Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Note: This is a Region 2 PAL disc distributed in the United Kingdom.
I'm not overly familiar with John Cassavetes' work as a director but it's generally accepted
that his use of a kind of Cinema Verité technique introduced some of the nuances
associated with elements of the French New Wave to American filmmaking, casting him as
the father of American independent cinema in the process. With Mikey and Nicky, director
Elaine May adopts a similar approach and applies it to an unusual gangster story of
some substance, coming up with some very interesting results.
When Nicky (John Cassavetes) steals money from the Mob they put a contract
out on him. Holed up in a hotel room, he contacts fellow gangster and lifelong friend Mikey
(Peter Falk) and asks him for help. However, Mikey is under orders to get Nicky out of
hiding and onto the street so that a mobile hit man (Ned Beatty) can complete the
contract. A series of unforeseen events result in the hit being delayed, allowing time
for the estranged-of-late friends to discuss their shared past and get to know each
other all over again. Moved by the rekindled memories, Mikey has a change of heart
and decides to get Nicky to a safe place out of town. But as their erratic journey
through the night progresses, Mikey is reminded of a side of Nicky's character
that he had been happy to forget and the bonds of their renewed friendship
are soon pushed to breaking point.
In shooting this film, Elaine May boldly stepped outside of the usual conventions of
mainstream American filmmaking. Virtually all of the film's main scenes appear to have
been allowed to run with some element of improvisation from the actors involved. Shot in
a largely Verité style, May appears to have had several cameras, some hand-held and
some seemingly arbitrarily placed, running continuously throughout each take. And while
most of the static master shots featured reveal a concession to conventional composition
and lighting, etc., the apparently improvised nature of a number of sequences means
that some close-ups and tracking shots possess an equally improvised quality and feel.
May then reportedly spent 18 months with John Carter and Sheldon Kahn trying to edit
the amassed footage into something that Paramount would agree to release commercially.
In an interview with Karen Rasch, Kahn revealed that many of the shots included in the
final cut were chosen solely on the strength of the performances captured, with little
consideration given to trying to match the action with continuity details. This approach
is apparent in several sequences: Cassavetes' and Falk's cigarettes have a tendency to
suddenly appear and disappear or suddenly change size, the right-hand headlight of Beatty's
car flickers on and off from scene to scene, a member of May's crew is briefly caught in
a hotel room mirror, focus is adjusted mid-shot in at least one place, the picture and
lighting quality varies from shot to shot, etc.
But don't let any of that put you off. It all adds to the unusual feel that helps make
this a really intriguing little film. In many places it's like a two man play and the
strong performances, and the real sense of intimacy that Cassavetes and Falk conjure up
holds the whole thing together nicely. The variety of emotions that are effortlessly
conveyed through the delivery of the pair's great dialogue and their natural and believable
responses and reactions to each other - including seemingly genuine evocations of surprise,
happiness, hurt, resentment and contempt during what look like largely improvised sequences -
are particularly impressive. These emotionally charged scenes and exchanges are interspersed
with quieter sequences that feature doses of equally good small talk. The feel of the small
talk, especially that between Mikey and Kinney (Beatty's dour, matter-of-fact hit man) is
surely just what Quentin Tarantino was looking to emulate during some of the conversations
that take place between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction.
Though nowhere near as grand or epic in scale or scope, Mikey and Nicky's relationship
and history is similar to that of Robert De Niro and James Woods in Sergio Leone's Once Upon
a Time in America. Their friendship reaches back to their childhood and Mikey takes
pride in having always been there for Nicky whenever he needed him. But Nicky became a
fair-weather friend. He repaid Mikey's loyalty by using Mikey's contacts to ease his own
promotion within the Mob, dropping Mikey once he was no longer of any use to him. When
Nicky's troubles reunite the pair, and they end up running around town like a couple of
kids again, Mikey is happy to let himself be won over by Nicky and is once again fully
prepared to risk everything for his old friend. However, Nicky's selective memory, and
his indifferent attitude to the shared past experiences that have remained so important
to Mikey, ultimately leaves Mikey's picture of the past shattered forever.
Cassavetes is a little unconvincing in the opening sequence where he listlessly rolls
around his hotel room, literally crawling the walls. Lost in a haze of paranoia, panic,
fear and self pity, his performance here brings to mind Elliott Gould's appearance in
Barry Levinson's Bugsy. But as soon as he hits the streets with Mikey, and starts
acting like the unpredictable and obstinate Nicky of old, he really comes into his own.
A quick thinking liar who has a convincing answer for every accusation fired at him, Nicky
is able to charm everyone he meets. But he is also something of a bully who just can't
resist provoking confrontations and hurting those around him, both physically and
psychologically. His antics include tussling with a bus driver (M. Emmet Walsh) who
instructs him to leave his bus via the rear door instead of the front one, harassing
his estranged wife (Joyce Van Patten), peddling untrue and salacious stories about his
girlfriend (Carol Grace) before advising his buddies to try their luck with her, berating
a candy store owner about the content of his stock, flirting with a girl in front of her
angry boyfriend and verbally and physically assaulting Mikey. When finally pushed for
an explanation for his aggressive and destructive tendencies he just shrugs his shoulders
and sighs, "I just like to show off."
Falk is superb as Mikey. He's not as flash or as ambitious as Nicky and consequently hasn't
been as successful in advancing his standing within the Mob, a little like Al Pacino's
character in Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco. He enters the film as a rat who is prepared
to sell out his oldest friend but what we later discover about Nicky's treatment of Mikey
during recent years makes Mikey's initially traitorous stance understandable. Talk of the
old days revives feelings of neighbourhood loyalty, and prompts Mikey to forgive Nicky's
previously hurtful and selfish behaviour, only for Nicky to petulantly instigate a fresh
cycle of vindictiveness, employing mind games that serve to shake Mikey's self confidence
and bring old resentments back to the surface. By the end of the film Mikey is close to
the edge: racked with self doubt, his self-image is in tatters. While this element of the
finale affords Mikey a degree of sympathy we remain aware that he is a pretty mean dude
all the same. When a pedantic diner worker repeatedly comes up with excuses as to why he can't sell or give Mikey pots of free cream without the requisite servings of coffee, Mikey simply explodes, launches himself over the counter and roughs the guy up, Joe Pesci-style. And while he commends himself on being thoughtful enough to let his wife (Rose Arrick) know that he'll be staying out all night, he has no qualms about trying his luck with Nicky's girlfriend and giving her a slap when things don't work out.
Predating Martin Scorsese's endeavours in Goodfellas and Casino, May does a great
job of presenting snapshots of the gangsters' wives and their domestic set-ups. Nicky's wife
has left him, tired of him staying out all night and sick of his aggressive nature. But it's
clear that his charm still works on her and she still loves him. His girlfriend also finds
it hard to resist his charm. He belittles her interest in literature and current affairs
and does all that he can to embarrass her but she still puts up with him. Mikey's wife's
happiness seems to revolve around their acquisition of a nice house in a good area. She
hardly seems bothered when Mikey's not around. Though she appears supportive and makes
the noises that Mikey needs to hear, when he tries to talk through and reassess his inner
doubts about the past, Mikey realises that she doesn't really listen to a word he says.
Most scenes play without any soundtrack music and it's hard to determine just what John
Strauss' score amounts to. The soundtrack features several incidental songs but the nearest
thing to soundtrack music proper is a couple of repeated instrumental pieces that, at first,
come across like waves of incongruous, meandering, jazz-funk. However, by the end of the
film, the hidden but catchy melodies contained therein have surreptitiously worked their
way into your subconscious and have managed to manifest themselves as yet another of this
unique film's unusual but magic ingredients.
The film was shot full-frame and appears reasonably natural and comfortable in this 1.33:1
aspect ratio presentation. The studio ceiling (or lack of it) can just be made out in one
of the hotel room shots but I'm not so sure that letterboxing the image would necessarily
improve this particular show. With the DVD's master being taken from the original negative,
the picture quality at its best is excellent. But, due to the nature of the shoot,
some shots appear grainier than others and some shots are softer than others. And some
sequences have a kind of hazy, early video feel to them. The bulk of this tale takes place
in the middle of the night, so most of the street scenes were shot after dark. And dark
they are but they are largely clean and solid, with colour and detail being generally
well retained. The late night ambience of mean city streets circa 1976 comes through
loud and clear.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mikey and Nicky (PAL, region 2) rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Four page booklet, stills gallery, biographies and selected filmographies
for Elaine May, Peter Falk & John Cassavetes.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2002
Lee Broughton informs us that Mikey and Nicky is issued by a new British DVD label,
C'Est La Vie, who specialize in foreign-language, arthouse and the eclectic. Releases
so far include Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, Gerard Corbiau's Le Maitre de
Musique and Roberto Mauri's Sartana in the Valley of Death.
© Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson