchcock references galore (note all the stuffed birds everywhere), Obsessions is a really odd one, mixing old school thriller tropes, chic ’60s fashions and decor, and sleazy kink, all with that percolating Herrmann music underneath.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

209. BLACK MOON (1975)

“I see it as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium, or maybe my own limits.”–Louis Malle on Black Moon

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Therese Giehse, ,

PLOT: A young woman is driving a car during a shooting war between the sexes. Escaping from a checkpoint where male soldiers are executing females, she finds refuge at an old farmhouse inhabited by a batty old woman, a mute brother and sister, a band of nude animal-herding children, and a unicorn. Initially rejected by the chateau’s residents, she gradually finds herself becoming part of this strange alternate society.

Still from Black Moon (1975)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Louis Malle had dabbled in light surrealism before with the whimsical Zazie dans le Metro (1960), there was nothing in the respected director’s then-recent oeuvre (mostly documentaries and historical pieces like 1974’s Vichy drama Lacombe, Lucien) to prepare his audience for the bizarreness of Black Moon. Sven Nykvist won a Caesar for his cinematography, but the film was mainly a commercial and critical failure, and quickly lapsed from circulation.
  • Black Moon was a transitional work in Malle’s move from France to the USA. He shot the film in France, at his own estate near Cahors, but in the English language, with a British, American and Canadian actor in the cast. After this movie, the director went to America where he scored a series of critical successes with Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre.
  • Joyce Buñuel, Malle’s co-writer, was ‘s daughter-in-law.
  • Therese Giehse, who plays the bedridden woman, died before the movie was released, and Black Moon is dedicated to her. Malle credited her with partly inspiring the idea for Black Moon by suggesting he make a movie without dialogue (although the eventual script did have dialogue, it is sparse and often nonsensical).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Appropriately for a dream-movie, the indelible image is an imaginary one; it’s the transgressive event you see transpiring in your mind’s eye the minute after the film officially ends on a provocative freeze-frame.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Gender genocide; portly unicorn; resurrection by breast milk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Black Moon concerns a young girl’s flight from an absurd world—where camo-clad men line up female prisoners of war and execute them, while the gas mask-wearing ladies returning the favor to their male captives—into a totally insane one. The movie is an unexpected assay of the irrational from nouvelle vague auteur Louis Malle, and although it’s congenitally uneven, it makes you wonder how wonderful it would have been if every master director had indulged himself by unleashing one unabashedly surreal film on the world.


Original trailer for Black Moon

COMMENTS: A frayed fairy tale set in no time or place in particular, Continue reading 209. BLACK MOON (1975)