Criterion Collection: Mikey and Nicky (1976) | Blu-ray Review
Of the four noted directorial efforts from writer-director Elaine May, whose career behind the camera ended after the critical debacle of 1987’s infamous Ishtar, perhaps the most underrated and masterful is her 1976 offering Mikey and Nicky. Judging from the presence of its costars, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, the title and cast suggest the essence of the latter lead’s filmography. But its unique and original narrative feels as similarly free-spirited and unconventional as any of Cassavetes’ greatest cinematic offerings.
Following on the heels of her oft-celebrated and frequently referenced first two features, A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which has since been remade, May turned to something more personal for her third exploration of betrayal, basing her narrative on actual characters and events from a background which included her own mafia affiliated family. A sobering snapshot of 1970s Philadelphia, Falk and Cassavetes embark on a mean-spirited odd couples’ routine, supported by a fine cast of recognizable character actors. Of course, part of the reason the film slipped immediately into obscurity was due to May’s drama with Paramount, who hobbled the film’s release when she did not deliver the product on time and went over budget by nearly three million dollars. As such, a cut of the film was dumped into theaters in late 1976 while May was not able to release her own cut until 1986 thanks to producer Julian Schlossburg, who purchased the rights from Paramount in 1978.
After having stolen money from his mob boss, Nicky (Cassavetes) calls on his old pal Mikey (Falk), who works for the same affiliation, to help get him out of town after discovering a hit’s been put out on him. Mikey shows up at Nicky’s hotel, doing his best to assuage Nicky’s significant paranoia and mounting hysteria. As they scrabble together a plan of escape, Nicky keeps changing the parameters, leading them on a rambling trek through the city as a steadfast hitman (Ned Beatty) trails them.
Though it begins as a black comedy scenario, May quickly escalates the desperation of the scenario, as utilized in twin scenes, the first of which features Falk violently manhandling the man behind a deli counter (assistant director Peter R. Scoppa) in an ill-fated attempt to acquire half-and-half to quell his buddy Nicky’s ulcer. Falk explodes magnificently, while May captures the astonished expressions of the other customers (later, Cassavetes pulls a similar stunt on M. Emmet Walsh’s equally unhelpful bus driver).
Mikey and Nicky belong to a world where they’ve been blinded by their own entitlement (hence Nicky’s current conundrum), and resistance is futile. How they behave towards a group of black men during a tangential sequence in a bar, for instance, is particularly potent if mostly for how May takes pains to emphasize the disrespect of these men and the perceived danger to the black owned establishment. And, of course, there’s not one woman on hand who isn’t somehow belittled, demeaned or just plain slapped around (including a pair of sequences with Carol Grace, wife of William Saroyan before she married Walter Matthau, star of May’s A New Leaf). Others include Rose Arrick as Falk’s ambivalent wife and a distressed Joyce Van Patten as the mother of Cassavetes’ child, featured in an exchange which hits notes of tenderness and outright violence.
What’s most enjoyable about Mikey and Nicky is how unglamorous this whole universe is. Boiled down, it’s a depressing saga about two childhood friends who have grown perilously apart in a dehumanizing occupation. But how May presents the workings of ‘the organization’ is as unromantic and unenthralling as one could imagine. Anxious meetings between the oft mentioned Resnick (Sanford Meisner), Falk and a befuddled Ned Beatty as the low-hanging trigger man are presented as a far cry from, say, the omnipresent heavies in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). And let’s not forget the curious inclusion of the sort-of youngish William Hickey as Resnick’s right-hand, hovering anxiously below foot.
Criterion presents Mikey and Nicky as new, director-approved 4K digital transfer, presented in 1.85:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are significantly cleaned up, though retaining a wearied, faded gloss (which may also be explained by five credited cinematographers, a byproduct of May insisting cameras be rolling at all time in order to catch the actors unrehearsed). Several documentary segments are included in the disc’s extra features.
Featuring new interviews with Joyce Van Patten and distributor Julian Schlossberg, this fourteen-minute segment explores how Elaine May approached the making of Mikey and Nicky, the actors and look of the film.
Criterion recorded this twenty-three-minute program in 2018 with critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey, on hand to discuss Elaine May’s unique achievements.
This forty-five-minute 1976 archival interview with Peter Falk was conducted by Julian Schlossberg for the radio program Movie Talk, wherein the actors briefly discusses his role as Mikey in Mikey and Nicky.
An excellent recuperation of what may have been Elaine May’s most accomplished achievement, Mikey and Nicky is a sublimely sad, shockingly grim portrait of friendship, toxic masculinity and the dismal realities of duplicity.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆