Mikey and Nicky
d. Elaine May (1976)
The Criterion Collection

The story behind the production of Elaine May’s brilliant Mikey and Nicky is the stuff of a working nightmare. Fret with technical problems, including faulty sound and tricky lighting, multi-year delays (the film was shot in 1973 but first released in December 1976) to fix the technical problems and to edit down an extensive amount of film, and eventually litigation between May and Paramount, we’re fortunate that there’s a film to behold at all. These problems led to it essentially being put in a drawer, so for most of the forty years since it was first released it hasn’t been impossible to find, but it’s been hard. Fortunately, it is now readily available from The Criterion Collection, and it’s a treasure. Elaine May had the story for this film going through her mind for a couple of decades before finally working with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes to create a unique look at two fragile men, the damage done to them by each other and the damage they do to so many — particularly the women — in their wake.

When the film begins, Nicky is in deep trouble, and the only person he trusts to help him is Mikey, a friend since childhood. Holed up in a cheap hotel room in Philadelphia, Nicky is having a panic attack, smoking one cigarette after another, picking up and putting down a pistol, unable to look away from the bad news printed in the paper on his bed. Nicky is a low-level member of an organized crime syndicate, and he and colleague lifted $1,000 from the boss. His colleague is dead. Nicky is convinced he’s next.

Mikey comes right over, but Nicky is so paranoid he doesn’t tell Mikey exactly where he is. Instead, maybe to see if Mikey is being followed, he watches Mikey from the window, eventually throwing a bottle to get his attention.

Let the complex landscape of their relationship unfold.

Even though he’s called Mikey, and even though he has helped Mikey come to his door, Nicky won’t let Mikey in. Perhaps it’s just the paranoia. But we also come to realize that a part of Nicky knows Mikey could be in on the hit. Part of him knows this because he sees the same propensity in himself. But Mikey knows the right things to say, and he seems genuinely concerned and willing to do all he can for his friend.

Finally in the hotel room with Nicky, Mikey adopts a parenting role, trying to talk Nicky down, trying to help him walk away from the edge, trying to help him care for an ulcer. He asks how Nicky knows he has a hit out on him, but he promises to help him get away if that’s what Nicky believes.

The next third of the film is a series of nocturnal vignettes as Nicky’s whims — driven by his fear but also by his cocksure attitude that covers up a series of broken bridges — govern where they go. He wants to go to a bar. He wants to go to a movie. He wants to go see a girl. He wants to stop at the cemetery where his mom is buried. All the while, Mikey follows along, periodically calling his wife to let her know he’s going to be later than expected.

Throughout the night, their friendship is on display for us, and somehow May shows us a genuine relationship that is made of deep love and deep hatred. Their deep love, though, seems to come from strange loyalties that arose in their youth. Their hatred from petty sniping and griping over the years.

And should we ever think they are good men deep down, May shows us that each of them is cruel and petty and bitter. They think as men they are naturally strong, so their weaknesses grate, and they compensate by with mock affection while berating anyone they see as lesser, particularly the women in their lives. Through these two men, May explored toxic masculinity before it was called toxic masculinity.

The nuances are underscored by some horrific dramatic irony. May lets us know nearly from the start of the film that Nicky is right: there is a hit out on him. Yes, it’s for a mere $1,000; that’s how small-time Nicky is to his bosses. Worse, Mikey has been called on and has taken it upon himself to coordinate a trek over Philadelphia that will bring together Nicky and the hired gun — played wonderfully by Ned Beatty.

This is a film that has it so many compelling elements: gangsters, night in the city, chases, paranoia, friendship. I find it gripping. May is a master at dialogue, so it’s also always a pleasure when the film slows down and we get to settle into exploring the horrific (but probably somewhat familiar) relationship between Mikey and Nicky. May shows so much through the dialogue but also through the direction, something I don’t think she gets as much credit for here as she deserves. I mean, look at this shot. Nicky is on the couch with his girlfriend. Mikey sits patiently in the other room. Only it’s clear there’s so much going on here. Sadly, the girlfriend is a prop these two will use to get at each other.

The women in this film — from an offended bystander on the bus, to Nicky’s girlfriend and wife, to Mikey’s wife — are all memorable. Nicky’s relationships are, of course, more volatile. At first it seems that Mikey has a good relationship with his wife, but when we finally see them together we see an ugly situation where even his most calm statements make her sit straight and answer carefully. Like so much in this film, it’s painful to watch. At the same time, it’s important, May knows this, and she ensures the women, as sad as they are, are not mere props in the film.

As a final note, I wanted to touch on the technical issues the film suffers. The sound is a bit wonky at times. The lighting has been criticized. At times there’s a crew member in a bush. I don’t mind any of this. In fact, I consider these weaknesses to be strengths. I think a long essay could be written on how these problems (I don’t pretend they’re intentional) serve the film in the end. It lends it a lo-fi fragility that suits Mikey and Nicky wonderfully. They are mostly subliminal. Something’s off. I certainly don’t think the film is hindered; I think it’s powerful from beginning to end, and I heartily recommend it.

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By |2019-01-24T19:31:19+00:00January 24th, 2019|Categories: Elaine May, Film Reviews|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. David January 25, 2019 at 11:10 am

    Trevor, a good discussion of an interesting film. I will take issue with a couple of your comments. First, the many production problems and errors were more of a distraction for me. I thought I was seeing a character hidden behind the furniture in the hotel room, but it just turns out to be a crew member who was caught on camera. That does change how you see a scene. The guy who was not so well hidden on the back seat of the car again at first seemed like it was supposed to be a character in the film only to turn out to be a crew member. Other production errors are more forgivable (and by the time we get to the crew members in the bushes it just seems funny to play spot-the-crew), but these two changed how I was reading the story. And when she shot 140 times as much film as was used (140!!!) it seems more strange to just include these errors.
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    Secondly, I think you give too much cred it to May for the dialogue. My bet from viewing the film was that 90-100% of the dialogue was improvised by the actors. An article in New York Magazine confirms that a lot of the time she just let the camera roll while the two men talked about whatever they wanted in addition to ideas that she gave them for what she wanted to be in the film. In fact, had I not known that the film was directed and “written” by May, I would have assumed it was just another John Cassavetes film. It’s really as though May had the idea for a Cassavetes-type film and then just went out and hired the man himself and his main actor (Falk) to make it for her. In fact, as a film made a couple of years after Cassavetes Husbands, it does have a lot of the same feel as that film.
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    There was one good example of a line that I can only imagine was improvised early on in the film. When Mikey arrives at the hotel room at the start of the film, Nicky points the gun at him. Mikey says something about how he could have put his eye out with it. That had to be Falk just making a joke that ended up in the final cut. My favourite scene was Mikey telling his wife about his brother, his father, and the watch. The content of that scene was quite probably May’s idea, but Falk delivers it brilliantly.
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    A more professionally done version of the film (by which I mean just none of the production errors, but not a less gritty film) could have been great. In the end, this is a movie I would much more strongly suggest seeing to someone who is otherwise interested in John Cassavetes’ films than to someone who is interested in Elaine May’s film and other work. It also might make a good double bill with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, also filmed (and released) in 1973. I was thinking about what a remake of the film might be like, but got stuck on who the cast would be. I could see someone like Sam Rockwell as Nicky and maybe John Turturro as Mikey. I would still set the film in the early 1970s. It’s not a plot that works as well in the cell phone generation.

  2. Trevor Berrett January 25, 2019 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks for taking me to task, David!

    As far as seeing the crew members, I’ll concede. That is not a technical glitch that somehow adds to the film itself. I get why she put those pieces in even though she had plenty of filmed footage. With this film she definitely seems to be in the school of “you put the best angle and take in the film, regardless of the boom mic.” Further, she had to work for years to edit it so my guess is the alternative options just weren’t working out. But I do think that the other glitches, though not intentional, give the film a quality that works in conjunction with the low-lives on screen. I wouldn’t recommend anyone set out to do this, but for me here it really didn’t create a problem. That’s not just because I think they somehow added to the film, of course; most of why this film works so well is because of Falk and Cassavetes.

    On that note, and as for May’s dialogue, I’d also always heard this was a great improvisational film. However, there is a pre-shooting script out there, and I’ve heard it’s surprising just how faithful the film is. I haven’t read it myself (though I’d like to), but that suggests May did write much of the dialogue. I see this in the scenes, though; this is a dark black comedy in stretches, and it matches her own comedic work in surprising ways. Further, it’s a credit to her direction and to Falk and Cassavetes that it still comes off as improv, or, perhaps a better way to put it, spontaneous, more like real life. That also adds to the volatility of the characters for me.

    I agree it feels a lot like a Cassavetes film. I heard, though, that it was Falk who got Cassavetes involved. They saw each other at a basketball game, or something, and Falk said, hey, Elaine May is making a movie, would you like to be involved? Now, is that a true story? I don’t know. Did May tell Falk she hoped Cassavetes would join? I’m not sure. It seems a great cosmic right that Cassavetes is in this, though. There is a lot of lore about this film out there. I’m not sure just what is and what isn’t true when it comes to the film’s inception and production. I think it’s clear May had the idea and worked on developing it from the 1950s, but when it comes to production itself there are some contradictions out there.

    As for double bills, I was recommending it to a friend the other day and saw that she was about to watch Straw Dogs. I thought, wow, that would be a fascinating, painful double feature.

  3. David January 25, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    Trevor, The story of how Cassavetes got involved in the film might be apocryphal, but it does not sound all that strange. I can imagine that had Cassavetes not done the film it might not have had as much the feel of being one of his films. It’s a natural consequence of who you choose to be your collaborators that they leave a big mark on the work, which is why stories about how person X almost was cast for a role can seem strange. (Stallone was the original first choice for Beverley Hills Cop, which seems unimaginable after seeing Eddie Murphy in the role.)
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    It is interesting that the finished film might have been so similar to a written script. It’s almost like she let Falk and Cassavetes play for hours with the cameras rolling and then only kept the scripted parts, but thereby got better chemistry from them in doing those parts. I agree there is a very natural feel to how the men talk that is not like most films, but as with Cassavetes own films there are times when I think that there is a reason for tightening up dialogue, at least a little bit. Real people having real conversations can sometimes be not as interesting as one would hope. It mostly works, but not always.

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