Mikey & Nicky VHS
It's not written or directed by John Cassavetes, but Elaine May's eclectic portrait of two petty, middle-aged goodfellas on the streets of Philadelphia is electrified by the same nervous energy and volatile personalities of Cassavetes's best work. Nicky (Cassavetes), a trembling wreck convinced there's a contract out on his life, calls his boyhood buddy, Mikey (Peter Falk), who comes to his aid in the middle of the night. Over the course of one long night stretching to dawn, they scramble through city streets, smoky bars, dark alleys, and a graveyard of ancient memories of camaraderie and duplicity. While they engage in mind games and accusations, a betrayal brews in the background. The tragedy of the drama is that they are likely the best friends either ever had, and the closest thing to family either of them has left. May takes her low-budget picture to the streets and lets friends and former collaborators Cassavetes and Falk hit their shaggy rhythm while she peels back their sneering bravado to find sad, scared, vulnerable men underneath. It was a down-and-dirty shoot for May, whose rush can be seen in momentary glimpses of her crew in a few shots and overhead lights sometimes dipping into the frame, but that same on-the-fly drive gives the film its edgy, restless energy. --Sean Axmaker
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Why the obscurity then? The stories of the film's troubled production and even more troubled editing are well-known and appear in almost every lengthy later review or account of the film - so I'm not going to go into detail. Suffice it to say that though the budget remained modest even by 1976 standards (just over $4 million), the shoot went long and May's methods were called into question by her producer, cinematographer and seemingly most of the people on the crew. Roughly 1.4 million feet of film were exposed (three times as much as the much-larger-scaled GONE WITH THE WIND used) and May's tinkering with the editing took so long that she was eventually forced to put out an unsatisfactory cut to get it released at all. It was only several years later that the version we have now was made available, and people began to see that her perfectionism might in fact have paid off. Perhaps that ancient reputation - and also the reputation the film has for its bleakness - has contributed to the continuing lack of response.
What we have in essence in MIKEY AND NICKY is a two-person character drama, a story about friendship, paranoia and betrayal, that is so carefully rehearsed and so meticulously put together that it achieves something of the force of John Cassavetes' own work as a director - that is, it feels authentic, improvised and spontaneous despite the obsessive retakes and editing. Cassavetes is Nicky, a fairly small-time criminal on the downswing, separated from his wife and kid and holed up in a divey hotel in Philadelphia, waiting for death. Mickey (Peter Falk) is his only friend, and at the beginning of the film it's Mickey who Nicky turns to for help to get him out of the mess - though just how that's going to work is unclear. It's also rather unclear as to whether anyone is really after him - at first - for stealing a bookie's cash. Mickey doesn't seem to believe him - Nicky is sick with an ulcer and seemingly hasn't slept and has apparently always been more than a little paranoid.
But as the film progresses we do see that there is in fact somebody after Nicky, a not-too-bright hood named Kinney (Ned Beatty), who keeps missing the duo as they move on from bar to bar, to cemetery, to all-night movie theater, taking busses, walking and running, arguing and reminiscing over their shared childhoods. And we also start to wonder about the phone call Mickey places, early in the film from the first bar that he and Nicky drink in. If Nicky is on his way down - personally and professionally - we soon see that Mickey is on his way up, and perhaps it will turn out Nicky's choice of this oldest friend to confide in and trust isn't a very good one.
Mikey and Nicky is photographed in much the same sort of pseudo-verité style that most of Cassavetes' indie features were - lots of close-ups, lots of brief and jarring camera movements, handheld shots, longish takes side by side with very brief cuts, etc, and all done with a lighting scheme that attempts a very realistic palette of color and brightness in this entirely night-set and night-shot story. So it's interesting that the sound design of the film is almost completely at odds with the photography; even in long shots we always hear Mikey and Nicky perfectly clearly, much of their dialogue is clearly looped (very, very skillfully), and external noises are often kept to an unrealistic minimum or eliminated. The effect is almost a Brechtian distancing one - what we see looks real, what we hear seems more like a theatrical piece. In fact the film started out as an idea for a play that May had in the 1950s but never (apparently) wrote or produced as such. Given that the two main characters are both garrulous storytellers, and that the film consists of a fairly limited number of scenes which are all almost entirely dialogue-filled, this seems appropriate to me. It's an inherently theatrical and over-the-top stagey piece that manages to work miraculously well as a film.
Falk and Cassavetes are as good as I've ever seen them, with Cassavetes managing to play a character on the edge throughout the piece without ever going into self-parody, and Falk managing the difficult task of remaining likeable throughout even as we see more of his dark side growing minute by minute. One very interesting element that runs as an undercurrent throughout the film but occupies a fairly small portion of the running time is the relationships that both main characters have to women. It's apparent that on a certain level Mikey has maintained his sanity and moved up in the world in part through having a stable family life - and through giving up a certain part of his more macho, youthful attitude - and this may also help to account for his ultimate attitude towards his best friend. Nicky on the other hand is still reaching out to Mikey, and some of this may have to do with his inability to really connect with and be honest with any of the women in his life, let alone with just one of them. Whether the film is saying that men can have a stable relationship OR keep their friendships, or not, I don't know, but the ambiguity with which Mikey's actions are seen leads me to believe it's a pretty complex issue which I'll need more viewings to sort out.
Ultimately this is a pretty dark film about friendship, nostalgia, and betrayal which I think is open to a lot of interpretations, but is at the same time beautiful and moving to watch as a fairly simple character study with two great actors riffing on each other. I don't know if it exceeded all my expectations or dreams of what it would be, after 20 years of living with the possibility of it in my head, but it certainly didn't disappoint.
The DVD looks terrific, and there are some interesting interviews with cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and Michael Hausman, who while appreciative enough of May's talent don't hesitate to confirm the difficulties on the set, and afterwards. May herself, unsurprisingly, doesn't contribute. It's too bad - whatever the criticisms some might have of her methods, there's little denying the miraculous results.
The film stars Peter Falk and John Cassavetes as two middle-aged gangsters. Nicky (Cassavetes) has stolen a lot of money from his employers and is on the run from a blustery, not-too-bright contract killer (Ned Beatty). A frantic Nicky calls Mikey (Falk), his friend from childhood, for help. Critics have noticed that this film seems almost a parody of Cassavetes' own directed films like "Faces" and "A Woman Under The Influence", and "Mikey and Nicky" does have a sort of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" improv feel to it. But a couple of viewings will reveal a careful structure to the screenplay. Different layers of these wiseguys' characters are gradually and surprisingly revealed until we get an almost literary, rounded understanding of them. Indeed, May is said to have started working on this as a play in the 1950's, and it does help to think of it as a theater piece that thrives on the action of language. (Although it is marvelously cinematic; as the two stumble through their long night together we get a terrific sense of the grungy 1970's urban landscape, so different from the clean, well-lighted convenience stores and mutiplexes of today.)
Nicky is impulsive, immature and wild; Mikey is something of a nerd who is pained that the bosses don't like him. Their relationship does remind you of the Harvey Keitel-Robert DeNiro friendship in "Mean Streets", filtered through the absurdist mob comedy of "Prizzi's Honor." Eventually, though, the laughs begin to stick in your throat as it becomes clear that May is primarily interested in the anatomy of betrayal and back-stabbing. These two know everything about each other from childhood and can't refrain from using that knowledge as weapons. The film eventually builds to a shattering climax that is one of the most effective I have seen in a long time. May's dark gangster fable is a clear ancestor in tone and humor to "The Sopranos", especially in its view of mobsters as working stiffs who play out office politics with guns and knives. If you are a fan of that HBO masterpiece, you should really see "Mikey and Nicky."
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