Friday, October 23, 2009

Mickey One: smoke and flame at Marina City

About a week ago, Cecil Adams The Straight Dope Chicago tackled why so few movies were filmed in Chicago during the reign of Richard J. Daley in the 60's and 70's. Adams cited the then Chicago mayor's antipathy to how productions such as the popular The Untouchables television series reinforced Al Capone gangster stereotypes. Still a few films slipped by, most prominently Haskell Wexler's extraordinary Medium Cool, filmed in the city during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention (although, ironically, Wexler finished up shooting just before the night riot at the Hilton.)

A far lesser known exception is 1965's Mickey One, starring a very young Warren Beatty as a mediocre comic, on the run from Detroit mobsters, hiding out in Chicago. It was an early film by Arthur Penn, who had come out of television drama to direct such films as The Miracle Worker. In the year before Mickey One, Penn had been fired by Burt Lancaster (who had also been the force behind his hiring) as the director of The Train, and had just directed a Broadway flop that closed after only two performances.

Penn made extensive use of Chicago locations - the dark side - from auto graveyards, to skid rows, back alleys and strip clubs. Yet, as shot by famed cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet , whose work includes some of the most seminal works of a mad mix of directors from Jacques Becker, to Francois Traffaut, to Robert Bresson, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, there's a terrible beauty in the images. Cloquet captures the city with an extraordinarily vivid sense of place and time, using locations from the old Gate of Horn nightclub, to the briefly reborn Chez Paree. Here and there you'll notice a surviving building - the Mariano Park Pavilion at 1031 North State, designed in 1895 by Birch Burdette Long, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's first associates, the low building restaurant at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Chicago, the Woods theater on Randolph.
The most striking sequence, however, is one in the now lost skating rink of Marina City, where an assembled audience watches a rube-goldberg like construction created by a mysterious artist played by Kamatari Fujiwara, a famous Japanese actor who was one of Akira Kurasawa's stock company of players, from Ikiru to Kagemusha. Fujiwara's character is directed by Hiller to be, in the words of Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, "a cosmically annoying mime." He pushes a button and his Jean Tinguely inspired kinetic sculpture comes to life - rotating wheels, conveyor belts, gears, pulleys, beams banging at the keys of a piano.
And then, on cue, it starts to self-destruct, to the delight of the artist and the onlookers, until the fire and smoke bring out the Chicago Fire Department, which puts out the blaze to the jeers of the audience and the despair of the artist, with what seems to be a billion cubic meters of foam. How all that got past Mayor Daley I can scarcely imagine. (You can see the sequence on the excellent Marina City Online website here.)
Penn's next film would be a great one, the sensational Bonnie and Clyde. A Bonnie, Mickey's not - I certainly don't want to oversell it. It's pretentiously Kafkaky and often a bit clumsy, but there's great turns by people like Jeff Corey, Franchot Tone and Hurd Hatfield, as an urbane, vaguely menacing night club operator whose Marina City apartment we get to see, along with the original design of the elevator foyers. His all-white office (do you think he knew the young Renzo Piano?) is entered through a door like an airlock, and his monologue on organic foods plays as both amazingly prophetic and creepily satiric.

Mickey One is an amiably paranoid, shaggy dog of a movie that still manages to be entertaining and arresting. And for those of us who love it, there's all those images of Chicago that make you feel you've time-travelled back four decades. Although it's popped up on TCM, Mickey One is not available on video, but you can watch the entire film, complete with short, ten second commercials every reel or so, on Sony/Columbia's Crackle website here. See how many locations you can identify.

1 comment:

Michael said...

As I recall, one of the locations is Mike Fish's restaurant, a popular Italian joint of the day, and Mike Fish is even in it: