NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
‘I’m the king of the silent pictures. I’m hidin’ out til talkies blow over. Will you let me alone?’
In 1965, this must have seemed like an American stab at nouvelle vague, with Warren Beatty as Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless or Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Pianist. Actually, it reclaims the Hollywood B picture noir tradition which informs early Godard and Truffaut and throbs with a distinct American paranoia (sample exchange – ‘what are you guilty of?’/’I’m guilty of not being innocent’) which grows out of the absurdist Euro-nightmare Welles’s The Trial as much as atomic era conspiracy thrillers like Kiss Me Deadly, The Phenix City Story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Underworld USA. Arthur Penn directed it after The Left-Handed Gun and The Miracle Worker established his reputation, and it nearly sidetracked his career … until Bonnie & Clyde was a huge hit. Screenwriter Alan M. Surgal wrote almost nothing else, which is strange since it’s such a distinctive script.
In a dizzying, elliptical credits sequence, a nightclub showoff entertainer (Beatty) sweats fully-clothed while puffing a cigar in a sauna to amuse gross naked sinister connected guys then goes on a tear with ‘the Girl’ (Donna Michelle, a Playboy playmate who was ‘Animal’ in the Beach Party pictures) that affords a tour of a Detroit nighttime underworld full of excess and glimpsed torture. In the cold light of day, mob middleman Ruby Lapp (Franchot Tone) tells the comic he now owes more than he could possibly pay, whereupon he takes off, burns his ID, hops a freight to Chicago and lives ‘like an animal’, using a stolen social security card with an unpronounceable Polish name that gets anglicised to ‘Mickey One’ and starts a slow climb back from bum to dishwasher to burlesque comedian. In his rooming house, he gets bundled in with Jenny (Alexandra Stewart) – whom his landlady wants to rent his flop to – and they have one of those restless, uneasy, chattering film-long arguments (typical banter: ‘You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!’) that passes for a relationship and evokes the trapped-together set-pieces of Godard. An undersized agent (Teddy Hart) who looks like a relative of the Addams Family, gets Mickey an audition with an upscale club managed by Ed Castle (Hurd Hatfield) though his Number Two man (Jeff Corey) seems to call the shots, but he is terrified of becoming too prominent. Unable to get out of the step up, Mickey tries desperately to make contact with his old faceless persecutors to buy them off … but it may just be his own paranoid fantasies chasing him. The funniest moment comes when, in desperation he approaches the police, only to be told that gambling isn’t legal in this state so he doesn’t have to pay his debts to criminals.
A grinning Japanese artist (Kamatari Fujiwara, a Kurosawa regular) ghosts through Mickey’s life, filching bits and pieces of discarded pianos and cars and bicycles, which appear as a whitewashed self-destructing sculpture whose act is either ruined or enhanced by a flood of fire department foam. Like the body-disposal method Ruby describes (the Goldfinger car-crusher trick), the art installation is some kind of metaphor for the closing-in, exploding-out world Mickey inhabits, though the film is too strange to settle on one interpretation of its bad dream. Beatty didn’t care for the picture (it flopped) but still hired Penn for Bonnie and Clyde when Truffaut didn’t work out. The star was always best cast as a handsome loser (The Parallax View, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Shampoo) whose obvious sex appeal is ultimately ridiculous and useless to anyone. Mickey’s stage act is old-style patter with introspective flashes, and his breakdowns under harsh spotlights and the gaze of unseen fixers are almost like the weird turns Lenny Bruce or Andy Kaufman took when just being funny got wearisome.
The cast mixes ideally-used Hollywood old-timers (Hatfield still has a twitch of his Dorian Gray while Corey is owlishly malevolent) with artfilm imports and a lot of real, memorable street faces. Photographed in gorgeous monochrome by Ghislain Cloquet (who shot Night and the Fog for Alain Resnais and Au Hasard Balthasar for Robert Bresson), this looks a little like Seconds (another strange, undervalued-at-the-time film with a sinister turn from Corey) and similarly rushes through the drawbacks of reinvention and wearing a handsome famous face while being haunted, unfulfilled and tormented behind the mask. At the end, Mickey gets himself into a farcical situation: pursued by casino bouncers dressed in silly costumes and battered as the Chicago PD pile in slightly sped-up like Keystone Kops. He takes to the stage with cuts, bruises, swellings and plasters (the audience member whose kneejerk laughter dies at the sight of him is a stroke of genius) and tries again to communicate with the manipulators beyond the glare of the spotlight – or projector beam – only to shrink into what seems another universe, pounding a piano in a nighttime cityscape.