Elaine May has a gracefully rococo sense of timing as an actor, detecting and penetrating her co-stars’ rhythms and defenses so intuitively that she almost appears to be inventing a new kind of art. This gift also animates her work as a writer and director, most vividly the 1976 crime drama Mikey and Nicky. Though to call Mikey and Nicky a “crime drama” is akin to referring to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as a “mystery,” as both films are unique expressions of their creators’ souls.
Mikey and Nicky may appear to the modern viewer to spring from a cinephilic thought experiment: What if May, a woman associated with comedy, were to fashion a John Cassavetes film? As a filmmaker and an actor, Cassavetes reveled in an illusion of imprecision—the opposite of May’s method. And it’s this friction, between May and Cassavetes’s sensibilities as auteurs, that drives Mikey and Nicky. May takes a Cassavetes scenario—working-class guys wandering an atmospheric city, drinking, smoking, arguing, and airing their deepest grievances—and informs it with a sobering sense of perspective as well as a wicked sense of humor.
The bullshitting and bickering of low-level gangsters Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky (Cassavetes) is informed with a snap—derived by timing, particularly of the editing—that isn’t always present in Cassavetes’s own films. Mikey and Nicky opens with Nicky in the bed of a shabby hotel, which is followed by quick cuts to a nearby newspaper and the front door of the room, establishing tension that escalates when Nicky summons Mikey to the hotel only to distrust the latter’s motives for arriving. The newspaper reports of a gangland killing, so one assumes that Nicky feels he’s the next head on the chopping block, and that he suspects Mikey of being the chopper. But all of this information is established suggestively, and May continually sidesteps exposition, developing this tension into a series of duets between Mikey and Nicky that imbed who’s-on-first routines with poignant comic danger.
For a mediocre filmmaker, a scene in which a man tries to talk his friend into hitting the road to evade the mob would be a moment of routine necessity to prepare the audience for a set piece. For May, however, such a moment is the set piece. It takes a long time for Mikey to talk Nicky out of his hotel room, and May and her actors work up a fervor that dramatizes the suffocating terror of impending death. In a lovely absurdist twist, Mikey talks his way into Nicky’s room only to leave to get cream from a local restaurant to soothe Nicky’s ulcer-ridden stomach, and to return so as to have to talk his way back into Nicky’s room again. This is a vintage May sketch, with vintage May timing, cloaked in the aura of a Cassavetes film.
May reportedly shot over a million feet of footage for Mikey and Nicky, whittling it down to an ideal of controlled chaos. The film is nothing but observational high points, a near impossibility that’s achieved by trial and error, by pitilessly throwing out that which isn’t profound. Every argument, every comic, rueful moment in Mikey and Nicky builds atop another, gradually establishing who Mikey and Nicky are. There’s a beautiful bit in a bar where Mikey is preoccupied with a pay phone, telegraphing to Nicky that he’s indeed a betrayer. May lingers on an agonizingly long shot of Nicky smiling, deliberately breaking the tempo of the scene to illustrate a revelatory gesture that has the outer appearance of casualness. There are many such scenes in this film, which suggest retrospection and the present tense at the same time, alluding to how important moments in our lives can often feel like little to nothing.
May rhymes verbal and physical violence with liquid finesse. As crime films go, Mikey and Nicky isn’t action-packed, but banal altercations are informed with the horror that they possess in actual life. Mikey, seemingly the sensible foil to Nicky, threatens to beat up the guy at the restaurant with a suddenness that’s contextually flabbergasting. Another instance of such violence, involving a bus driver, erupts later in the film, which May invests with a mischievous streak of comedy. Such scenes deflate the masculine pomposity of the common crime film, showing violence to be, well, violating, as well as ludicrous and pitiful.
As Mikey and Nicky wander throughout the night, under the guise of figuring out where to hide Mikey from a crime boss, they talk of family, childhood, and past longings, outlaying their souls to the viewer. Few films have so exquisitely captured how straight American men reveal their affections and insecurities to one another, as well as how they’re both threatened and awed by each other. It becomes evident that Mikey is the drab runner-up to the sexy and charismatic Nicky: the reliable beta to the latter’s commandingly reckless alpha. Mikey’s betrayal of Nicky has a resonance, then, suggesting a loser’s opportunity for revenge and grace. Yet this resentment is always understood by May to be girded by an authentic and inescapable love. In friendships, men often seek opposites who complement them and bolster portions of their identity at the cost of other elements. The men are both shamed and intoxicated by the personas they bring out in one another. When Mikey and Nicky spit apart for the second half of the film’s narrative, their mutually nurtured illusions begin to fall apart. May allows women to enter the fray, showing how these men gauge themselves differently against the opposite sex, obscuring and reupholstering themselves.
The contours of Mikey and Nicky’s relationship, and their distance from women, come to the fore in the film’s most disturbing scene. At Nicky’s insistence, the men visit one of his girlfriends, Nellie (Carol Grace), whom Nicky cajoles, via a prolonged and humiliating negotiation, into sleeping with him in front of Mikey. There are two brilliant cappers to the scene: an image in which we hear Nicky and Nellie’s sex in the darkness of the foreground while Mikey smokes in the bright light of the kitchen in the background, and a mismatch of shots, united by the flipping of a light switch, that illustrate the shift in this power play.
In this scene, as in the film at large, May dramatizes a wide array of resentments, manipulations, and modes of sexual warfare, particularly Nicky’s objectification of Nellie, which is meant to impress and embarrass both Nellie and Nicky, and Mikey’s subsequent failure to bed Nellie, which is essentially his way of attempting to ante up to Nicky’s dare. (Lost to the men, but never lost to May, is this woman’s agency as a person, and Nellie’s ongoing struggle to maintain her dignity is brutally poignant.) This sequence epitomizes what May achieves throughout Mikey and Nicky, as she reveals the thread that unites Cassavetes and Falk’s talents with her own: an obsession with failures of observation that stem from self-absorption, further trapping everyone within their own minds.
This image boasts an astonishing range of light and degrees of darkness, to which prior home-video editions of Mikey and Nicky only alluded, fully honoring the rich spectrum of visual textures that Elaine May captures in the film. Quite a bit of grit remains here, at May’s request, giving this transfer a docudramatic vibrancy that’s intensified by the various raw colors, such as the reds and the blues of the neon lights of the wild city night life. Skin and clothing textures are also deeply detailed, as are the smoky backdrops of the beer can-littered dives. The monaural soundtrack is every bit as visceral as the image, with crystal-clear renderings of the various taps, screeches, buzzes, jabbering, and honking that compose an urban environment’s natural aural landscape.
In a new program produced exclusively for the Criterion Collection last year, critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey perceptively discuss May’s creation of Mikey and Nicky, linking it to her formative partnership with Mike Nichols and to her first films as a director, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid. Brody also emphasizes May’s gift for texture, for fashioning seemingly peripheral moments that are truly the subject of her work, while Rickey discusses May’s ability to empathize with men while scrutinizing them. (Brody also shares a fascinating tidbit: that the Mikey and Nicky screenplay, long in development, helped to forge the partnership that arose in the early ’70s between John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in the former’s films. Which is to say that Mikey and Nicky is a response to a body of work that it also helped to perpetuate.) Another new program, with interviews by distributor Julian Schlossberg and actor Joyce Van Patten, similarly celebrate May, though their enthusiasm is also enriched by their personal experience with the filmmaker. Meanwhile, a terrific archival radio interview with Falk by Schlossberg illustrates the actor’s extraordinary insight and gift for storytelling. This slim but evocative supplements package is rounded out by a trailer, a TV spot, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Nathan Rabin.
With this beautiful and lively transfer, the Criterion Collection brings Elaine May’s neglected masterpiece of male alienation back to pulsating life.