Mickey and Nicky (1976) is too good to be true. The story of two low-level hoods wandering around the Philadelphia streets at night doesn’t sound terribly compelling—but when the two hoods in question are played by Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, it no longer matters where they’re going or how long it takes to get there, we just want to stay with them and spend as much time as possible in their company.
John Cassavetes stars as Nicky. Everything in life is a joke to him, an opportunity to crack wise and have the last word. But time has run out on Nicky’s antics—his gangster boss Resnick has gotten wind of Nicky’s recent double-cross of the syndicate and now Resnick is gunning for Nicky.
Cassavetes (left) is the incorrigible Nicky; and Falk (right) is the understanding Mikey
Nicky turns to his oldest friend Mikey for help (played by Peter Falk). The two men meet and brainstorm safe ways to spirit Nicky out of town under the radar of Resnick’s men. At this time in the mid-1970s Falk was enjoying enormous success on TV as the lovable, rumpled LAPD Lieutenant Columbo. In Mikey and Nicky Falk is identical to his TV counterpart, even wearing a tan raincoat throughout most of the film. But Falk’s Mikey is very different than his small-screen alter-ego—although much of Falk’s charm remains, his Mikey is forthright and thoughtful, a restrained complement to Cassavetes’ flying-off-the-handle Nicky.
The men vacillate between catching a train or driving out of town, and in the meantime select a series of late night haunts to pass the time and keep undercover. Their fears are not unfounded—on their heels is out-of-town hood Kinney, played by Ned Beatty. Resembling a traveling salesman more than a cool hitman, Beatty's sweating overweight killer is stuffed into an off-the-rack suit and is constantly having to interrupt his pursuit of Nicky in order to stop and ask for directions.
While the two men decide what to do, Killen (Ned Beatty) is in confused pursuit
Even though the mafia is the milieu of this movie, as the night wears on in Mikey and Nicky the film becomes less about crime and intrigue (the reasons for Nicky being in the hot seat are only mentioned in passing but never explained in detail), and more about the relationship between our two men. Friends since childhood, Mikey and Nicky agree that they have a bond that runs deep. Nicky explains: “That’s why we’re such good friends, because we remember each other from when we were kids. (We remember) things that happened that no one else knows about but us. It’s in our heads. That’s how we know they really happened.” Although both men are in “the life,” they hold very different places in their world. Falk's Mikey is happily married with a wife and a son, but he remains on the outer circle of the action amongst the crooks whereas Nicky has wheedled himself past Mikey and into the inner sanctum of Resnick's gang, at the expense of his own wife and child, who have recently left him.
Nicky’s anxiety about the danger he’s in is measured in equal parts violent outburst and calm introspection. Throughout the night he visits the important people in his life: Mikey, his wife, his mistress. Nicky isn’t just asking for help, he’s also trying to gauge how much he’s hurt the few closest to him with a lifetime of thoughtless behavior. He is tearfully turned out of his wife’s apartment, and thrown out of his mistress’ place after an ugly encounter. Eventually, Mikey’s resentment about Nicky's treatment of him as a friend is unearthed during one of their many conversations turned arguments; and Nicky suspects that this may have lethal consequences for him.
John Cassavetes the actor is on full display as he rarely is in his own films, playing the charming, rakish, and at times despicable Nicky. On this night Nicky is satisfying every whim as he’s having it, with complete disregard for the rules: he smokes on the bus, eats sacks of candy, starts a bar fight, and breaks into a cemetery to visit his mother's grave in the dead of night. Although Mikey is sometimes horrified at Nicky's behavior, they both sense that in a way Nicky is beyond reproach. As Nicky justifies, "What difference does it make? I’m dead anyway. No one can hurt me.”
It's unclear throughout most of the film who tipped off Killen to Mikey and Nicky's whereabouts, but Nicky suspects that Mikey is setting him up for a fall at the hands of Resnick. Far from being angry, Nicky accepts his fate solemnly as if it's his due, an appropriate end after the way he's behaved as a friend and a husband. Mikey is disturbed by Nicky's accusation but dismisses it—Nicky has been flying off the handle all night, acting out as a man would who’s afraid for his life.
Elaine May never directed a successful film, but she’s responsible for some of the most unique movies in the last fifty years, including A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and most notoriously Ishtar (1987). Elaine May’s films have a sense of humor like no other, featuring a bemused joy at life’s quandaries that’s based on the blackest outlook on life and morality. Mikey and Nicky is at times very grim, but it retains a thin slice of black humor throughout that’s buoyed by the effervescent performances of Falk and Cassavetes. You can feel that their interactions in the film are based on the men's real-life friendship. Their sincerities and jokes are raw and genuine, and despite the artificial construct of the plot it's this quality that makes the film so special.
Mikey and Nicky had a troubled post-production; although the film was shot in 1973, it was not released until 1976. May's first cut of the film ran over three hours long, and the studio predictably objected to the run time and demanded further cuts. Unable to agree on a studio-authorized "final cut," May went so far as to kidnap the print from the studio and for a time held it hostage until the two parties could agree on a final version with an eventual runtime of 119 minutes.
The casting of Cassavetes and Falk, along with the naturalistic and raw qualities of the film, necessitate a comparison with Cassavetes’s directorial output. Cassavetes, known as the “Father of Independent Film,” began writing, producing, and directing his own films in the late 1950s when he became frustrated with the endless creative compromises required to get a studio film off the ground while retaining artistic control. Though his self-funded and often self-distributed films received modest theatrical releases, such as Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), and A Woman Under the Influence (1974)—the latter two co-starring Falk—his movies were very influential to a generation of filmmakers and are considered groundbreaking in their timing, tone, and lack of artifice.
Although both directors disregard plot extremities as much as possible in order to get to raw scenes between actors that feel improvised and off-the-cuff, May’s film has a clearer, lighter touch than a Cassavetes film, with a faster pace and a cogent plot (there's no impromptu singing or run-on scenes that feel incomplete). The two directors are inherently different in their outlook on humanity: Cassavetes, in films like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, seeks to prove that individuals are always renewing, always declaring themselves worthy of redemption and celebration; in May's Mikey and Nicky, she posits than a man is the sum of his actions, and that after a lifetime of inflicting pain and selfishness there may be nothing he can do to make himself worthy of salvation.
UPDATE: As of late January 2019, Mikey and Nicky is available from Criterion