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Mikey and Nicky

Mikey and Nicky(1976)

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The uneasy relationship between Hollywood and independent moviemaking was never more evident than in Mikey & Nicky, the searing film noir buddy thriller Elaine May wrote and directed for Paramount in the mid-1970s. While May's previous movies as a director were the offbeat comedies The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf, Mikey & Nicky was something else entirely - a dark night of the soul suffered through by two Philadelphia gangsters and lifelong friends, one of whom just may be helping their bosses carry out a hit on the other. Unlike the comedies before it, Mikey & Nicky challenges audiences with its relentlessly raw and probing tale, and took a stylistic cue from the independent movies directed by one of its stars, John Cassavetes. Even in the director-friendly 1970s, May's independent-minded production didn't fly with the studio heads.

Not that Mikey & Nicky was your average "difficult" production. May shot more footage than Gone with the Wind did, spent over 2 years editing, traded lawsuits with Paramount and at one point was even accused of hiding cans of film from the studio. When the dust cleared, Mikey & Nicky got scant, blink-and-you'll-miss-it theatrical play in 1976, with Paramount merely satisfying its contractual obligations to release the movie. It later had a similarly spotty arthouse re-release in a May-shortened version during the late 1980s. Now that version is out on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment, replete with interviews with producer Michael Hausman and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper that speak copiously to May's blend of cockamamie obsession and inspired artistic perfectionism.

The poor distribution and legendary behind-the-scenes battles of Mikey & Nicky have turned the movie into a cause celebre in some quarters. The movie's reputation needs no such artificial inflation, though. It's a chance to see Cassavetes and Falk push themselves to the depths of their characters' fears. Cassavetes is Nicky, the high-strung small-timer who's holed up in a skid row hotel because he's heard there's a contract out on him, and who calls childhood buddy Mikey (Peter Falk) to help. Nicky doesn't know whether to trust Mikey, and neither do we. When the action cuts to a hit man (Ned Beatty) receiving info about the bar where he can gun down Nicky, and the next scene is Mikey hanging up a payphone at that bar, we're not sure if Mikey was talking to airlines, as he claims, or the hit man. Soon it's clear, though, that Mikey is leading Nicky to the slaughter, but Nicky is a fast-moving target. He drags Mikey out of the bar before the hit man can get there, and then keeps changing plans - stopping off at the cemetery where his mother is buried instead of going to the all-night movie theater he'd said they were heading to, and then schlepping Mikey to the apartment where his mistress (Carol Grace) lives. Throughout the overnight journey, we're never quite sure where Mikey's allegiance lays. When he and Nicky reminisce over childhood memories at the cemetery and Mikey tells him they're going to slip out of town, we take him at his word. But if Mikey has any change of heart about fingering Nicky to please the well-heeled bosses (Sanford Meisner, William Hickey), it's short-lived. After Nicky's mistress humiliates Mikey, Mikey unloads all of his resentment towards his pal, and Nicky unloads back, by breaking the beloved watch Mikey was given by his late father. There'll be no reprieve for Nicky. Or for Mikey, who has to live with his betrayal.

It's hard to think of Mikey & Nicky without placing it into the context of Cassavetes' movies as a director. May cast him and Falk, who had starred in Cassavetes' Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, and gave them the freedom to stray from the script where they saw fit. As with Cassavetes' movies, some mistakenly think Mikey & Nicky was unscripted; the cast followed the script, but were allowed to go "off the page" and extend the scenes, as Falk and Cassavetes often did (May used multiple cameras set-ups to capture such moments). Her movie feels pitched somewhere between the wounded masculinity of Husbands and the back-alley crime maneuvering of 1976's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the similarly desperate crime drama Cassavetes made soon after Mikey & Nicky. In other words, it has equal parts mid-life crisis and violent betrayal.

It's a withering portrayal of our dog-eat-dog society and, like California Split, it's 1970s cinematic male bonding at its most rueful. When doomed Nicky visits his estranged wife (Joyce Van Patten) and apologizes, saying "I went to work for you, not for me," he might be any businessman who grabbed for the brass ring and neglected his family in the process; later, when he goes into an all-night candy store and asks for the sweets he enjoyed as a boy, there's the between-the-lines sadness of a man trying to regain the lost innocence of his youth. It's an understated moment in a movie that sometimes verges on being over the top.

The disc's interviews with Kemper and Hausman pack in plenty of absurd anecdotes about the movie's production (for instance, May insisted that even interior scenes be shot at night), while retaining admiration for the finished product. There's also a serviceable featurette about the restoration of the film's print, which inexplicably contains some of the most-distorted, worst-looking clips you'll ever see from Mikey & Nicky.

For more information about Nikey and Micky, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Mikey and Nicky, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman