"I didn't say he was going to be in the middle of the street waiting for us," says Mikey (Peter Falk) to the hitman (Ned Beatty). The two are tracking Mikey's friend Nicky (John Cassavetes), whom Mikey is setting up after Nicky has been caught stealing from their mob boss. Mikey and Nicky have just had a fistfight in the middle-of-the-night streets of Philadelphia, and Mikey goes on to explain that Nicky isn't likely to be waiting in the exact spot where the fight took place, either; he will have run.
But then we cut to Nicky, and he is indeed standing in the street in the very same spot as before. The moment fits the plot, which follows the adventures of these two over the course of one long night in which Nicky unknowingly thwarts his friend's every attempt to place him within striking range of the hitman, and it fits Nicky's character, which is that of a hyperactive, wearingly obnoxious adolescent boy occupying the body of a full-grown man. But more than anything, it's another moment of eerily misplaced humor in a film full of anger and remorse.
1977's Mikey and Nicky was the third of four feature films directed by comic legend Elaine May. The reviews that greeted this film may help explain why she didn't work more (The New York Post, in a representative review, called it, "an impenetrable, ugly, and almost unendurable mess"), and if that doesn't make the case completely, consider the fact that her fourth film was Ishtar. But Mikey and Nicky has reportedly maintained a cult following over the years and a few critics (chiefly Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose new essay on the film accompanies the recent Home Vision Entertainment DVD release) have long championed it. This new edition provides the opportunity for viewers to find a middle ground; while plenty of problems are in evidence in Mikey and Nicky, it seems to this viewer that there's just as much here to enjoy.
The problems first. Mikey and Nicky is shot in an informal, seemingly improvisatory style (although Rosenbaum's essay reveals that the lines were, in fact, scripted) that closely recalls the contemporaneous films of John Cassavetes, such as The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Husbands. The presence of Falk and Cassavetes in the cast cements the resemblance, and the style was one that had perhaps outstayed its welcome in 1977. The resemblance also created doubts for some that May was capable of creating her own style in relating this tale of gangland friendship and betrayal. And the film's production (in which over one million feet of film were shot - an unheard of amount) is strictly a mixed bag: the cinematography, particularly in the opening scenes, is odd, the continuity iffy, the sound bad in a peculiarly '70s way, the lighting variable, and the voice synching terrible.
But production problems aside, it seems to me that May's approach to her material is a unique one. She brings what might be read as a feminine sensibility to the central relationship; these two are hard-boiled, all right, but May never portrays them as heroic. In Mikey and Nicky, she gives us two grown men who never developed past the narcissism of childhood. They nurture past wrongs, delude themselves about their motives, and generally behave monstrously. Their treatment of women is despicable. But does May find some tenderness for them too? It seems so, because no matter how stubborn their misbehavior, these two are still, in large part, little boys. Her judgment of them is comically maternal: Aren't Mikey and Nicky tough little men? Mikey, don't hit women. Nicky, put down that gun.
Besides the pleasurable nostalgia for a filmmaking style now long gone, it's this treacherous undercurrent of black humor that's most enjoyable about Mikey and Nicky today. (Peter Falk, wild-eyed and with a mop of crazy hair, helps, too.) We watch as Nicky flings bottles of liquor from hotel room windows and starts a brawl in a black nightclub ("We may be black, but we're not dumb." "Then why are you black?"), and as Mikey makes a ludicrous pass at a woman who clearly has no interest in him. And Beatty's hitman complains that after he pays for meals and hotels he won't make a dime offing Nicky. May, without excusing it, makes a joke of all this immaturity and belligerence; you're never once tempted, as you may be in some tough guy movies, to imagine that you'd like to exchange the excitement of these lives for your own.
HVE's new edition of Mikey and Nicky includes a good-looking transfer of the film, as well as interviews with producer Michael Hausman and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper that shed light on what was apparently a difficult and unusual production. Mikey and Nicky remains a singular work; the film has matured very nicely, even though its protagonists never will.