Mikey and Nicky is an interesting minimalist character study of two low-rent hoods on a particularly fateful Manhattan night. The making of the film became much bigger news than the final product as director Elaine May ran up huge production bills and kept shooting for a record time while working out finer points of mobster psychology with her two stars, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. The amazing thing is that the film is neither bad or misconceived. It plays very well for a movie that should have been shot in five weeks with a skeleton crew.
The seventies' run of director-fueled American art films was already coming to a close when Elaine May spent a ton of Paramount's money making Mikey and Nicky; Jaws had pointed the way to the future: Audience-friendly event movies about upbeat adventure and technical showmanship. Elaine May's gritty gangster saga is more like Odd Man Out or The Friends of Eddie Coyle in its depiction of a pair of grubby losers involved in sordid goings-on. It all takes place in one night as sort of a wise guy's American Graffiti. The protagonists are their own worst enemies. Nicky is not only paranoid, he's spitefully contemptous of everyone around. Mikey receives friendly treatment only to the extent that he goes along with Nicky's every foolish wish. For his part, Mikey reveals his own distrust and resentment of his best friend, who hasn't shared his good times with Resnick or recommended MIkey for any good jobs.
Nicky is the least trustworthy of the two, but Mikey and Nicky makes no such distinctions, as Mikey is only marginally less eager to take advantage of people. What they really are is infantile; Nicky especially seems to think that being a hood allows him to be selfish at all times, including claiming the right to doublecross his dangerous bosses in the mob. They're exactly what you'd expect in the lower ranks of organized crime.
The film is completely character-driven and its best aspect is the acting. Falk is convincing as a nervous pal trying to get his buddy to do the smart thing, and Cassavetes' frantic punk jumps to new levels of paranoid aggression every time he gets stressed out. Steering away from the high-falutin' allegory of Odd Man Out, Elaine May's story lets the two stagger through the mean streets but never suggests that they represent anything beyond their own self-made tragedy.
A frequent remark about Mikey and Nicky is that it looks like a Cassavetes picture. If it weren't for the lack of a loose camera or scenes built solely from free-form improvisation, there would be no difference. May succeeds with the intense character interaction and definitely tries to impart the feeling that anything can happen, but it's all within a tightly constructed story arc.
Whether it works or not depends on one's enjoyment of two hours spent with some very unstable and sometimes unpleasant characters. They do some pretty repellent things, especially their visit with one of Nicky's girlfriends, Nellie (Carol Grace). Nellie is Nicky's favorite "quickie" - overaged and not too bright, she quickly succumbs to his sweet-talk on her living room floor. As is his nature, Nicky has no sense of limits; when he's done he sends Mikey in with the advice to "just tell her you love her." It's very ugly and completely credible.
The movie really doesn't have a sense of humor beyond the sick laughter of its heroes, but Ned Beatty does inject a certain amusement into his role of the put-upon hard-luck hit man who can't seem to connect with his target. He has to worry about his car being towed because he's too cheap to hire a wheel man. William Hickey (The Boston Strangler) and Sanford Meisner are quietly menacing as the gang bosses, and M. Emmet Walsh has a nice bit as a bus driver pummeled by our two 'boys' just for fun. Rose Arrick and Joyce Van Patten are also credible as the wives; Arrick figures in the only daylight scene, a starkly unpleasant betrayal. At the end, we are left with a gripping portrait of two very misspent lives.
Again, if this were a low-budget film Hollywood might have embraced it as an independent-styled thriller willing to tell a story. In the extras, the producer says that May exposed over a million feet of 35mm negative to put her 105 minutes of drama on the screen. At that shooting ratio, a blind drunk ought to be able to come up with as much entertainment.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Mikey and Nicky presents a great-looking transfer of a feature that either slipped away or was encouraged to elope from Paramount's control. The enhanced transfer plays great on a large screen without any detail loss in the mostly dark nighttime photography.
There are some good liner notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum and two interview docus, both with producer Michael Hausman. On the first he tells the production story, which includes a lot of guessing because he was completely shut out of May's day-long discussions with her actors and had zero control over her refusal to follow a shooting schedule, or even consider one. The second docu joins Hausman with cinematographer Victor J. Kemper. In the beginning, Cassavetes was doing some of the shooting himself, which resulted in dailies where dozens of film rolls screened with no image on them at all!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mikey and Nicky rates: