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Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn: 'Mickey One' at Charles

 
The Charles will be showing a must-see curiosity this weekend and next week: 'Mickey One" (1965), on Saturday (noon), Monday (7 p.m.) and Thursday (9 pm).
Overblown but gorgeous and fascinating, it's a seriocomic existential nightmare starring Warren Beatty as a Detroit nightclub comedian hiding out in Chicago from the Mob. (I'll be writing about it more for tomorrow's Live section. Click here for my review and here for a brief sidebar on Beatty's Lutherville roots.)

For me, the real star of the film is the director, Arthur Penn. A legend with Broadway actors, he cut his teeth during the Golden Age of live, New York-based TV drama. He adapted his first film, the crazy-mixed-up Billy the Kid movie, "The Left-Handed Gun" (1957), from a Gore Vidal teleplay, staging moments of Western violence that wouldn't be topped for surprise, originality and meaning until Sam Peckinpah began making movies four years later. (Penn then went on to mount the celebrated stage and screen productions of "The Miracle Worker.")

In "Mickey One" he turned an original eye on urban-American decay at mid-century. The film's signature images range from a car-crusher at a junkyard to a spotlight transforming a nightclub stage into a potential shooting gallery. Penn brings an inspired caricaturist's lift to down-at-the-heels scenes such as bums rolling a drunk and a drifter entering a mission. The film's hobo hangouts and pseudo-exotic dives have the scary, exhausting vitality of a full-throated death rattle. 

Penn put this movie together right after the assassination of President Kennedy. In this film, "the new frontier" becomes nothing more than a slogan on a midway game. The conventional tropes our country uses to confront malaise -- including suffering-proletariat nobility and idealistic glamour -- have lost any relevance to Penn's desperate characters. Although the film is overblown and pretentious, it's always intense and visually alive: a spiritual as well as practical precursor to Beatty and Penn's vastly more successful collaboration on "Bonnie and Clyde." 
Are there any Beatty or Penn fans out there who have seen this? Are we often unfair to artists like Penn, whose "failures" like "Mickey One" are more rewarding than most other men's blockbusters?   
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