Smorgasbord of paranoia, Kafka and the surreal, set in an American netherworld. Cue trampolines, a mime, what these days we’d call installations, a comic without a decent joke, a wrecker’s yard, organic food, catering kitchens. You could call Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) a visionary director just for including some of these aspects. Or you could go for another contemporary word: “random.”
We are pretty used to people being on the run be they innocent of the crime of which they are accused or small-time hoods trying to evade punishment. The notion here is of small-time hood Mickey One (Warren Beatty) fleeing Detroit for Chicago but with no idea for what crime, though the list could include gambling debts and stealing a bigger gangster’s moll.
His situation is spelled out often enough in case you’ve not got the picture. “Hiding from you don’t know who for a crime you don’t know you committed,” remarks girlfriend Jenny (Alexandra Hay). In a particularly Kafkaesque moment, Mickey espouses: “The only thing I know is I’m guilty – of not being innocent.”
Smart with the words but not so smart with the actions. Even though he can just about get by as a kitchen wash-up, he gets sucked back into his former profession of stand-up comedian, hardly the most anonymous of jobs. So he is all angst-on-fire when success in some low dive, keeping clients entertained between strippers, attracts interest from a classier joint which naturally sees marketing the new prospect as part of the deal.
Some of this paranoia might just be in his head were it not for being stalked by car-crunching cranes in the wrecker’s yard, spotlights on stage (though you could point out that’s an occupational hazard) and a silent rag-and-bone man.
It says something for the acting of Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966) that this is in any way believable. The fast-living lothario of the opening sequence, with gals and booze aplenty, segues into a bum without missing a beat. His paranoia is consistent and he makes some attempt to find out what the heck he has done to end up this way, though it has to be said there’s no actual evidence of pursuit, just the fear of it, and the notion that he owes somebody maybe twenty grand or that the lass tempted into stripping for him was stepping out of line.
His breadline living is realistic, too, hitching a ride on a train, bumming food from a mission, sleeping among bags of rubbish, a world where down-and-outs steal the clothes from the back of other vagrants and his job is scraping leftover food from plates in a cafeteria. And there’s always someone at the scam, his landlady dumping another tenant (Jenny) in his tiny apartment.
Maybe less realistic that club owners are lining up to hire him when there’s nary a laugh in his schtick. The biggest joke is in the casting, some kind of infernal joke on audiences to put the likes of the uber-handsome Beatty through mental and physical torture, albeit that he’s perceived as man of abundant talent and collects with ease women willing to put up with the depressive side of his nature.
The movie doesn’t quite fit the Kafka mold because being on stage represents freedom and nobody in Franz’s world ever had a sniff of that. And you wouldn’t call it a thriller either. And if it’s a homage to the French New Wave you’d have to watch a stack of French pictures from this decade to work out what it’s mimicking.
And it’s not like Penn’s work is always on this kind of edge, he’s not the David Lynch of his generation. Every top director is permitted at least one turkey, and this would have been Penn’s except critics in the 1990s started to give it the old reassessment treatment, Penn being a big enough name from his other works to have a stab at how this fits into his repertoire/oeuvre.
So, far from being an intolerable mess. Doesn’t quite ask the big questions Penn hopes it does. More of a curate’s egg of a picture, some interesting ideas, and an excellent performance from Beatty. Alexandra Hay (Only When I Larf, 1968) was part of the French connection, a Canadian model who had hit it big in Paris, with roles in French pictures and an affair with director Louis Malle. But actually she’s good, not the kind of submissive woman Mickey has perhaps been used to, but thoughtful and capable of challenging his illusions.
Screenwriter Alan Surgal was not prolific, this being his only movie.