Director: Elaine May
Writer: Elaine May
Cinematographer: Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, and Victor J. Kemper
Producer: Michael Hausman
by Jon Cvack
It was in a work meeting that I was told this film actually wasn’t directed by Cassavetes but Elaine May (not that you’d know). One of the craziest bits of history is that this movie shot three times as much film as Gone With the Wind ('39), which shot a legendary one million feet of film (which was cut down to a 20,000 reel). Mikey and Nicky isn’t some comparable epic film, but rather the filmmakers allowed for an extraordinary amount of improvisation, with Falk and Cassavetes going far off the deep end with the script, as May would let the camera roll and roll and roll and roll.
The story involves Nicky (John Cassavetes) who has shelled himself up in a hotel room, scared out of his mind that someone’s going to kill him. He’s visited by Mikey (Peter Falk), who’s got a wife and kid back home waiting for him, as he tries to help Nicky and tame his paranoia and fear. I’ll say this might be the film I most regret not seeing before having made Road to the Well, as this is a brilliant story exploring the depths of friendship and betrayal.
Mikey and Nicky have a night on the town, exploring movie theaters, black bars, white bars, and Nicky’s mother’s grave, while he’s hunted by mobster Kenney (Ned Beatty) who’s on a mission to gun down Nicky, confirming his paranoia. What we get is a profound exploration of friendship. Although very much is owed to Elaine May’s film, there’s no denying Cassavetes influence. This is an obvious follow up to Husbands ('70), which if I were to guess - being entirely improvised - Cassavetes wanted to ensure he could focus on the character while preserving a similar aesthetic. As makes any great Cassavetes film, it’s the rough style, shots that are out of focus, missing the subject, which while I use to think looked negligent, now seems deliberate. It all contributes to the incredibly real relationship between the characters.
We learn bits and pieces of their lives, which fills in the amount of time that they’ve been apart. We know that Nicky has entered into an ignoble world, getting get caught on the bad side of a deal, taking up with prostitutes, having had his wife and child leave him. Nicky’s the opposite, calling his wife regularly to update her on where he is and when he’ll be home. While heading to the movie theater, Nicky demands to stop at the graveyard, located in a bad neighborhood, physically fighting with the bus driver to let them out. They get off and head over and so begins a hilarious scene, as the two argue about God, with Mikey an atheist and Nicky the believer, with no concern for the dead while he shouts and screams, and Mikey implores to him to be respectful, threatening to leave.
The arguments continue through the night, as Nicky graduates to offending prostitutes and black men, with Mikey doing his best to keep them alive throughout the process. With the mountain of footage collected, you can feel as the editors John Carter and Sheldon Kahn worked with May. Straight out of Cassavetes's style we get a bunch of non-sequiturs, feeling as though we’re skipping ahead to the more interesting parts of the conversation. The dialogue flies at us, though we’re allowed to breath at the perfect moments. The two end up fighting in the cold wet streets when Mikey has finally had enough. I’ve been here with my own friends, when the kettle finally boils and pops. Back in high school I too fought with my buddy in the city streets. Granted, it didn’t result in how this film ends, but even that was such an unexpected and horrifying ending, especially compared to most other Cassavete work, that it became the perfect conclusion to this strange and intimate story.
BELOW: Best scene of the film
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