Easily mistaken for a Cassavetes film by the look, feel and cast, Mikey and Nicky is actually the best film by Elaine May (of unfair Ishtar ignominy) and one of the best of 70s.
The story of a paranoid thief on the run from what he’s convinced is a contract on his head (Nicky – John Cassavetes) and his “friend” who comes to help him (Mikey – Peter Falk) is successful in a large way because of the acting. The two leads are really just phenomenal; it’s easy for me to forget of Cassavetes the actor sometimes, but this, alongside great roles in the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Opening Night, The Dirty Dozen and Edge of the City really prove that he was as much as an actor as a director. Falk – with his penchant for the long stare and his sometimes-frantic body movements is every bit as good. The last film I saw with these two acting opposite one-another was Cassavetes’ underrated Husbands.
The supporting cast – Ned Beatty, Carol Grace (Walter Matthau’s wife!), Joyce Van Patten, William Hickey, and Rose Arrick are all awesome.
Like some other low budget efforts from this time period, Mikey and Nicky gets away with some low production value. There are plenty of out of focus shots, there’s a boom in the frame (look at the top left)-
-there are shots with crew members visible, it magically turns from night to day very rapidly towards the end…but still, it all works. A large part of this is that 50-60-70s Cassavetes feel, where an improvisatory feel and acting is king, where the cast is made of commonplace folks and not all beautiful people, and where long scenes of dialogue move the plot forward instead of traditionally narrative bits of action.
There are a whole lot of scenes that I love in Mikey and Nicky but my favorite might be their visit to Nellie (Grace), a kind-of prostitute, a lonely soul, and one of many victims of Nicky’s bluntness.
What starts as a conversation between the three of them-
-quickly turns into Mikey retreating to the kitchen and looking back into the couple now making out on the couch:
I love how May is sure to include Mikey’s POV from the kitchen, basically of Nicky and Nellie’s backs. It’s a great moment that puts us as that awkward third wheel in the kitchen and also points to the strangeness – and discomfiture – of the moment.
May spends most of the scene, however, on two shots:
These are really great frames. I love that red, properly exposed kitchen, especially as compared to the darker foreground in the wide shot. It all reeks of sleaze, manipulation, and clumsiness. The wide shot also nicely points us visually to the static character, where those moving are almost entirely hidden by darkness.
There are so many other great scenes in Mikey and Nicky – a hilarious argument with a busdriver that includes Cassavetes getting M. Emmet Walsh in a headlock, a great sequence in a graveyard and a pretty gripping concluding scene. There’s also a ‘white guys in a black bar’ scene that’s way better (albeit, entirely different) from the celebrated one in Animal House: