The 1970s tend to get romanticized among cinephiles (myself included) as this unprecedented time in mainstream American filmmaking, where this new generation of directors were freed from the traditional shackles of studio filmmaking to make something truly radical. While I think that is true in some sense, you do have to take into account that the film industry was still a business. So even though more unconventional dramas like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon were allowed a place in multiplexes alongside Airport and Earthquake, these maverick directors were still beholden their studios. I would say Elaine May was far from a typical New Hollywood director, but it seems that her tussles with the studio over the release of Mikey and Nicky seem pretty reflective of that era.
On the one hand, you can see where the studio, Paramount, was coming from. May shot over a million feet of film for what is essentially a small character study and spent about 4 times its original budget for a movie that even in the Wild West of ’70s Hollywood had limited commercial appeal at best. And yet… you can also see why May fought for the movie the way she did, supposedly hiding reels of the film so that the studio wouldn’t be able to complete their own cut without her permission.
First of all, it was a story that was personal to her, considering the movie stars two small-time mobsters, who are the types of people May supposedly grew up around. It was also the first time that May got to direct a film based on her own material, and was therefore her own personal vision, which I have to imagine was an especially hard thing for a woman director to be able to explore in those days. But most of all, I can’t really blame Elaine May for wanting to shoot as much footage as possible of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes’ well-honed chemistry as actors.
Like any great ’70s character-driven drama, there isn’t a lot of plot here, and yet there is a bit of a ticking clock to give the film some forward momentum. Nicky (played by John Cassavettes) is a small-time hood who has a contract on his head by a local mob boss and desperately needs his friend Mikey (Peter Falk) to help him out. So over the course of one night, Nicky takes him around to a few bars and a few different people’s apartments around town in order to avoid being seen by whatever hitman may be tailing them. That hitman is Kinney (Ned Beatty) and we see him constantly a few steps behind Mikey and Nicky as they keep getting drunker and keep getting into different shenanigans as the night goes on.
A lot of these shenanigans are steeped in camaraderie and the fact that Mikey and Nicky seem to have known each other since childhood. However, almost all their conversations seem to devolve into some kind of bickering, since the loose-cannon Nicky stands in clear contrast to the more settled-down Mikey. This becomes both unsurprising and tragic when we see that Mikey may be more involved with Nicky’s impending doom than their friendship would’ve ever indicated.
As I mentioned earlier, really the star of the show here is Peter Falk and John Cassavetes’ chemistry and comfort with each other as actors. The two of them had been friends in real life and Falk had already appeared in a couple of Cassavetes’ movies at this point, so using these two guys to play lifelong friends is kind of brilliant. What’s hard to believe is that the parts weren’t originally written for them (Charles Grodin was originally in talks to play Nicky), because the roles seem tailored to the kind of shaggy-dog intensity that they had both mastered.
The other really remarkable thing about this movie is its unglamorous look at the gangster lifestyle. The Godfather movies obviously loomed large in the genre at this point, and Mikey and Nicky has none of that grandeur. These guys aren’t cool. They’re just a couple of schmucks that keep asking where their lives went wrong and hope that they’re not dead by the end of the night. Similarly, the movie’s look is unglamorous, with a nocturnal dinginess that sees the duo traipsing through the underbelly of the city at night. In a word, it’s a very ’70s movie. But considering it’s hard to find a lot of these types of ’70s movies I haven’t already seen, it was a welcome revelation.