The filmmaking career of writer-director Elaine May should be a cautionary tale in understanding the difference between reputation and reality. Since 1987, May has been exiled in “movie jail,” facing a perpetual penance for the production problems of Ishtar, a movie so unfairly maligned that it ultimately killed May’s career as a director. However, in recent years May’s reputation has undergone a bit of a rehabilitation thanks to the long memories of movie lovers who find her four directorial features representing a unique voice in cinema – a voice that was silenced after an infamous flop, a problem that hasn’t been faced by many of May’s male counterparts in the industry. The critical reevaluation of Elaine May continues with the writer-director’s 1976 gangster film Mikey and Nicky entering the Criterion Collection. The long out-of-print film lands on Blu-ray with a new 4K transfer supervised by May herself as Criterion exhumes the overlooked film about a lifelong friendship fractured amidst a life in the mob.
May’s third feature as a writer and director stars legendary actor and director John Cassavetes as Nicky, a burned out mobster who has burned every bridge and is now living with a target on his back from his former boss. His lifelong friend Mikey (Peter Falk) is there to help his emotionally wounded friend duck out of town before the hit is carried out. There was already a friendship between Falk and Cassavetes before production started on Mikey and Nicky, and their rapport off the screen carries over into the film as they come across naturally as longtime friends who have a bit of a strain on their relationship. That naturalistic feeling between the film’s two stars lead many to believe that Elaine May employed a lot of improvisation on the film, but that’s not the case as May meticulously scripted the crime drama.
The two old friends traverse the streets of Philadelphia at night. Along their various stops in dank dive bars they rehash times good and bad. Elsewhere on the streets of Philadelphia that night is Finney (Ned Beatty), who is looking for Nicky with the purpose of killing him for his mob bosses. The banter between the exhausted friend in Mikey and the burned out instability of Nicky is often darkly comical as the two actors fall into the skin of their characters. No matter where they go in the City of Brotherly Love, the Sword of a Damocles hangs over the head of Nicky. Compounded with a secret that Mikey is harboring, there’s a tragic sense that looms over the events of Mikey and Nicky. Elaine May masterfully balanced the comedy and tragedy of her story as both a writer and director, and each of her stars is able to bring out more from their characters beyond the surface.
Aside from the new transfer of the film (which in and of itself is a special feature for a film that has been out of print for so long), the special features on the new Criterion edition of Mikey and Nicky include a documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with film distributor Julian Schlossberg and actress Joyce Van Patten, who has a supporting role in the film. The legacy of Mikey and Nicky is examined in interviews with film critics Carrie Ricky and Richard Brody, which works as a nice compliment to the essay in the booklet by critic Nathan Rabin. As for archival special features, the disc contains the original trailer and a TV spot for the film as well as a 1976 audio interview with Peter Falk. This latest stellar edition from the Criterion Collection gives plenty of insight into a film that has mostly been forgotten by a filmmaker who has been unfairly maligned for decades.
I don’t know if there’s another mob movie in existence that feels like Mikey and Nicky. It’s a film that has criminality hanging over every frame and yet features very little crime in action. For the most part, the film is driven by the banter of its eponymous characters on a journey through the past and the present with equal parts comedy and tragedy. Yet it is always moving forward, building and building towards its heartbreaking climax. Mikey and Nicky is a film that exists within the confines of genre but is completely untethered to any tropes or clichés as it often feels a remarkably personal work for Elaine May, Peter Falk, and John Cassavetes. Elaine May’s career has been full of ups and downs, but it seems that the world has finally caught up with a voice in the American cinema that was silenced before her time. After all the trials and tribulations, Elaine May finally has a film within the hallowed halls of the Criterion Collection.
Mikey and Nicky
A unique mob movie from writer-director Elaine May and starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, Mikey and Nicky arrives in the Criterion Collection with a crisp new transfer of May’s comically tragic portrait of two lifelong friends and a fateful night on the streets of Philadelphia.