"Mickey One" is a gem of a film. A "Microcosmic Wonder"* that deftly combines French New Wave cinema, with splashes of Fellini, Diane Arbus and Franz Kafka. It is at times a circus freak show and a vivid depiction of America as a wasteland of paranoia, deceit and exploitation. The existential plight of entertainer Mickey (Warren Beatty) plays out with gritty neo-realistic black and white photography by Ghislain Cloquet and a jazzy score highlighted by improvisations by sax man Stan Getz.
A case could be made for this film to be the start of the great American cinema of the late 60's and 70's. That period kicked off with seminal titles like "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), which is made by the same team.
"Mickey One" is an interesting riff on French New Wave cinema that in turn was influenced by American film noir. This film might be a good companion piece with Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows.” Both are very textured, with great jazz scores and Film Noir Style.
The main character Mickey, is a wise-guy Detroit comedian with a slick club act who suddenly realizes that he and his career are owned by the mob. How and why this has happened is unclear, and Mickey is informed that he owes a lot of money, but can work it off through his act. The incredible opening credits montage gives us clues of Mickey's lifestyle and hints at his transgressions. He decides to bail on the mob and move to Chicago where he tries to put his life back together. On the way he wades through the dark side of America, trying to blend in. We get glimpses of brutal working class realism with vivid scenes in wrecking yards, cafeterias and strip clubs. It is at times a Diane Arbus meets Fellini circus side show, with close-ups of fantastic characters.
Ultimately Mickey is stuck in limbo in some kind of existential crisis. He is drawn to the stage where he comes to life, but is paranoid of drawing too much attention. When his agent sets up an audition at a posh uptown Chicago club, things begin to fall apart.
The film takes many surreal turns as it veers into sometimes bizarre and unexpected territory. One scene in particular I love is when uptown club owner Ed Castle, after making fresh fruit juice in his office, goes on to expound on the virtues of organic produce. The room is pristine and bright, a vivid contrast to the environments Mickey has recently endured.
Ultimately, Mickey the no-where man, goes back to work in the comfort of the club, and the final shot dissolves to the Chicago skyline as the entertainer sadly embraces the fact that there is no exit and no escape, except to embrace your "prison" and hopefully find something meaningful. This could be the plight we all share with Mickey. You cannot live outside this world, and in some way everyone is owned by someone else. Who's your jailer?
*Films like this I like to call "Microcosmic Wonders." "Two Lane Black Top" is another. They are unique unto themselves. They are often one-off completely realized gems that cater to no one. For me there is a shear joy of seeing a dense and focused film like this, that stays on its course with no compromises.
PS: A little trivia. Throughout the film there is a comic mime character that appears and beckons Mickey to follow him. The actors name is Kamatari Fujiwara and he has played in a number of Akira Kurisowa films, including the 7 Samurai and the Hidden Fortress. The Hidden Fortress of course inspired Lucas's Star Wars films. In that film there are two peasant buffoon characters that inspired C3PO and R2D2. Fujiwara was the R2D2 character.