Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Written and directed by Elaine May

Buds ‘til the end.

In a grimey hotel room, Mikey, an unshaven, panicstricken man clutches at his childhood friend, Nicky, begging him for help and reassurance. Nicky, concerned, looks down on him. They’re both small-time crooks, only Mikey’s gone and robbed his employer and has now been marked for death. Nicky, out of obligation to all they’ve been through, agree to help him dodge judgment. 

It’s the beginning of a long night between these two old friends, as age-old gripes, hurt feelings and deep-seated resentments threaten to tear them both to shreds. In a pitch-black night out of which nothing good can come, Mikey and Nicky get closer to each other than they’ve been in years. Whether it’s to comfort or to deal body blows, they themselves aren’t even sure.  

In kinship to its desperate subject matter, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is a sordid little film with garish lighting under which John Cassavettes and Peter Falk shine with grease as the two titular characters, respectively. The opening scene’s hotel room lies wrecked, and May’s camera similarly takes up skewed angles as if to suggest it too has been toppled over in Mikey’s delirium. The rest of the film similarly aims to convey the coming apart of these men, filming in deep shadows and unsavory locales, showing us where these men usually roam and why they belong in the shadows.

The texture of Mikey and Nicky is thick and sticky to the touch, and its scent of cigarettes and sweated-in polyester seems to linger. It’s hard to wash off, let alone look away form, and while being chased by a hitman, or helping your friend escape a whacking isn’t relatable subject matter, the seething animosity that roils the air between the two boys-turned-men should be familiar to anyone that has experienced a relationship go sour and how that loss is made all the more painful by the genuine affection said relationship once held. 

That kind of loss isn’t dealt with in outstanding nuance or gently dissected by May, but it’s portrayed here with naked intensity through Cassavettes and Falk, who are both perfectly cast: Cassavettes as the dark, manic hardass he’s portrayed before in his own films and that of others, and Falk is every bit his tragic counterpart as the street kid with a choir boy’s heart, rugged but soft-hearted.

Mikey and Nicky unfolds under the threat of Mikey’s death, as a hitman slowly tracks them down, but no physical damage that could befall either of these men hits as hard as the emotional assault May has them inflict on one another. If you’ve seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe and was taken aback by the scorched earth polemic between a couple who ought to be each other’s best friends, Mikey and Nicky has much of the same to offer, only these two hard-boiled crooks turn out to be much more vulnerable and raw in each other’s arms. When you’re this close to someone, how can you hurt them without hurting yourself? 

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