• Zach Youngs

Classic Movie Review: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Mikey and Nicky is about Nicky, a low level bookie who stole money from the mob, calling on his lifetime friend Mikey to come and get him out of town before hitmen can catch up to him. It stars Peter Falk as Mikey, John Cassavetes as Nicky and Ned Beatty as Kinney. The film was written and directed by Elaine May.

What I love about this film is it doesn't bother with a traditional setup in any sort of way. Very early on, we're given the twist that Mikey is orchestrating the hit on Nicky. Mikey's definitely in touch with the assassin Kinney. After he plays along with Nicky's justified paranoia and reminds him several times of their lifelong friendship. Every small detail should be noticed as we cut away from our heroes and see Kinney on the phone with a map, jotting down directions. Kinney especially notes that Nicky is wearing the blue rain coat, a detail only Mikey could have given. It's Mikey's rain coat. He gave it to Nicky to get him out the door of his hotel room so that the killer would think Mikey is him. The masterful cut comes as Kinney hangs up his phone and we are transported to the bar where Mikey hangs up his end and gives Nicky a story about there being only one flight in the next several hours.

This quick reveal changes the nature of the whole movie. It's a twist normally saved for the end or for the climax and it's a twist where a viewer assumes villainy or malice. So far, Mikey has shown none of that toward Nicky. He's been a care taker and a compassionate figure as Nicky fights him on everything, suspecting him on everything. It takes most of the film to discover why Mikey would have gone along with this plan. This twist on the film helps plumb the depths in a rare depiction of male friendship.

Though, as much as I have loved this film, there is an incredibly un-refreshing and utterly uncomfortable scene about midway through that made me want to turn my back on it entirely. Soon into the night, Nicky declares he's going to die, so he wants to have sex. The pair go to Nicky's mistress Annie's house. Annie, played by Rose Arrick, is not expecting them and in full view of Mikey, Nicky proceeds to paw at her. Mikey tries to keep the conversation going and ignore Annie's protestations against Nicky's aggressive moves, but it proves too much and he walks into the kitchen and looks away. Nicky proceeds to have his way with Annie despite her protests and gets her to calm down by telling her he loves her over and over again. This would be uncomfortable enough, but as soon as he's done, Nicky encourages Mikey to have a go. I assumed Mikey would balk, would put up more of a fight than he does, but for some reason he goes over to the couch anyway to sit beside the obviously embarrassed Annie as she adjusts her hair and clothes. Mikey tries to force himself on Annie and she bites his lip in resistance. He slaps her and gets angry until Nicky pulls him off of her and they leave the apartment.

This scene is so disgusting and so out of place with the rest of the film. It's not out of character for a couple of guys like these two to do something like this. I believe they are capable of it, but it still gets my hackles up and feels just disgusting, only serving to give one more detail as to the reason why Mikey might coordinate the hit Nicky. Of course, it's an ego thing with Mikey. Ever since the two outgrew each other, Mikey has been the butt of all of Nicky's jokes and Nicky only ever calls Mikey when he's in desperate need. He sees Nicky's goading as another literal and figurative slap he has to endure.

The power in the acting is that I still care about these two characters after their sexual assault of Annie. I still want to hear them talk to each other and more than anything I want to continue to be enrapt in the performance of Peter Falk.

I am of the generation that only knew Peter Falk as a character and catch phrase referenced in the comedy of my day. I hadn't been told of his incredible acting chops or his sublimely expressive face. When I saw Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders and released in 1987, I saw an inkling of his talents as he played a version of himself as an angel who had given up mortality, but here he disappears. As Mikey, Falk is funny, charming, affectionate, heartbreaking, and fearsome. My absolute favorite part of his performance is as he and Nicky tour the cemetery looking for Nicky's mother's headstone, Mikey constantly says, "Excuse me" under his breath as he steps over the plots. Then he struggles to remember the Kaddish as Nicky makes light of the situation. It's an adorable foible that gets lost as he sinks further in his anger toward Nicky and want of Nicky's death.

Mikey and Nicky is an excellent example of Elaine May fitting in perfectly with her contemporaries in the gritty, bare bones cinema of the 1970s. It's well worth the watch for the wry script and the lead performances. If it didn't have that scene of sexual assault I would be more emphatic about encouraging anyone to see it, but that definitely lowers the bar in my estimation. It is available for rent on DVD and if you become a a subscriber to the Criterion Channel you will be able to stream it now.

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