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Mikey and Nicky

Mikey and Nicky, 1976

Nicky (John Cassavetes) and Mikey (Peter Falk) are small time gangsters who set off on a charged odyssey through the city nightscape when Nicky becomes convinced that he’s going to be killed by their boss and his associates. The two men cycle through periods of nostalgia and alienation as the dangerous situation brings out the depth and fractures in their relationship.

This is a fantastic film in which the plot is driven almost entirely by the revelations about the relationship between the two main characters.

The entire runtime of this movie forces you to witness relationships that demonstrate an uncomfortable truth: sometimes the deepest relationships are also the most poisonous. I’m not sure there’s any better way to think about Nicky except as a sweet dose of poison. Every interaction we see is colored with threats of violence, humiliation, and a don’t know/don’t care attitude toward the feelings of others. Nicky physically attacks or threatens to physically attack everyone who is even remotely an ally, whether that’s Mikey, his girlfriend Nell (Carol Grace), or his wife Jan (Joyce van Patten). And yet through some innate charisma, he always seems to turn them back to his side of things. Or does he?

Nicky is exactly the man we meet in the first ten minutes, with very little variation. We see the patterns of abuse and cajoling that make up his existence. He has stolen mob money. He cheats on his wife. He’s openly, provocatively racist. He laughs at the memory of Mikey’s dead brother. It’s against this force of personality that we are able to watch the slow reveal of the character of Mikey. Mikey starts out as the picture of concern, forcing Nicky to take stomach-calming medication and running out to a late-night diner to procure milk for his friend. Is this loyalty, or is this someone indulging the whims and needs of a dead man walking?

This tension---about what Mikey knows about the danger Nicky is in and his part in that danger---adds a compelling thrum of emotion to every single scene in the film. A hit man (Ned Beatty) in a car searches the streets, seeming to have a sense of where the two men have been. The threat is real, but where will it end. When Nicky forces Mikey to sit in the kitchen and listen while he has sex with Nell on the living room floor, you wonder if this is the act that will finally cause Mikey to give up on his friend. But you also wonder if these kinds of acts are why Mikey has already given up on him.

Making Nicky so overbearing and offensive is a genius move in this film, because Mikey as a character is utterly trapped. If he is loyal to Nicky, you find yourself thinking, “Wow, do you have no self-respect?!”. And if he is complicit in the hit on Nicky, you think, “How could you set your friend up to die?!”. Whether Mikey has betrayed his friend or is genuinely trying to help them, this is a friendship that is on its last, tottering legs. Up until the last minutes of the film, you don’t know how it will all pan out. But in a great bit of parallelism, we can infer Mikey’s ultimate decision from the way that he speaks about his younger brother, who died of scarlet fever.

Cassavetes and Falk are perfectly paired, with Cassavetes bringing an overt, sprawling energy to Nicky while Falk’s Mikey has emotions that are just as strong, but simmer dangerously under the surface. Grace and van Patten bring a kind of resigned despair to their roles as the women in Nicky’s life. He is cavalier with their feelings and disloyal on multiple fronts, and yet they always soften when he begs forgiveness, even if he’s threatened to punch them in the face just moments before.

Director Elaine May shoots the nighttime city as a place that is at once cozy and dangerous. There are diners, candy shops, and apartment living rooms. But the streets are dark, and it’s easy for the characters to suddenly find themselves alone on a sidewalk in front of closed businesses. I liked the sense in this film that the city itself isn’t inherently dangerous: the two men, and Nicky in particular, tend to make their own danger.

A great film anchored by great performances. The fact that May didn’t direct another film for a decade after this is a travesty.