Mikey and Nicky (1976)


(director/writer: Elaine May; cinematographer: Victor Kemper; editors: John Carter/Sheldon Kahn; music: John Strauss; cast: Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Rose Arrick (Annie, Mikey’s wife), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Michael Hausman; Paramount; 1976)
“A powerful dark tale that is emotional and profound in its unsentimental characterization of lowly underworld figures.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Elaine May’s (“A New Leaf”/”The Heartbreak Kid”) “Mikey and Nicky” is a groundbreaking post-modern noir that was rejected by Paramount on its release for being too arty and not commercial. It’s filmed in the cinema vérité style; its shaky camera, good use of locations and long rambling improv dialog from its two stars John Cassavetes (Nicky) and Peter Falk (Mikey) give the film a special feel (one you either love or hate). The stars are brilliant in portraying longtime friends whose characters are small-time gangsters. May seems to be just letting the camera roll and allowing the stars to do their “method actor” thing, which seems to be enough to make it work except for a few lags in the narrative (should have been better edited). Though seeming without structure, there’s a lyrical thread that underlies the narrative and slyly questions male bonding in a brutal world. The old wounds resurface and the paranoia between the two characters seems as warranted as their fond memories. May has mentioned that the story is based on a real-life episode experienced by her uncle.

Jewish hood Nicky is holed up in a seedy hotel in Philadelphia, suffering from an ulcer and cringing for fear that the mob has a contract out for him. Afraid to leave, he calls Mikey to help. They both work for crime boss Dave Resnick (Sanford Meisner), the one Nicky believes put out the contract. The two spend the night together going aimlessly to different locations in the neon-lit city and recalling their lives from childhood, their marriages and gangster activities. All the time Nicky isn’t sure if Mikey isn’t the hit man sent by Resnick, which puts a strain on their relationship. But Mikey is the only person in the world he can trust and the catch is if he can’t trust him that leaves him with no one else.

Both characters are not saints. It’s eventually learned that Mikey is the finger man for the mob’s hired hit man (Ned Beatty). Mikey betrayed his friend over some minor slights from years ago that he can’t forget. The hit man is portrayed as someone who is comically sinister and complains that it has cost him too much in gas money following the vic around. During the course of their night out Nicky visits his bimbo girlfriend (Carol Grace), whom he has sex with while Mikey waits in the next room sitting on a trashcan and having to endure listening to the noisy tryst. The film’s final scene is as dark as from any noir, as a jittery Nicky shows up at the doorsteps of Mikey’s house and his friend’s wife (Rose Arrick) converses with him behind locked doors.

This is one of those ignored films from the 1970s that got critiqued for its shoddy filmmaking techniques (May edited for a year after the shoot, looking for the perfect take in each scene–trying to find a way to satisfy the studio’s need for a conventional story without compromising her artistic stance—but the disgruntled studio lost patience and released it unfinished). But even with its flaws intact, it’s a powerful dark tale that is emotional and profound in its unsentimental characterization of lowly underworld figures trying to survive in such a cold setting where even friendship is not sacred.