Ben McDonald: In the second installment of our new Living Room Chats column – where we plan to talk about a variety of excellent movies available to view on The Criterion Channel – the film we’d like to discuss this week is Elaine May’s masterful gangster drama from 1976, Mikey and Nicky. I very recently saw this movie for the first time back in March after watching Patton Oswalt’s terrific ‘Adventures in Moviegoing’ introduction for the film (which comes highly recommended, also be sure to check out Josh and Benny Safdie’s intro too), and loved absolutely everything about it. The film is technically a gangster picture, but is a highly unusual one, transpiring over the course of a single night and featuring only two main characters – Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky (John Cassavetes). We follow the two men along a dark Philadelphia night as Nicky attempts to evade a hitman and his childhood friend Mikey secretly tries to keep him in one place long enough to have him whacked. Unlike other notable gangster films such as The Godfather or Goodfellas, Mikey and Nicky feels like a much looser, rawer, type of film, seemingly less focused on narrative and excitement and more interested in how the relationship between its titular characters evolves (or deteriorates) over the course of its runtime. I think there’s a lot to talk about with this film, so let’s kick things off. I understand this is the first time you’ve seen the film, Dalton. What are your first reactions?
Dalton Mullins: My first reaction was how ugly, gritty, and raw the film was. Everything, from the setting to the actors and to the cinematography, had an edge to it that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, which made the film better for me. The unglamorized look at Philadelphia and the lives of the two main characters really made the film pop. It allowed me to get in the head of the characters better, to see the inner workings of their mind and understand their lives and their motives better. I also felt that the unstructured narrative and the rapid, disorienting editing was perfect for helping portray the characters. The editing matched Cassavetes frenetic and manic energy, the jarring cuts and quick shot changes perfectly portrayed his jumbled, hyperactive mind and demeanor. While the loose structure allowed for deeper, more intimate moments to be paired with more of the faster-paced, active scenes without throwing the audience in different directions and confusing us. Elaine May set out to make a gritty, loose, and character-based gangster film and I think she succeeded fantastically in doing so. Those were my first reactions immediately after it ended, did you have similar thoughts Ben? Or did you take something completely different away from the film?
Ben: It’s interesting that you mention how ugly the film is visually, because while I understand what you mean, I actually find it totally aesthetically pleasing. There’s something about that grainy handheld camerawork that’s extremely comfortable on the eyes for me, more so than if the film was made with a stronger sense of industrial polish. It reminds me a lot of the kind of ‘eye-of-the-hurricane’ handheld work that the Safdie brothers have employed in all their feature films, where the camera feels laser-focused on these chaotic characters while they restlessly pace around urban areas. But you’re definitely right in that this frenetic style Elaine May establishes really helps get into these characters’ headspaces. I feel like this is especially prominent in the beginning, where John Cassavetes is kind of anxiously thrashing around in his hotel room while Peter Falk is trying to calm him down. You don’t exactly know who these people are or why Nicky is so upset, but there’s something vaguely dreadful about it and you just know Nicky’s fate is bleak. It’s almost like a death rattle.
But I think what I like most about the style and pacing of the film is that it takes time to pause as well. There are several moments throughout where it sort of calms down for a moment and these characters just talk or sit in silence. Many of these moments I think are among the film’s very best, such as the humorous part on the bus and the very somber graveyard scene. In addition to providing us a break to catch up with who these people are, the several pauses also seem to make the film even more exhausting and drive home how terribly long this nighttime adventure they’re on is.
Dalton: I completely agree with you on the pacing and the pauses between the action. To me, the pauses serve as the film’s heart, they give the characters depth and allow us a bigger glimpse into the lives of Mikey and Nicky. I also agree that they’re among the film’s best scenes, with the graveyard scene especially resonating with me. I thought it was incredibly sublime and poignant. It managed to simultaneously bring Mikey and Nicky closer together but also drive them apart. It was just fantastic in the way it explored their own beliefs about death and the afterlife, their memories of their own departed relatives, and how they speak to those relatives. The manner in which May investigated and examined the upbringing and modern psyche of the characters was well-made. The different ways Mikey and Nicky spoke in the graveyard and the manners they displayed toward the dead, revealed so much about the characters and what motivated them that I felt like that I was no longer along for the ride with them, but that I was there with them and that I had known them for years. As you said, the pauses drive home how long the adventure is and the graveyard scene did that but it was also a signal for me that time was running out. While it was the dead of night in the scene, it symbolized that the night would soon be over and the clock would soon strike zero on the story of Mikey and Nicky.
Ben: Since this is such a character-heavy film, it seems crucial to touch upon the two characters at the heart of the film, as well as the actors behind them. We don’t get a ton of background information on either Mikey or Nicky, but this is one of those films that I don’t think we really need it in order to understand them as complicated and ultimately flawed human beings. Mikey and Nicky have obviously been friends since childhood, but somewhere along the course of their growing up, a rift has come between them. Mikey would appear to be the more responsible one – he has a wife and kid, and seems to be in good standing with the mob family both of them have ties with. Nicky, on the other hand, seems like a classic low-life screw-up – impulsive, selfish, and self-destructive. Their relationship is fascinating, because you can tell they both care about each other to varying degrees (from what we see, I think Mikey is clearly the more forgiving and empathetic one that keeps their friendship from totally falling apart), but they have this very toxic dynamic in that Mikey has to constantly tolerate and live in the consequences of Nicky’s obnoxious and hurtful behavior. I love the scene where the two are arguing in the street and Mikey corners Nicky about ignoring him and making fun of him behind his back. You can tell it really gets to Mikey and hurts him, and the way he tells Nicky is just so vulnerable and heart-breaking because of how direct he is with his feelings. It’s rare to see that level of emotional honesty in a gangster movie, many of which are so often overshadowed by their more flamboyantly aggressive characters, and I think that plays a large part into why the film is so ultimately staggering for me.
Dalton: Yeah, the emotional honesty of the film is what makes it a special gangster film. The best gangster films are the ones that offer more than just a fleeting glimpse of emotional honesty and vulnerability. You see it in Howard Hawks’ Scarface and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, throughout the course of the pictures you come to realize the characters eccentricities and foibles. You discover their flaws and how they lead to their tragic downfall. Mikey and Nicky does that very well and that’s a part of why it was so staggering for me too. Another part that was staggering to me was the attention payed to the smaller, minor characters in the film, they help tremendously in fully realizing the film. I thought Ned Beatty was great in his role as the hitman, he has his own agenda, sense of self, and reputation he doesn’t want to tarnish, which adds a new level of complexity to the film. However, the supporting performance I was particularly struck by was Carol Grace as Nellie, the lady friend of Nicky that they visit. Her emotional struggles and vulnerability were incredibly palpable. Even though she only had a few minutes of screentime, she popped out of the screen in those couple of minutes and presented an astonishing look into her life, her views of the world, and her daily struggles. Her performance was one of the most staggering for me. Did you gather something similar to that Ben?
Dalton: I too agree with Brody, the improvisation of the actors creates a sense of unpredictability that truly represents the hectic and grimy lives they lead. Elaine May deserves a lot of credit for this as well, it was her bold, stylistic choice of loose structure and allowing for improvisation and the natural impulses of the actors to shine. Elaine May’s direction was superb throughout the film, she fully embraces the ideal of being an auteur with this film. Her own directorial style mixed with her desire to retain complete and total creative control really stood out to me. I was really impressed with her camera movement and placement and how it seemed to bring all of the emotions out of the scene for the viewer to grasp and empathize with. May presents us with a cast of generally unlikable people, ones we probably shouldn’t feel empathy for, yet her writing and careful direction force us to empathize and care about the characters, and that helped make the film special.
Ben: And speaking of everything Elaine May brought to the film, it would be wrong to not at least mention how much she fought to retain her artistic vision throughout production and post-production. Mikey and Nicky was released by Paramount Pictures, who wanted the film to have a summer release in 1976, but due to a lengthy editing process (there was almost 3 times as much film shot as Gone With The Wind), May couldn’t make the original deadline. As a result, Paramount sued her and won final cut, so May literally hid several reels of footage in order to prevent Paramount from taking full control of her original vision. Furthermore, Paramount was so angry by her defiance that they effectively bombed their own film’s release, only sending it to theaters for a handful of days. After all of this, Elaine May didn’t direct another film until Ishtar (1987). It’s a really tragic turn of events for such an obviously talented auteur, and it’s sadly not uncommon or all that surprising that a studio would do this especially to a woman in 1976.
Ben: To start to wrap this discussion up, I think it might be fun and/or interesting to list some films readers might want to check out if they’ve seen and liked Mikey and Nicky. Right off the bat, I can think of two very different Martin Scorsese films that evoke similar moods to that of this film. There’s Mean Streets (1973), one of his earliest gangster pictures with a comparable character dynamic between Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s characters. And I also think After Hours (1985), while not a gangster film, is a movie that takes place over the course of one night and conjures up a similar atmosphere of exhaustion (although that film is much more anxiety-inducing and to me at least far more exhausting).I also have a loose understanding that Mikey and Nicky has a similar kind of independent spirit to that of its star John Cassavetes’ own films, but – as much as I hate to admit it – Cassavetes’ directorial efforts are a complete blind spot for me (something I hope to fix soon). What do you think, Dalton, are there any other films Mikey and Nicky reminds you of, and have you seen any of Elaine May or John Cassavetes’ other work?
Dalton: I have seen quite a few Cassavetes films and Mikey and Nicky is very close to them in its shooting style and the Cassavetes film I would recommend most is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It was released the same year as Mikey and Nicky and is also a gangster story about a man who is in hot water with the mob and must rectify it. The story doesn’t completely take place over one night but a majority of the events do and is also a fantastic character study of a man in crisis. Then again, all the Cassavetes films I’ve seen are and I would recommend them all to someone who liked Mikey and Nicky. I haven’t seen any other Elaine May films but this film has definitely convinced me to check out more of her work.
Ben: Hopefully through all of this we’ve convinced at least one person to check out this wonderful film from Elaine May. If you have a Criterion Channel subscription and haven’t caught Mikey and Nicky yet, I think Dalton and I can both agree that it is well worth your time to do so.