Elaine May's MIKEY AND NICKY is a Gangster Drama of Uncommon Humanity

In recent years, there has been a growing cultural awareness of the extent to which the film industry is by and large dominated by men both in front of and behind the camera. To put a spotlight on women working in film, I am participating in the 52 Films By Women challenge. The requirements: watch at least one (1) new-to-you film per week that has been directed by a woman. As I make my way through the year, I will be reviewing each film I see as part of the challenge here.

52 Films By Women Entry #: 7

Mikey and Nicky poster.jpg

Looking back from the vantage point of today, the forgotten gem Mikey and Nicky is so clearly of a time before Scorsese fully reconfigured what we expect of a gangster movie. One would say the film is even outside of its own time - its poor box office receipts and the burial Paramount gave it in ‘76 would suggest such. Lacking the grand operatic scope of a Godfather as well as the momentous cool of a Goodfellas and any number of imitators that followed it, Mikey and Nicky is incredibly distinctive and uniquely difficult to classify, flitting between quiet tragedy and comic drama as it charts one night in a tumultuous friendship. The characters’ identities as mob men, as integral to the conflict of the film as they are, are nearly an afterthought.

From the beginning, the film establishes a frenzied state of being that comes not from stylistic camera movements or rapid editing and violence, but from a disquiet of the soul, rooted in an emotional understanding of the men at its center. One of those men, Nicky (John Cassavettes) is holed up in a dingy hotel in downtown Philadelphia, lying low after ripping off a mob-owned bank. He gets word that his partner in the scheme has been killed, and suspects a hit has been put out on him as well. The paranoiac turns to his old childhood friend Mikey (Peter Falk), a fellow career criminal, to bail him out of trouble.

You quickly get the sense that this is not the first time this has happened. Mikey finds Nicky at the hotel, and after much arguing convinces him to leave the hotel to get him out of town. Nicky’s fears aren’t eased so easily though; he resorts to asking Mikey to switch coats with him, expecting to be gunned down upon stepping out onto the street. They go to a bar, where, unbeknownst to him, Nicky’s paranoia is validated by Mikey calling the hitman who’s been hired to kill him.

Betrayal and loyalty lie at the core of the film. From their first meeting the sense of history and warmth between Mikey and Nicky is evident, hinting at a shared past that will be teased out as Nicky whisks Mikey around the city according to his own desperate whims. Even in Nicky’s paranoia, he almost seems to know that he’s already dead; this long, sweaty night is just getting as much out of what time’s left as humanly possible. The pair go to an all-night movie, then another bar, then his mother’s grave. Nicky ends up at the homes of both his mistress and his ex-wife. The picture the visits paint of Nicky becomes less and less positive. Here is an aggressive, selfish man who has broken the trust of everyone he knows to get what he thinks he wants, taking from all of his relationships and leaving behind pieces of his own brokenness.

Elaine May

Peter Falk
John Cassavettes
Ned Beatty
Carol Grace
Joyce Van Patten

Screenplay by
Elaine May

Mikey is not exempt from Nicky’s irresponsible approach to friendship. At one time Mikey was the foot in the door for Nicky with the local syndicate; he makes note that he wouldn’t even greet him afterward when out to dinner with the boss. And yet, Mikey’s always been the one to call for help, and he has always heeded the call without hesitation. This time, however, much more is at risk. How much is a rotten, one-sided friendship worth against the well-being of his family, or his house in the suburbs and good standing with the bosses?

A deep sadness runs through the film’s veins, shot through intermittently with acerbic humor. Writer and director Elaine May was known for her comedies, and also as an actor and one of the great improvisers of her time. She brought that same spontaneous approach to Mikey and Nicky, and the results speak for themselves. The film has a beautiful vitality and quiet sophistication; each moment feels breathed into being on the spot. Falk and Cassavettes had collaborated together on the latter’s own directorial efforts before co-starring here, and their chemistry brings both a palpable fondness and a beleaguered tension to every scene. Consider Mikey’s gentle affirmations to calm Nicky into letting him into the hotel room, a scene embedded with both care and sardonic frustration.

That genuine care for each other is felt, but is difficult for either man to outright express. Any attempt on Nicky’s part comes out twisted into aloof arrogance and an unwillingness to own the pain he causes others. Mikey at least is trying. May is on the record explaining the film’s basis in the older men that she knew growing up, symbols of old-school masculinity that thought themselves above emotion and sensitivity. Her script keenly observes how those kinds of men can be undone by that way of being, how their souls twist into something thorny, untouchable, solitary. The shattering, disquieting conclusion of the film demonstrates where that tragic road ends. Explosive violence is common in these types of films. What is uncommon is to spend the entire film building up such clear humanity in its characters, and a single bout of that violence to rip it away so suddenly. The effect is remarkable and unforgettable, and the film deserves to be rediscovered as the classic-in-waiting that it is.

Mikey and Nicky is available on DVD & Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on The Criterion Channel. It is also streaming for free on YouTube, and on Kanopy with an eligible library membership.