In many of the films from the so-called “New Hollywood” era of the ‘70s, there is a raw masculinity on display on the screen. Most of the filmmakers responsible for the movement were young(ish), post-‘60s men riding high (sometimes literally) on the sexual energy of their college years and they portrayed rugged men, loud and fast cars and troubled settings that required some grit and muscle to overcome. Into this cauldron of testosterone, a few very brave women (16, to be precise) dared to try and direct movies. Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is one such female-helmed attempt and one of the few that, thanks to the restoration efforts of the Criterion Collection, is still being widely watched.
Mikey and Nicky stars Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, respectively, in the titular roles. It is set in the grimiest, dingiest version of Philadelphia ever captured on celluloid and takes place over the course of a single night. It is a simple story: Nicky, a lifelong low-level criminal, has pissed off a local mobster and fears that he will be imminently murdered. Mikey is an old friend and the only person Nicky trusts. Nicky has holed up in a rundown hotel downtown, but has called Mikey to help him escape Philly for a while until tempers cool and he can be forgiven.
The dynamic between the two characters (and the two actors) is instantly established. Falk’s Mikey is rational, reasonable and tired. He is visibly exhausted, but obviously capable; he understands what Nicky needs to do and how to get it done. He is just an average workaday guy with a family and a mortgage out way too late for his liking. In contrast, Cassavetes’ Nicky is a manic paranoiac flitting nervously across scenes. The hour does not matter not at all to him, as both sleep and sunlight are things he has seemingly been without for years. He has none of the stability of Mikey nor the well-reasoned problem-solving mentality. He cannot focus and, compounding matters, is suffering from a stomach ulcer.
Most of the film involves fly-on-the-wall observation of these two as Nicky drags Mikey ever off course and into different scenarios. They visit a bar, break into a graveyard to see Nicky’s mother’s headstone, call into Nicky’s girlfriend’s apartment and go to a club. Unknown to the duo (or maybe it is known to one or both of them), a hitman is indeed chasing them, looking for Nicky. May, who both wrote and directed the film, seems to just want to see what would happen if both of these guys were thrown into these various places with a gunman on their trail. The film resides more than runs and the plot does not move much. The viewer hangs with Falk and Cassavetes as they annoy each other to the breaking point.
Crucially, the film breaks from several iconic ‘70s thrillers in a few ways. Most importantly, neither co-protagonist drives in Mikey and Nicky. They walk or take the bus. There are no slowly-building crescendo set pieces or chase sequences. It is quiet and contemplative. While scenes of urban decay are nothing novel in the cinema of the era, the film’s choice to be set in Philadelphia instead of New York or southern California was a real departure. There is still the general vibe of decay, transgression and danger endemic to New Hollywood here, buy May’s take on these visual themes is just different enough to be noticeable and refreshing.
The climax of Mikey and Nicky, like so much of the rest of the film, is more interior than exterior, with Falk and Cassavetes doing more with their word choice and facial expressions whereas their ‘70s actors peers usually resorted to guns and fists. But the film still manages to become a rumination on adulthood, ambition, friendship and what it means to live.