Mikey and Nicky
August 12, 2019
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
icky (John Cassavetes), a second-rate gangster, does this all the time. He gets himself into a jam and convinces his friend, Mikey (Peter Falk), also a hood but a much better one, to help him get out of it. But the jam Nicky’s gotten himself in this time, as we hear about at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky (1976), Elaine May’s excellent comic gangster drama, is one we’re doubtful Nicky will easily get out of. There are a couple of
reasons for this. One of them has to do with the fact that he’s stolen money from his boss — something that’s been discovered and, of course, is not a thing for which you get slapped on the wrist when you’re working for the mob. The other is rooted in the truth that Mikey, despite being Nicky’s lifelong friend and unequaled confidant, is secretly working against him. He’s been assigned to bring Nicky “in” to quicken the kill-off process.
Nicky’s been wasting away in bed at a flophouse in order to protect himself for the last few hours. Mikey manages to get him out under the auspices of a night out. They visit their favored meet-up spots and then some nostalgic childhood venues; they also call on every conversation topic a pair possibly could when spending about 12 hours straight together. Tension ratchets up as the night progresses. Not just because Nicky and Mikey indulge in some bad, bizarre behavior — hassling a bus driver needlessly for not letting them exit through the front; inciting a racist fight in a bar in a black neighborhood; visiting Nicky’s mistress to both cheaply romance and torment her — but also because you can tell there are some unspoken conditions.
Mikey might let Nicky live if the latter makes it seem like he’s willing to pursue a healthier sort of friendship. Nicky only ever seems to take interest in Mikey if he needs something; calls are usually left unanswered, leading to months of mutual silence. And Nicky, throughout the night, is having an internal dialogue with himself. He suspects Mikey isn’t telling him something. The latter has a weird hang-up about making calls, getting calls at random phone booths. But Nicky doesn’t want to say anything. What if his accusations are wrong, and then he loses the only person whom he loves and trusts? (His wife and kid, whom he treats as ancillary to his life, just don’t do it for him the same way.)
Mikey and Nicky, downtempo and wandering to a point, feels like an antithesis of the gangster movies of the 1970s. It makes for a stark contrast to the homeric, romantic The Godfather movies of the decade (1972-’74) and the brash, stormy Mean Streets (1973). Though the genre’s finest also just as much emphasized their characters as they did their sweepingly seedy storylines, few feel as unprocessed yet wide-ranging as Mikey and Nicky. It takes place over the course of just a night and focuses mostly on two characters. (Though it does feature great walk-ons by Ned Beatty, as the main hitman, Rose Arrick as Mikey’s wife, Carol Grace as Nicky’s other woman.) But it packs a wallop. You can really feel the pains accompanying the slow decline of the friendship of Mikey and Nicky, Philadelphia people who have been friends since forever, in 119 minutes. May, who also wrote the film, astutely captures what we imagine standard, middle-age criminal life to be. But never is she making any overt statements.
May imaginatively uses the crumbling of a lifelong friendship as a stepping stone for a number of ideas. It’s a simulacrum of the dangerous, back-stabbing milieu of the underworld. It's maybe even an allegory for the complexities of identity, with Nicky being the id and Mikey the ego. Or maybe each person represents an alternate universe, with Nicky standing in for a scattered ne’er-do-well version of a man and Mikey the level-headed and well-adjusted one. It’s also, via Mikey and Nicky’s through-the-night interactions, a treatise on toxic masculinity. Mikey is more indebted to his job than to his friend, in part, because he doesn’t want to be viewed as disposable, weak. Nicky’s film-length worry is stymied by anxieties over not just death but also appearing vulnerable. The scene in the black bar is a testament to the need of these men to evince superiority. The sequence at the mistress’ apartment, during which Nicky has sex with her in the living room while Mikey sits in the kitchen, is sandwiched by them condescending to the mistress over the fact that she’s passionate about reading and politics, then some light violence. It reveals how low they’re willing to go to retain their askew, gendered power.
May doesn’t need us to like these characters for us to be fascinated by them. Like other two-character-driven movies, from the acrobatic, twist-heavy mystery Sleuth (1972) to even the walking-and-talking romance Before Sunrise (1995) (it could be argued, in a different piece, that Mikey and Nicky resembles the latter more than it does its gangster-movie peers), what matters is that the characters are underlined by feasibility, and that the person behind the camera makes their interactions ring with purpose.
Decades ago, May’s way of achieving this lent itself to ideas of the feature being predisposed to disaster — the work of a director being overindulgent. May shot an extraordinary amount of footage — about a million feet, outdoing the technically notorious Gone with the Wind (1939) — in order to catch improvisational, offhand moments between Cassavetes and Falk in hopes of finding scraps of dialogue to add to the believability of Mikey and Nicky’s friendship.
The movie went way over schedule. Sixty days were spent in Philadelphia. Then, according to Criterion, when Falk had to return to Los Angeles to shoot the TV series Columbo (1968-2003), filming continued in that city for 60 more. Then the editing process took upward of two years. But the excess pays off. The movie has an unusual push-pull; it feels both lived-in and slow and thrillingly minute-by-minute. (May was additionally working from what she knew: She grew up with a crime-adjacent family based in Philadelphia; her interactions made such an impression on her that it’s been said that the idea for the movie began doing laps in her head in the 1950s.)
It was a stroke of genius to cast Falk and Cassavetes as the title characters. (Originally, May had placed previous collaborator Charles Grodin for the Nicky role but then realized that the actor was far too slick and accidentally intimidating to play someone so pathetic.) The actors worked together regularly and were close friends. Cassavetes, better known now as a writer and a director than an actor (even though he had a fairly successful career as one), had in Falk the male equivalent of his true muse, his go-for-broke actress wife Gena Rowlands.
Cassavetes’ movies are photographed and edited with documentary-dry nonchalance. They often rely on improvisation to push the narrative forward. May goes for a similar but never directly imitative style with Mikey and Nicky. Where she most succeeds is how she homes in on Falk and Cassavetes’ now-legendary friendship, using it as a catalyst to serve characters whom we’re supposed to believe have been tightly knit for decades. When we watch movies in which we know the people starring have a relationship off-screen, the intimacy can either seep into their portrayals and the film itself with uncanny brilliance or it can add to the gnawing idea that perhaps their closeness is best enjoyed for what it is behind the camera. Falk and Cassavetes are unusual in that their near-blood tie is knotted by their artistic fraternity. With Mikey and Nicky May knows what to do with it in conjunction with her own artistic ambitions.
It’s taken a few decades for May’s directing career to be recognized as vital. (For so long was she seen as a better writer and comedy persona who tended to lose focus and control when calling for action and cut.) Her A New Leaf, from 1971, is now considered a dark comedy masterwork but upon release was misunderstood. The Heartbreak Kid (1974) fared better but was sometimes talked about in the same way we might talk about flukes. Mikey and Nicky commercially flopped, was ambivalently received, and incited a quasi-directorial retirement that would last for more than a decade. May’s Ishtar (1987) has been called one of the worst movies of all time but is slowly gaining recognition as a likably loony farce that’s far from a low. A waste for a generation to be unwilling to take seriously the fruits of May’s risk-taking and eye; in Mikey and Nicky do we have a wise portrait of an erratic male friendship put to the test that also challenges what we think of when we think of a great gangster movie. A