An off-Hollywood production made for under a million dollars, Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (April 17 through 23 at the Museum of Modern Art) had its American premiere at the same 1965 New York Film Festival that opened with Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville; widely reviled at the time, it shows its ambitious director, several years before Bonnie and Clyde, trying to figure out just what a “new wave” American movie might be.
A still-raw Warren Beatty stars as the eponymous hero—a piano-playing, Noo Yawk–inflected stand-up comic (“Onstage, I’m the Polack Noël Coward”). Miscast if energetic, Beatty gives the picture a certain poignancy—particularly as Penn, no humorist himself, regularly gooses the star’s onstage shtick with the visual equivalent of canned laughter, and equates his character’s situation with the trials of Joseph K. The mob is pursuing Mickey, and he can’t figure out why: “All I know—I’m guilty.” Asked of what by his rational gf of mystery (Alexandra Stewart), he replies: “Guilty of not being innocent!”
A far cry from the svelte absurdism of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Mickey One is most striking for its downbeat Americana—Mickey hides in hobo jungles and automobile burial grounds, hangs out in striptease dives and skid-row revival halls—and its high vernacular interludes. Strolling through Chicago, Mickey and the gf watch a spindly Jean Tinguely machine’s spectacular self-destruct act—the supposed artist played by a cosmically annoying mime—and, throughout, the freewheeling jazz score erupts with “improvisations” by Stan Getz.
That sax is the point. MOMA is screening Mickey One in conjunction with its ambitious survey “Jazz Score,” a five-month, 50-plus series of American, European, and Japanese films. The chronology ranges from the 1950s to the present, and the parameters are generous—including composers like Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, and Henry Mancini, who seem more jazzy than jazz. Still, the show is notable for presenting—and even insisting on—another way to look at familiar and not-so-familiar work.
The first week’s offerings effectively embed Mickey One in a late-’50s constellation of jazz-infused crime films, including Robert Wise’s 1958 I Want to Live! and, even cooler, 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow (music composed by the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis). Although stunt-meister Otto Preminger engaged Duke Ellington to score his 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, the music and movie never gel; Martin Ritt’s 1961 Paris Blues, which Ellington and Billy Strayhorn also scored, is a lesser film with a more impressive sound. Mikio Naruse’s downbeat melodrama, A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), is terrific by any standard, with Toshirô Mayuzumi’s ironic cocktail jazz an organic element. The most electrifying jazz, however, is to be found in Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows—a schematic thriller lifted toward greatness by a score that Miles Davis improvised in a single, all-night recording session. “Jazz Score,” April 16 through September 15, MOMA.