The Film: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

The Principals: Elaine May (Director). John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Ned Beatty.

The Premise: Paranoid that a contract has been taken out on him, Nicky (Cassavetes) – a mobster who has fallen into dangerous debt – holes up in a cheap hotel room and seeks the help of Mikey (Falk) – another mobster who is a childhood friend. Nicky needs to get out of Philly as soon as possible. Over the course of one long night, the two of them try desperately to find safe haven for Nicky, while avoiding the hitman in pursuit (Beatty) and examining the depth and meaning of their friendship and loyalty to each other.

Is it Good: It is a very good film. Deeply fascinating, while also being deeply flawed.

If you haven’t seen Mikey and Nicky, chances are that either you’ve never heard of it or – if you have – it has been spoken of with the sort of hushed tones usually reserved for government secrets. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I would hear film fans speak of this as if it were the lost city of El Dorado. The fact that it was very hard to find and rarely screened accounted for this legendary status.

Watching it after all that hoopla has the unfortunate effect of crippling the actual movie. The truth is that for many people, especially anyone not particularly familiar with or appreciative of the cinema of Cassavetes, the movie might be nothing short of infuriating. And for those who are already well versed in that cinema, it doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal. Added to that you have those who connect with it and it blows their minds because they’ve never seen anything like it…even though many films just like it exist. My point is: this movie, while very good, is hardly the second coming of Christ or worthy of this sort of heightened reverence it has achieved due to lack of visibility.

What makes it work and keeps you invested, as the film meanders from one event to another, is the wonderful work from Cassavetes and Falk – both of whom, in my opinion, achieve career best performances. There are two scenes in particular that illustrate this beautifully. The first is an excruciating sequence of vivid psychological realism, wherein Nicky wants to visit his mother’s grave at the cemetery. A discussion about religion segues into childhood reminiscence and you can really feel the pain of the past and how it’s taken its toll on these two people. The other involves Mikey and Nicky visiting Nicky’s girlfriend at her apartment. Mikey waits in the kitchen while Nicky makes love to her in the front room. This is an amazing scene. The exasperation on Falk’s face as he sits there and suffers the indignity of hearing his friend make a mockery of his love life in the next room… The pathetic sounds of their lovemaking, which rapidly descend into the realm of grotesque comedy – with Nicky insincerely whispering “I love you” over and over again.

What sort of people would put each other through something like this? I’m not often a philosophical man. I simply don’t have the head for it. But that scene kind of encapsulates what the whole movie is about. The nature of need in a relationship. So often a friendship is based on need. Nicky needs Mikey to be there at that moment, God only knows why, but there it is.

There is a parasitic element to some friendships – where affection goes hand in hand with need – which is observed with a surprising poignancy in this film. We learn, through their conversations and interactions, that Nicky has always been a user when it comes to Mikey. And this goes back to when they were childhood friends. The seeds of resentment that this has planted run deep, and it leads to an explosive emotional catharsis in the film’s final moments.

Incorrectly identified as a “gangster movie,” Mikey and Nicky is actually a psychological character study. The “profession” of the two characters becomes incidental; a clothesline on which to hang an almost arbitrary suspense plot to carry the narrative. And it is that aspect of the film that makes it one of the most interesting offerings of the 70s.

So, what’s the problem: The thing is… Elaine May is not John Cassavetes. She knows the words but can’t really sing in tune, which makes a lot of this movie unintentionally play like a parody. Think: A MAD Look At John Cassavetes… Where you have these long scenes, people are talking and they seem to go on for days. But, because it isn’t Cassavetes himself calling the shots, there’s something slightly off. I don’t mean to suggest Cassavetes was the only person who could make that sort of movie. But he did manage to pull off the self-indulgence in a way that Elaine May can’t.

I suppose you don’t really notice it because Falk and Cassavetes are so intense in their characterizations and they both have plenty of experience in this sort of semi-improvisational narrative, but the inexperience of Elaine May shows in the way the whole thing is staged.

She reportedly would leave the camera running for hours on end and just let them do their thing. Fine, but it makes the movie seem aimless rather than naturalistic. And the scenes without Falk and Cassavetes (they are few, so I guess I’m specifically speaking of Beatty’s few solo moments) feel completely wrong. Beatty, in fact, seems to be performing in a completely different movie – the gangster thriller he thought he read for, where he plays a sinister hitman.

Since this movie is not really a gangster film and it is most definitely not a thriller, those scenes just don’t play. Except to set up the admittedly terrific ending of the film.

Cassavetes films were rarely about genre and they were hardly ever about plot. They were always about getting to the heart of who these people were. Mikey & Nicky tries to have it both ways. It can’t. But that still shouldn’t stop you from seeing this oddball, obscure film.

It’s not the return of the Messiah, but I would still say that, flaws and all, it’s a film all cinema buffs (and 70s fans in particular) should definitely see at least once.

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